China is a fascinating mix of ancient and modern. From its snowy mountain ranges to its long rivers and expansive deserts, China is home to a rich mix of ethnicities, cultures and traditions that can be traced back thousands of years. Understanding this balance of ancient and modern is essential for visiting, working, and succeeding in China.
The most important of Chinese traditions and holidays is the Chinese New Year, which, this year, falls on February 5, 2019. The New Year begins on the first day of the lunar month and ends on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival (February 19, 2019), although the first week is considered the official holiday. The Chinese use a lunar calendar and accordingly, the date varies from year to year. In China, it's also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, marking the end of the winter season.
Each New Year is marked by one of twelve animal zodiacs - 2019 is the Year of the Earth Pig. In addition to the animal zodiac, the Chinese calendar notes a 10-year cycle of heavenly stems. Each of the ten heavenly stems is associated with one of the five elements of Chinese astrology, namely: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.
There are many superstitions, tales, and legends surrounding Chinese New Year. One rests on the belief that a mythical beast, named Nian, would come on the first day of the new year to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers and children. Legend has it that villagers placed food outside of their door to protect themselves from Nian. Scared by the color red and firecrackers, the Nian was eventually captured by an ancient Taoist monk named Hongjun Laozu and used as his mount.
The holiday has also become known for the large number of people who travel within China and around the world to reunite with their families. Today, Chinese New Year is celebrated in Chinese communities around the world. Accordingly, there's a variety of customs and traditions marking the New Year celebrations.
Most people celebrate the holiday by decorating their homes, eating special foods, buying new clothes, and giving presents. Families also clean their homes to clear away the past, remove bad luck, and make way for new and prosperous luck. Most notably, children receive money and sometimes chocolate coins in red paper envelopes called hóng bāo in Mandarin. Money is usually given in even amounts and in multiples of 6 and 8, which are considered very lucky in Chinese cultures. In contrast, odd number money gifts are given at funerals. Be careful with the number 4, which is considered unlucky as it sounds like the word for death.
In addition to red envelopes, people exchange a wide variety of food gifts. In Chinese culture, red is an auspicious color and has come to symbolize warding off evil and helping to attract luck and prosperity.
One of the annual events used to commemorate the festival is a colorful parade complete with animated dragon and lion figures. These fantastic creatures manipulated by expert dancers move through city streets and in and out of businesses during the festivities. Expert dancers animate a large, undulating cloth dragon and prancing lions that make their way through the flurry of enthusiastic spectators. Frequent bursts of firecrackers, another way to ward off evil spirits, are heard along the parade route.
While China charges ahead in its efforts to become a modern global power, it's long and complex history as well as its rich cultural traditions will continue to exert a strong influence on virtually every aspect of Chinese life.