Uncover the Culture of Chinese New Year
by Joanna Furst
Two Thunderbird students, Zihao Liu and Xi Ling, reflect on a tradition as integral to their culture and history as Thanksgiving in America. Like many holidays, Chinese New Year presents an opportunity for feast and family but is also filled with dragon dances and an emphasis on starting the new year with luck using some unique tactics.
What are some cultural do’s and don'ts surrounding Chinese New Year for those who aren’t familiar with it?
ZL: Chinese New Year is a blessing for the coming spring in traditional Chinese culture. People return to their hometowns to eat and chat with the elderly and children. In the traditional stories of Beijing, "nian" is a kind of beast. People set off firecrackers and gather to celebrate loudly to drive away the beast, praying for good luck in the new year.
XL: During the Spring Festival, we clean our house and wear new clothes (red clothes, because it is lucky for the new year). We eat dumplings and watch TV. For good luck, people will put a coin, sugar or jujube randomly into our dumplings. We also shoot off fireworks to drive ghosts away. We can’t say words like bad, dead, poor, broken etc. because we believe it will bring bad luck.
What is one of your favorite traditions of Chinese New Year?
ZL: I like temple fairs, which are held in large parks. There are snacks from all over the country. Family members brave the cold winter together to find their favorite snacks and clothes or toys for children. At the temple fair, a professional team performs the dragon dance, lion dance and other traditional performances.
XL: When I was young, my favorite thing was collecting Yasui Money, which kids get from grandparents or relatives. When I grew up, it was more about sitting and eating with my family, hugging them and telling them I love them in person. Since I chose to study in the U.S., it has been three years since I have been able to celebrate with them in person.
Is there a traditional meal that’s customary to eat during the celebration?
XL: Every family has their own traditional meal custom. One of my friend’s family cooks 藕夹，茄夹 (a dish made with lotus and eggplant) for Spring Festival. People from the north and south in China sometimes have totally different tastes. So we won't have a standard meal custom. Each family has their own New Year traditions.
If you are not living in China, how do you carry these traditions with you when you are away from home?
ZL: I have bought some red decorations to make my home full of the New Year ambiance. I also plan to get together with friends to play mahjong, which is said to have existed in China one or two thousand years ago.
XL: I will video call with my family and invite my Chinese friends to my home to celebrate it together.
Has COVID affected the celebrations?
ZL: Yes, there is a call to "Celebrate the New Year on the spot," policies are strict but some companies will provide additional bonuses, and the government will also hold some local events.
Is there anything you think people who are not from China would find surprising about the Chinese New Year?
ZL: They will find that big cities like Beijing and Shanghai become empty because everyone returns to their hometown before the New Year to spend it with their families. Travel for Spring Festival is the largest regular population migration in the world (close to 3 billion trips! source: Bloomberg). It is difficult to buy train or plane tickets.
XL: I think foreigners would fall in love with an authentic experience of Chinese New Year. It's like Christmas Day in the U.S.: we have our own traditions, and it is important to know the history behind the festivals. What touches me most is the importance of family. Everyone goes home because deep in our culture, we believe 家和万事兴 (A harmonious family cultivates prosperity).