Festivals are often a window into folk culture, and no festival can serve as accurate yet interesting insights into Chinese culture like Lunar New Year. For those interested in Chinese culture but not looking for an extended visit, Lunar New Year is the best time to travel to China.
The main reason to distinguish Chinese New Year from the Western New Year is the different calendar used by the ancient Chinese civilization. Like the western calendar, each Chinese year normally has 12 months, though in some years there will be 13 months. Unlike the Western calendar, the Chinese calendar may have 29 to 30 days in every month. The first day of each month is the day on which the moon is invisible.
Chinese consult a book like the Farmer’s Almanac, called the Ko Tong Sang that has details about each month in a particular year, including weather, and which day is lucky for particular activities. The book also tells Chinese people how many days each month contains and announces the days for different Chinese festivals, including the Lunar New Year, which generally falls between the end of January and the end of February.
There are many Chinese New Year activities going on starting as much as a week before the first day of the new year. The best way to look at them is chronologically. Starting from the week before New Years, different flower markets pop up all over the greater China region. Chinese love flowers of particular colors for New Years, since they are associated with wealth in certain Chinese idioms. Different flowers may have different meanings. For example, a bamboo in a pot represents good luck, while golden gourds represent wealth for the coming year. Despite the bewildering array of flowers, in markets sometimes stretching for acres, it is difficult to find a type of flower that is actually unlucky.
The flower markets do not only sell flowers. They also sell a kind of Chinese calligraphy called Qui Qing (“Kwai Chin”), which represents wishes for the New Year. Unlike normal calligraphy, which is written on off-white paper, Qui Qing is usually written on a piece of red paper, since red represents happiness. Additionally, the red must be a very bright red instead of any kind of pale red or pink. This is because red represents fortune in traditional Chinese beliefs.
Qui Qing is normally written by traditional brush and ink though, sometimes it is printed. The characters can be either black or gold. Although not traditionally lucky, black gets a pass in this situation because it has its own tradition in calligraphy. Gold is used because it represents wealth. Visitors can feel free to buy any Qui Qing, there is no way to get any unlucky one in the market.
As far as food, much of the traditional Lunar New Year food represents some kind of fortune. For example, shark’s fin soup represents wealth because it is extremely expensive. Lotus seeds represent fertility because of a similarity in the two words’ Chinese pronunciation. Oysters, both fresh and dried, represent good business, again because of an accident of pronunciation. Restaurants are more than willing to help their customers choose a lucky new years meal if asked, however, visitors during this time must make a reservation if they expect a seat-most Chinese families like to come together and have expensive and luxurious dinners out all throughout the week.
There are also a lot of snacks and dim sum associated with Chinese New Year, many of which are only manufactured for this time of year. Some of the most popular ones are fried dumplings with ground peanut stuffing (“go zai”), cakes made of jasmine rice and red sugar (“lien gao”), and taro cakes (“woo tao go”). Although these foods are not made normally in the rest of the year, but widely available in Lunar New Year.
Lunar New Year is in some aspects like a fashion show. When the first day of Lunar New Year comes, many Chinese people dress up, again mainly in gold and red. Wearing traditional Chinese clothes is indeed a convention for this festival. They are normally available in the stores like Shanghai Tang or Chinese Art and Craft. Accessories are mainly gold, silver, ivory, and jade, and of course, genuine ones convey a higher status.
After dressing up, it’s time to show off. Chinese people like to visit their relatives in Lunar New Year. During the visit, families usually play mah jong and the married members exchange red pockets, which are small red envelopes with a few dollars inside. Visiting family is the main activities in the first two day for Chinese people. Conventionally, only those who are married give out red pockets, visitors and single members of the family are exempt. However, most people do give red pockets to service people, like the security guards in their apartments or waitresses in restaurants that they frequent. While not necessary, it is considered to be a nice gesture, akin to leaving cookies for the mailman.
Some cities like Hong Kong have a fireworks show the second evening of the new year, and horse racing on the third day. Many shops close the first three days of the new year so the owners can spend time with their families, but with all the festivities around, visitors will not be bored. Transportation remains mainly normal, but some restaurants and department stores close.
Luckily for those traveling to China for the new year, both plane tickets and hotels are generally reasonable, particularly the Western carriers. In fact, some hotels offer bed and breakfast packages for those traveling during the holiday, some of which include tours. It is important to book in advance, since hotels fill up quickly with people visiting their relatives.
The Chinese New Year is an explosion of all different kinds of representation of Chinese culture in a period of less than two weeks. The experience of Chinese culture during is a thorough one including food, clothes, and shopping, and ease of access, and is a perfect introduction for anyone wanting to dip their feet into Chinese culture. Most of all, it’s just a lot of fun, with flowers everywhere, bright colors adorning the streets, all kinds of delicious food, and happy faces everywhere you turn.