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New Year’s Traditions in China: Nian and Chinese New Year

5 min read

In many countries around the world, New Year’s Day is celebrated on January 1st with fireworks and festivities with family / friends the evening before.
But this is not the only type of New Year’s celebration and not everyone celebrates on January 1st.
In some articles, we’ll look at New Year’s traditions from around the world to understand the way different cultures celebrate the year to come.


Have you ever wondered why Chinese people display red items and set off fireworks during the Chinese New Year?

One of the oldest traditions still celebrated today is Chinese New Year, which is believed to have originated around three millennia ago during the Shang Dynasty.
Yes, historically there was a semi-mythological dynasty before it, but from a historical point of view it could be argued the Shang Dynasty was the first real dynasty of China.
In short, It was Bronze Age China at its known best, with a benevolent ruler, ready military, and a series of innovations to life and Chinese culture.
At present, there is no agreement amongst scholars regarding the period during which the Shang Dynasty was in power, and the range of dates for its founding is between 1760 and 1520 BC, whilst its fall is believed to have occurred somewhere between 1122 and 1030 BC.
The Shang Dynasty was eventually succeeded by the Zhou Dynasty, but this is another story.

Well, the Chinese New Year, called also Spring Festival, began as a way of celebrating the new beginnings of the spring planting season, but later it became connected with myth and legend.
The New Year was likely the start of preparations for a new growing season and the whole purpose, in history, of creating a calendar or keeping track of time was not by chance to facilitate agriculture, as It was important to know when to till the soil and sow the seeds.
However, the ancient Chinese calendar also functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide.

According to the legend, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical bloodthirsty beast called Nian (now, not by chance, the Chinese word for “year”), who had the body of a bull and the head of a lion and preyed on villages every New Year.
It was said to be a ferocious animal that lived in the mountains and hunted for a living and, towards the end of Winter when there was nothing to eat, Nian would come to the villages to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children.
To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors, as It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people.
However they would live in terror over the Winter, but over time they learned that the ferocious Nian was afraid of three things: the colour red, fire, and noise.
Thus, when the New Year was about to come, they took to decorating their homes with red trimmings, burning bamboo, and making loud noises.
The ruse worked, and the bright colors and lights associated with scaring off Nian eventually became integrated into the customs that are still seen today.
But, in any case, from then on, Nian never came to the village again.
As story goes, Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk, and he became his mount.
After he was captured, everyone had a big celebration and the ritual involved in banishing him was repeated the following year, and then passed down from generation to generation, and the custom of celebrating New Year with firecrackers, noise, and the colour red has persisted still today.

Festivities are now celebrated with food, families, lucky money usually in a red envelope, and many other red things for good luck.
Lion and dragon dances, drums, fireworks, firecrackers, and other types of entertainment fill the streets on this day, and many modern-day celebrations trace back to the legendary story of Nian, with windows and doors decorated with red colour paper-cuts with popular themes of “good fortune” or “happiness”, “wealth”, and “longevity.”
Red is the predominant colour used in the New Year celebrations. It is the emblem of joy, and also symbolizes virtue, truth and sincerity.
It is also a traditional practice to light fireworks, burn bamboo sticks and firecrackers and to make as much noise as possible to chase off the evil spirits.
Other customs include honouring one’s elders, which involves visiting the oldest members of the families.
Often, the evening preceding Chinese New Year’s Day is an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner. It is also traditional for every family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck.
In many cities, there are performances and dances which have been in existence for thousands of years, such as the royal heaven worshipping ceremony which was performed by emperors throughout history in Beijing to pray for the peace and prosperity of the country.

But, since Chinese New Year is still based on a lunar calendar that dates back to the second millennium BC, the date changes every year and the holiday typically falls in late January or early February, on the second new moon after the winter solstice.
While the western Gregorian calendar is based on the earth’s orbit around the sun, China and most Asian countries use the lunar calendar that is based on the moon’s orbit around the earth.
Each year is associated with one of twelve zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog or pig.


Images from web – Google Research

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