Museum stories
Everything you need to know about Chinese New Year

恭禧發財

These characters are often used to wish people a Happy New Year in Chinese and are pronounced ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’ (in Mandarin) and ‘Gong Hey Fat Choy’ (in Cantonese).

Chinese New Year is the most important festival in China’s calendar and it lasts for 15 whole days! Instead of presents, special red envelopes filled with money are given to children, and families pay special respect to their ancestors at this time.

Money envelopes used at Chinese New Year

Money envelopes used at Chinese New Year.

According to legend, in ancient China, Nian, a man-eating beast from the mountains, could enter houses silently to hurt humans. The people learnt that Nian was sensitive to loud noises and the colour red, so they scared it away with explosions, fireworks and by decorating everywhere in red. These customs led to the first New Year celebrations and continue to this day – fireworks and firecrackers are a large part of Chinese New Year celebrations.

There are lots of superstitions about New Year. Before the New Year, Chinese families give their home a thorough cleaning to sweep away bad luck. Brooms and dustpans are put away on New Year’s Eve so that good luck cannot be swept away. Everyone opens their windows and doors so the good luck of the year can get in. Buying shoes and trousers is considered bad luck as the Cantonese word for shoes sounds like ‘rough’ and the word for trousers sounds like ‘bitter’. Getting a haircut is also thought to be bad luck as the Cantonese word for ‘hair’ sounds like ‘prosperity’, so people worry that by cutting their hair they will make the New Year a bad one.

Demon-Queller Zhong Kui. Colour woodblock print. Printed in Suzhou, China, Qing dynasty, 1700–1800.

Demon-Queller Zhong Kui. Colour woodblock print. Printed in Suzhou, China, Qing dynasty, 1700–1800.

This is a print of the ‘demon queller’ Zhong Kui, who has subdued a demon. It was a popular New Year custom to display images of Zhong Kui to protect a household. The branch of blossoming plum appearing from behind his back suggests that this print was made for the lunar New Year since the tree blossoms around this time.

 

The Chinese zodiac

In Chinese culture, each year is named after one of twelve animals of the traditional zodiac. There are various legends that explain how this came about. One has it that twelve animals came to visit the Buddha when he asked for visitors. As a reward, the Buddha named the years after each animal as they came before him. The Chinese believe that people take on the special qualities of the animal of their birth year. The Chinese calendar also assigns animals to months, days and even times of day though. It’s fairly complicated, so have a look at Wikipedia if you’re interested!

Copper alloy coin-shaped charm. This side shows the 12 zodiac animals and the Chinese character for each. Made in China, probably 19th century,

Copper alloy coin-shaped charm. This side shows the 12 zodiac animals and the Chinese character for each. Made in China, probably 19th century,

Here’s a list of the animals and the qualities you might have if you’re born in that year:

You can work out your own animal in this handy chart on Wikipedia. Which animal are you? Do you think you sound like the description?

In 2017, Chinese New Year falls on 28 January when it will be the Year of the Rooster. The Chinese New Year starts in late January or early February because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar – i.e. based on the moon and the sun (not just the sun like the Gregorian calendar).

New Spring; 新春. Colour woodblock print. Henan province, China, early 20th century.

New Spring; 新春. Colour woodblock print. Henan province, China, early 20th century.

As well as being this year’s animal, as early as the 6th century AD, it was customary in China to paste an image of a rooster on the door on the first day of the lunar New Year to protect the household. The rooster is associated with the sun – at cockcrow all the darkness of evil is thought to disappear. Isn’t that a nice thought to end on?