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The Chinese New Year is indisputably China’s biggest holiday. The one in 2015 marked the beginning of the Chinese year 4712. Chinese New Year shifts somewhat over January and February. In 2011 it started on February 3. The entire holiday period is called chunjie , or spring festival (Chinese consider spring to be the beginning of the new year). The biggest of China's three "golden weeks," it lasts for three to 15 days, depending on how the holiday is defined, and has traditionally been regarded as the best time for family reunions and is characterized by long journeys home and clogged transportation routes.

According to legend the Chinese New Year celebration began as a way to drive away the ferocious Nin monster, which regularly arrived at midnight on New Years, demanding a snack and could only be driven off by loud noises and lights like those made by firecrackers. For a while Chinese New Year was banned by the Communists. These days many people take off the 15 days between New Year’s Day and the Lantern Festival. Some use the holiday as an excuse to take an extended vacation of several weeks.

Good Websites and Sources: New Year site ; 123 Chinese New Year ; China Page ; Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Lantern Festival ; History of Chinese New Year : Links in this Website: CHINESE HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS ; CHINESE LUNAR CALENDAR AND ZODIAC ; CALENDAR OF EVENTS

Celebrating Chinese New Year

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Bye to the old year
Chinese New Year is celebrated with spring cleaning, feasts, fireworks and family gatherings. Food is piled up to symbolize abundance; people dress in nice clothes; traditional cakes are distributed among family members; fruits, candies and ornamental packages of tea are given to friends as gifts. Firecrackers are set off to ward off evil spirits. Most people take at least a week off from work and visit their home towns or villages. Everything is closed for at least three days (New Year’s Day and the two days afterwards)---even stores that normally stay open for 24 hours. Before and afterwards the roads, trains, and airports are packed with people trying to get home and back.

Lunar New Year celebrations in China are typically marked by travel back home, dumplings with family members and, on New Year’s Eve, the Spring Festival Gala on China Central Television. Since time immemorial Chinese New Year Festival has been the most important day in the year. In the old days it was about new clothes, sweets, and fireworks now it is digital gifts bland, over-produced television and smog-alter firework bans. China's Lunar New Year migration is often referred to as the largest movement of people anywhere, with 3.6 billion trips of all lengths by bus, plane and train expected to be made over the 40-day travel rush. Chinese burn incense as they pray for health and fortune. Setting off fireworks celebrates renewal and wards off evil spirits.

Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “The holiday is generally a time for feasting and visiting friends and relatives, along with making visits to Buddhist and Taoist temples, many of which hold fairs and stage performances. Mainland Chinese have traditionally tuned into the annual New Year's Eve variety show, which state broadcaster CCTV is hoping to reinforce this year with a cast of bigger-wattage stars overseen by popular film director Feng Xiaogang. Mainland China will virtually shut down for the next seven days. , and many residents of the polluted capital, Beijing, already have departed for holiday destinations. A continuing campaign against waste and corruption foreshadows more modest celebrations this year, while a crackdown on air pollution seems to be reining in the usual orgy of fireworks.” [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, January 30, 2014 ><]

New Year is the the busiest time for fortune tellers, when people want to get a sense of what the change in the zodiac year will bring. “The disasters will be related to wind, that’s air pollution, which comes in with dirty air currents and affects everyone’s lives,” fortuneteller Dong Jialing told CCTV before the Year of the Sheep beginning in February 2015. [Source: Li Nan, CCTV, February 15, 2015]

Premier Wen Jiaobao made a point of spending the holiday eve with workers and the poor. In February 2012, before he stepped down, he celebrated the early part of the holiday with victims of earthquakes and landslides in western China. The same year new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping visited with policemen, subway construction workers, taxi drivers and street cleaners in Beijing to thank them for their service.

Chinese Lunar New Year in Asia and Around the World

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New Year market in Dalian
Chinese New Year---as well as Tet (the three-day Vietnamese New Year) and Suhl (the three- to four-day Korean New Year festival)---may fall on any day between January 21 and February 19. It begins on the first new moon to occur after the sun enters the constellation of Aquarius. The 15th day of the new year---the first full moon of the year, the day of the Lantern Festival---officially marks the end of the celebrations. There are auspicious days for returning to work in the new year that vary according to dialect group and family custom

Chinese Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout Asia: in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan; and among Vietnamese and Korean communities. In North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, the faithful leave flower offerings and bowed deeply before giant statues of national founder Kim Il Sung and his son and late leader Kim Jong Il. In Jakarta, Indonesia, where Chinese cultural observances had been suppressed before 1998, ethnic Chinese flocked to the city's oldest temple to pray for health and success. Similar activities are held among Chinese communities in Thailand, the U.S., Britain, Malaysia and other places large numbers of ethnic Chinese reside

According to Reuters: Festivities are held in cities from Paris to Phnom Penh, both as a celebration by their Chinese communities and to cater to the throngs of visitors arriving for sightseeing and shopping. Las Vegas has long made a point of marking the occasion, and hotels, shops and casinos were festooned with New Year greetings and decorations in auspicious red and gold to appeal to big-spending Chinese visitors.

Chinese New Year Fireworks

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New Year at a temple
Fireworks are a key element of the of the New Year’s celebration. Lighting them and making noise is said to scare away evil spirits and attract the god of wealth. Many regard fireworks as the highlight of holiday season and say without them the holiday is boring. One man told the New York Times, otherwise “people do nothing apart from eating dumplings and watching TV.” See Entertainment

Firecrackers, Roman candles, noisemakers and cherry bombs are widely available in China and used in all kinds of celebrations and are particularly associated with Chinese New Year. China in where many of the world’s fireworks are made. Several hundred people are killed or injured by fireworks every year.

During the New Year holiday season in Beijing in 2007, accidents involving fireworks injured 714 people, six of them seriously, and started 253 fires. Many injuries were blamed on “improper use of fireworks.” Many accidents were blamed on shoddy products. The media reported one death related to fireworks. Another person had to have an eye removed. In 2006, accidental fires killed 63 people during the Lunar New Year season.

In February 2011, a fire set off by New Year fireworks destroyed a five-star hotel in Shenyang in Liaoning Province. Firefighters had trouble putting out the fire as the hotel building was 219 meters high and water shot from fire engines reached only 50 meters.

Chinese Ban on Fireworks

In February 2010, 19 people were killed in an explosion in southern Guangdong Province that was triggered by people setting off fireworks to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

A ban on fireworks in the inner city of Beijing was imposed in 1994 out of concerns about injuries, fires and noise. More than a quarter of a million police were put on the streets in Beijing on New Years Day as part of the effort to prevent fireworks-related accidents. The ban was not welcomed and was widely regarded as a way to undermine the festive nature of the holiday. One man told the New York Times, “When fireworks were banned it took the atmosphere out of it. All these things about safety and the environment---don’t worry about it. Give people some fun.”

The rules were widely ignored. During the last New Year’s Eve skyrockets and fire crackers were set off all night long. In the morning streets all over the city were littered with tattered paper and casings from spent fireworks.

The ban on fireworks in the inner city of Beijing was lifted in 2005. Most people were happy with the decision. The new rules allowed fireworks to be set off at specific times during the New Year holiday period and prohibited their use near schools, hospitals, historic buildings and bus stations. The rules also stated fireworks could not be launched from roof tops or balconies and said: “When you set off fireworks, do not throw them at people.”

Fewer New Year Fireworks: an Anti- Pollution Measure in Beijing

Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “The annual Lunar New Year fireworks barrage in Beijing was notably muted following government appeals to reduce the smoky celebrations after air pollution rose to near catastrophic levels over recent weeks. China's capital saw almost twice the number of smoggy days as usual in January, with levels of small particle air pollution going off the charts at times. That prompted calls for restraint, along with a reduction in the number of licensed fireworks sellers and the amount of fireworks on sale. The fusillades that began on Lunar New Year's eve on Saturday night started later than usual but still grew to furious intensity at midnight. They also died out earlier than usual on Sunday morning, and relatively few explosions were heard during the day. ."[Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, February 10, 2013]

“Sales of fireworks” on the five days before New Year “fell 37 percent over the same period last year, from 410,000 cartons to just 260,000, Xinhua reported, citing figures from the city government. The city authorized 1,337 fireworks stands this year, down from 1,429 last year, and allowed 750,000 cartons of fireworks to go on sale, down from 810,000. The Beijing Daily, the city government's official newspaper, carried appeals last week for residents to hold off on fireworks celebrations, saying not doing so would significantly worsen levels of PM2.5 particle pollution forecast to be in the hazardous zone. City environmental bureau readings showed levels well above 200 in most parts of the city, dangerous but still well below readings of more than 700 seen last month, when Beijing experienced 23 days of smog, up from 10 the previous January.”

Beijing permits fireworks displays over a 16-day period surrounding the Lunar New Year, but largely restricts them to suburban areas outside the densely populated city center. The fireworks display in 2012 “created a thick haze that sent 2.5 microgram pollution levels as high as 1,500.” Beijing also saw just 25 injuries and 83 fire emergencies related to fireworks in 2013, down almost 29 percent and 45 percent, respectively, from 2012.

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New Year market

Chinese New Year in the Cell Phone-Smart Phone Era

Zeng Jing wrote in Asian Creative Transformations, “The digital evolution of New Year’s greetings extends back two decades, prior to the advent of the social media age. From the late 1990s and early 2000s SMS messaging took off in China, mainly thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones. Since then SMS text messages have been widely used for New Year’s greetings. During the 2009 Spring Festival for instance, SMS traffic accounted for 19 billion messages. [Source: Zeng Jing, Asian Creative Transformations, February 23, 2015 *~*]

“In 2012, the launch of the Weibo (micro-blogging) service irrevocably changed the experience of Chinese New Year. The Spring Festival had gone online. Instead of the ‘interpersonal’ exchanges of text messages, New Year greetings moved to an open platform. During the 2013 festival Weibo recorded an average of 32,312 messages per second in the hours leading up to midnight. This broke Twitter’s world record of 25,088 tweets per second when Castle in the Sky launched in Japan. *~*

“Weibo’s dominance was short lived however. In 2013, the instant-messaging service known as WeChat (weixin) became the market leader in China’s social media revolution. With 400+ million subscribers and the innovative feature of the virtual red-envelope, WeChat has both reconnected tradition and redefined the New Year’s experience. Over 1 billion red envelopes were exchanged on Chinese New Year’s Eve. The tradition of distributing gift money is now digitized on a massive scale. Of course, the invention of an instant messaging app is not the only reason. This phenomenal change in the pattern of New Year obligations is underpinned by a surge in China’s digital economy, technological convergence, and more importantly a mature user mentality: in other words these days people are more comfortable with digital money and they trust the platform. *~*

“Nowadays, it is all about connections enabled by technologies. As I wrap my homemade dumplings for friends, I need my messaging app to send and receive free New Year greetings. I need video calls to ‘participate’ in my family’s dinner party. And I need Youtube to stream live video of the New Year Gala. All of these new media platforms connect overseas Chinese to their motherland. The virtual red envelope is definitely a highlight of my 2015 Lunar New Year. What will be next? I am looking forward to next year already.

Image Sources: 1) Hong Kong fireworks, Hong Kong tourism office; 2) Dalian market, Beifan; 3) Guangdong cakes, Wikipedia; 4) Others, Taiwan Tourism office ; Wiki Commons; Asia Obscura ;

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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