Please note: This article was first published in 2017 and updated with the pertinent information for the year of 2021.
What is CNY?
Simply put, it is the celebration of the beginning of the New Year in accordance with China's traditional lunar calendar. Like the rest of the world, of course, China has adopted the conventional Western Gregorian calendar for practical purposes. But we dust off the lunar calendar when we want to know about holidays and horoscopes. As with most holidays based on lunar calendar, Chinese New Year is a movable feast; it falls on a different date on the Gregorian calendar every year. This year, the Year of the Ox, commences on February 12. In China, it's more commonly referred to as "Chun Jie" (春节), or Spring Festival.
What are the origins?
There is probably a disappointingly mundane beginning to this tradition but the more interesting and enduring origin story is steeped in myth and legend. Supposedly the holiday began with a fight against the "Nian" — a chimerical sea creature with the head of a lion, the horns of a rhino, and the body of an ox who every year would ravage the countryside, eating crops, livestock, and even children. That is until a few clever ancestors discovered the Nian's Achilles' heel: Loud noises and the color red. Our ancestors learned to fend off the Nian by decorating their homes in red and exploding segments of bamboo in fire. To this day, this myth informs some of Chinese New Year's most important traditions. It's why we set off firecrackers and why you see red everywhere this time of year.
How long does it last?
In the West, you get pissed on champagne, make a resolution you'll break in two weeks, begin the year with a crippling hangover, and then go to work the next day. In China, however, we take our time with the New Year. Traditionally, it lasts two weeks. Celebrations commence on New Year's Eve, or Da Nian Ye (大年夜). The family sits down to a big banquet that we call Nian Ye Fan (年夜饭). The stroke of midnight marks Da Nian Chu Yi (大年初一).
Each subsequent day is designated for certain customs. I won't bog you down with all of the details. Let's cut straight to the important bits; the fifth day is Da Nian Chu Wu (大年初五). This is the day we welcome Caishen (财神), the God of Wealth. The use of fireworks on this day used to be the most aggressive, before the ban of fireworks in Shanghai. Even after we all return to work the celebrations continue in some form until the fifteenth day of the First Lunar Month, Lantern Festival, or Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节).
What are the important traditions?
The running theme throughout Chinese New Year (and probably New Year celebrations over the world for that matter) is leaving our past behind and looking ahead with a fresh start. To that end, we like to give our homes a thorough cleaning when ushering in the New Year. Parents will usually buy new clothes for their kids. We also like to get our hair cut or a new hairstyle. Look around over the next few days; you'll notice that barbershops and hair salons are packed. This is the reason.
We've already talked about Caishen, the Wealth God. Another god who plays prominently this time of year is, Zaoshen (灶神), the Kitchen God. This time of year Zaoshen is dispatched back to heaven to report on how your family has conducted itself throughout the year. In hopes that he'll put in a good word for us to his boss, we bribe him with sweets and snacks. That's right. The culture of graft and bribes even transcends the temporal world in China.
Auspicious decor is essential. This time of year we brighten our surroundings with beautifully intricate paper cuttings, or jian zhi (剪纸). We post strips of paper bearing lucky couplets, or chun lian (春联), on our doors. And, of course, there are always lanterns, too. For reasons already stated above: It's all red.
Another decoration you'll see a lot of is a red square with the character for good luck and fortune, "福" (fu), posted on doors upside down. It's wordplay. The character for "upside-down" in Chinese is "倒" (dao), which is a homophone of the character "到", which means "to arrive." So it's a double entendre. "福倒" (fortune upside down) when said aloud sounds like "福到" (fortune has arrived). See what we did there?
Confucian traditions of filial piety run deep in China, so another important CNY tradition is to pay respect to your grandparents. Go on. You never call them.
Temples will often hold fairs, where celebrants can watch lion and dragon dances, as well as make offerings and say prayers. Unfortunately, many of the ones that used to take place in Shanghai are still canceled in response to the 2014 stampede on the Bund.
Finally, 'tis the season for gifts. And gift-giving can be a minefield for the uninitiated. First there are hongbaos, those prized little red envelopes stuffed with cash. There is an entire protocol for that, which we've covered at length right here. Non-cash gifts are acceptable, too. It's cold out so warm attire is suitable. Just avoid colors like black and white; they're associated with funerals. Booze and smokes are another safe bet, too. Here are a few other suggestions on what and what not to get. And if you were born in the Year of the Ox why not get some red undies for yourself while you're shopping? It's good luck.
What about food?
Eating is China's national pastime and it's even more important during Chinese New Year. We're big on cured fish, fowl, and meats this time of year. You've probably seen sausages, ham, chickens, ducks, and whatever else curing outside all around town for the past couple of weeks. It's all in preparation for the holiday. Why cured meats? For the most part, this is a tradition born of necessity. We call it "Spring Festival," but this is still a winter holiday and for a long time preserving food was the only way you could eat this time of year.
Much of what we eat is steeped in wordplay, too. Take fish, for example. Fish is yu (鱼) in Chinese. It shares a pronunciation with "余", which means surplus. So we say nian nian you yu (年年有鱼), which means "every year have fish," or, of course, "every year have a surplus." Other dishes like sticky rice cakes nian gao (年糕), evoke similar word play. The word for cake, 糕 (gao), is a homophone with the word "高", which means "high." So to eat nian gao is strive for a higher position in life in the coming year. Another food that, particularly in the north, is considered auspicious is jiaozi, because their shape resembles a traditional Chinese gold ingot.
Chinese New Year Dinners and Parties Galore
A lavish feast with friends and family is a great way to ring in the New Year. Traditionally, restaurants around Shanghai splash out on offers for big groups of dinners, either charging a set amount for set menus for large groups (10 or more is common), or tailoring a set meal for smaller groups, mixing a matching a bunch of different traditional dishes planned in advance. SmartShanghai has a huge listing of fancy Chinese restaurant CNY dinners right here. Also at that link is what the clubs have on to celebrate CNY. Newbs, you're looking at February 11 as a particularly big night.
How to Speak CNY
Here are some essential greetings. When greeting elders start with zhu ni (祝你), which means "I wish you...". You can follow that up with phrases like...
Wan shi ru yi. (万事如意): Good fortune.
Chang ming bai sui. (长命百岁): A long life.
To children you can say...
Xi wang ni (希望你): I hope you...
...hao hao xue xi. (好好学习): Study hard
...jian kang cheng zhang. (健康成长): Grow up to be healthy.
Then there are more general greetings, like xin nian kuai le (新年快乐) or xin nian hao, both of which basically mean, "Happy New Year."
A happy niu year to you and yours, Shanghai.
Want To Know More About Chinese New Year?
The Shanghai Mass Art Center is hosting The 15th Annual Exhibition of Chinese New Year Customs in Shanghai, an installation that explores the cultural background and historical context that the tradition holds. This experience has been broken into three sections, each utilizing an aspect of China's history of art: paintings of calenders and the New Year, graphic designs of the Zodiac animals, and papermaking - materialized through calligraphy, traditional paper kites, umbrellas and more. This gallery opened on January 30 and ends in March 14; it will be open throughout the Chinese New Year holiday.