The Ancient Chinese Calendar
The ancient Chinese calendar, on which the Chinese New Year is based, functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide. Oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that it existed at least as early as 14th century B.C., when the Shang Dynasty was in power. The calendar’s structure wasn’t static: It was reset according to which emperor held power and varied in use according to region.
The Chinese calendar was a complex timepiece. Its parameters were set according to the lunar phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and yang, the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world, also ruled the calendar, as did the Chinese zodiac, the cycle of twelve stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos. Each new year was marked by the characteristics of one of the 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
The Traditional Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year period began in the middle of the 12th month and ended around the middle of the first month with the waxing of the full moon. Observance of the New Year period was traditionally divided into New Year’s Eve and the first days of the new year.
Traditionally for the Chinese, New Year was the most important festival on the calendar. The entire attention of the household was fixed on the celebration. During this time, business life came nearly to a stop. Home and family were the principal focuses. In preparation for the holiday, homes were thoroughly cleaned to rid them of “huiqi,” or inauspicious breaths, which might have collected during the old year. Cleaning was also meant to appease the gods who would be coming down from heaven to make inspections. Ritual sacrifices of food and paper icons were offered to gods and ancestors. People posted scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and set off firecrackers to frighten evil spirits. Elders gave out money to children. In fact, many of the rites carried out during this period were meant to bring good luck to the household and long life to the family–particularly to the parents.
Most important was the feasting. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family would join around the table for a meal that included as the last course a fish that was symbolic of abundance and therefore not meant to be eaten. In the first five days of the New Year, people ate long noodles to symbolize long life. On the 15th and final day of the New Year, round dumplings shaped like the full moon were shared as a sign of the family unit and of perfection.
Evolution of Spring Festival
The Western-style Gregorian calendar arrived in China along with Jesuit missionaries in 1582. It began to be used by the general population by 1912, and New Year’s Day was officially recognized as occurring on January 1. Beginning in 1949, under the rule of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976), the government forbade celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year and followed the Gregorian calendar in its dealings with the West. But at the end of the 20th century, Chinese leaders were more willing to accept the Chinese tradition. In 1996, China instituted a weeklong vacation during the holiday–now called Spring Festival–giving people the opportunity to travel home and to celebrate the new year.
In the early 21st century, many Chinese families spent a significant amount of their discretionary income celebrating the Spring Festival with traditional symbols and food. They also spent time watching the televised Spring Festival Gala: an annual variety show featuring traditional and contemporary singers, dancers and magic demonstrations. Although the rites of the holiday no longer had religious value, people remained sensitive to the zodiacal animals to the extent that they considered what, for example, a year of the rat might mean for their personal fortunes or for a child born at that time.
A change in attitude toward the Spring Festival has occurred in China’s young people, with Chinese college students reporting that they prefer surfing the Internet, sleeping, watching TV or spending time with friends to celebrating with family. They also reported not liking traditional New Year food such as dumplings and glutinous rice pastry. With its change of name from Chinese New Year to Spring Festival, for some members of the younger generation the holiday has evolved from an opportunity to renew family ties to a chance for relaxation from work.