Chinese New Year is a momentous celebration in the Chinese calendar, marking the end of the old and welcoming in the new.
Whilst it is hugely celebrated in China, Chinese New Year is also recognised in many other parts of the world too – especially in cities with a significant Chinese population, like Liverpool.
Whether you participate in the New Year celebrations every year, or are a newbie to this colourful festival, our guide to Chinese New Year will tell you everything you need to know.
When is Chinese New Year?
The full Chinese New Year holiday typically 23 days, from January 17th to February 8th.
Chinese New Year’s Eve in 2020 takes place on Saturday 24th January, although celebrations will have been underway for a couple of weeks before then. The following day, the 24th, marks the start of the new year and the official start of Spring Festival.
The holiday lasts for another 15 days until Saturday 8th February. Each day of the holiday has specific activities and traditions, which can vary by region.
Chinese New Year 2020 Dates
Here is a list of dates throughout the Chinese New Year holiday and the names and themes commonly associated with that day.
More information about popular New Year activities can be found further down.
January 17th – Little Year
January 24th – New Year’s Eve
January 25th – Spring Festival
January 26th – To the in-laws’
January 27th – Day of the Rat
January 28th – Day of the Sheep
January 29th – Break Five
January 30th – Day of the Horse
January 31st – Day of the Human
February 1st – Day of the Millet
February 2nd – Providence Health
February 3rd – Stone Festival
February 4th – Son-in-law Day
February 5th-7th – Lantern Festival Preparations
February 8th – Lantern Festival
Chinese New Year Facts
- The full Chinese New Year celebration lasts 23 days, usually beginning between January 21st and February 20th during the second new moon after the winter solstice. It has no real set date.
- Another name for Chinese New Year can be Spring Festival.
- Chinese legend holds that Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on New Year’s Day. He named a year after each of the 12 animals that came, in the order they arrived.
- The animals in the Chinese calendar (in order) are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat/sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
- According to legend, people born in each animal’s year have some of that animal’s personality traits.
- 2020 is the Year of the Rat.
- Chinese New Year was originally a ceremonial day to pray to gods for a good planting and harvesting season.
- At Chinese New Year, more fireworks are set off around the world than at any other celebration!
- The Spring Festival causes the largest human migration in the world, as people travel to celebrate with their friends and families.
How to say “Happy New Year” in Chinese
If you’d like to wish somebody a Happy New Year in Mandarin, simply say, “Gong xi fa cai” (pronounced “Gong she fa tsai”). Directly translated, it means, “Wishing you great happiness and prosperity.”
In Cantonese, you can say, “Gong hei fat choy.” This is spoken more commonly in parts of Southern China and Hong Kong.
Other Chinese New Year greetings include “Xin nian kuai le” in Mandarin (pronounced “Shin nee-an kwai le”). This is a formal greeting usually reserved for strangers and literally means, “New Year happiness”.
Another less formal greeting in Mandarin would be, “Guo nian hao” (pronounced “Gor nee-an how”), which means, “Pass the New Year well”.
Chinese New Year History
Chinese New Year has evolved over a long period of time and its customs have undergone a long development process.
The history of Chinese New Year can be traced back almost 3500 years ago to the Shang Dynasty, when people would make winter sacrifices to their gods and ancestors. By 1256 BC, the pagan/ancestor worship had become social practice and the official calendar ‘year’ established. The Han Dynasty eventually fixed the date of Chinese New Year and celebration activities became popular.
Over the years, Chinese New Year changed from being a religious festival to more of a secular celebration and more entertaining and social. In current times, many of its traditions have taken on a more modern approach, from TV galas to exchanging digital red envelopes (see below).
Of course, the myth is nearly always more interesting than the truth. One of the most popular myths of Chinese New Year first appeared in the Zhou Dynasty and is about the mythical beast Nian, who ate livestock, crops and even people on the eve of a new year. To protect against Nian, people would put food out at their doors. One year, a wise man discovered that Nian was afraid of loud noises and the colour red. Therefore, people began to put red lanterns and red scrolls on their windows and doors to stop Nian from coming inside. Crackling bamboo (and later on, firecrackers, which are used today) was lit to scare Nian away.
It is now common practice to stay up till midnight on New Year’s Eve, enjoying food, dancing and fireworks to symbolise scaring away bad spirits.
Chinese New Year Animals
The Chinese New Year zodiac is a repeating cycle of 12 years. Each year represents an animal thought to have attended the Buddha’s feast, according to the Chinese legend.
In order, the 12 animals of the zodiac are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
It is believed that people born in a given year have the personality traits of that year’s animal. Below is a list of animals and their years in the zodiac cycle, so you can find out what animal you are.
Rat – 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020
Ox – 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021
Tiger – 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022
Rabbit – 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023
Dragon – 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024
Snake – 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025
Horse – 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026
Goat – 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027
Monkey – 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028
Rooster – 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029
Dog – 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030
Pig – 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031
Chinese New Year Food
Special foods are served at Chinese New Year that represent good luck and fortune. Much of the symbolism around these foods is based on their pronunciations or visual resemblances.
Some common foods eaten at Chinese New Year are:
Fish represents an increase in prosperity. The Chinese word for fish, “Yu” sounds like ‘surplus’. People like to have a surplus at the end of the year, because they believe if they have managed to save something by the end of the year, they can then make more in the next year.
Fish is often served as a main dish on the dinner table, with the head placed towards distinguished guests or elders. It can be cooked in various ways such as boiling, steaming and braising.
2. Dumplings & spring rolls
Chinese dumplings and spring rolls are a classic lucky food for Chinese New Year. Both symbolise wealth, and it is thought that the shape of dumplings resemble a silver ingot, an old form of Chinese currency.
Dumplings generally consist of minced meat like pork, fish or shrimp, and/or shredded cabbage, bamboo and other vegetables. They can be boiled, steamed, fried or baked. Different dumpling fillings have different meanings; e.g. cabbage and radish imply that one’s skin will become fair and their mood will be gentle.
Spring rolls are a traditional Dim Sum dish typically filled with vegetables, meat or something sweet. They too can be baked or fried.
Legend has it that the more dumplings one eats during the New Year celebrations, the more money one can make in the new year. Many families stay up late making dumplings together on New Year’s Eve. This is an important activity that all of the family – including spouses – are expected to be involved in.
3. Glutinous rice cake
Glutinous rice cakes are sweet treats consumed on Chinese New Year consisting of sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts, Chinese dates and lotus leaves.
In Chinese, the word for glutinous rice cake (“Niángāo”) sounds like it means “getting higher year by year”. These cakes symbolise a higher business position or higher income.
4. Sweet rice balls
Sweet rice balls are the main food for China’s Lantern Festival; however they are also consumed throughout the Spring Festival in South China.
The Chinese word for sweet rice ball (“tangyuan”) has a rounded pronunciation which reminds people of reunion and togetherness, making them a perfect food for Chinese New Year.
5. Longevity noodles
Longevity noodles are very long noodles that represent a long and happy lifetime. They are unsevered during their preparation and it is also encouraged to consume them as whole as possible (which means lots of slurping!).
Longevity noodles are either fried and served on a plate, or boiled and served in a bowl as part of a broth.
6. Good fortune fruit
Good fortune fruit is normally oranges, tangerines and pomelos, which are often given as token gifts to friends and family. Due to their roundness and golden colour, they symbolise fullness and wealth.
Many Chinese people like to eat and display tangerines and oranges due to their pronunciation and even writing, which sounds/looks similar to the word for ‘success’. One of the ways of writing ‘tangerine’ contains the Chinese character for luck.
Pomelos meanwhile are thought to bring continuous prosperity. It is believed that the more of them you eat during the celebrations, the more wealth it will bring.
Chinese New Year Traditions
Chinese people love to decorate their homes, schools and workplaces with lucky red items on New Year’s Eve. Like in the famous legend, the colour red is thought to ward off bad spirits and welcome in good fortune.
Common New Year’s decorations include red Chinese lanterns, which are often hung in the streets in the weeks leading up to New Year. Red couplets are pasted on doors, while banks and official buildings are decorated with red New Year pictures depicting symbols of prosperity. As 2020 is the Year of the Rat, paintings and symbols related to rats will also commonly be seen.
Chinese New Year’s Eve is a very important time for families to be together and celebrate. Many people travel long distances to be at home with their families or their partner’s families. Everybody shares a huge dinner together – known as ‘reunion dinner’ – and watches the Spring Festival Gala, one of the most watched TV shows in China.
People often stay up until midnight to welcome the new year in. This will usually involve watching fireworks (either at home or a public display) and setting off firecrackers during the first minute of new year.
Another common New Year custom in China is to give lucky red envelopes containing money to friends and family. The amount of money gifted will often depend on the relationship between giver and receiver, but large amounts can be gifted by older relatives. The amount given will usually be an even lucky number. Increasingly this gifting tradition is becoming digitised, with younger people choosing to give electronic red envelopes via WeChat and other digital means.
It is forbidden to clean or sweep your home on New Year’s Day as this is seen as ‘sweeping all your luck away’. It is also seen as unlucky to have an accident or a fall on New Year’s Day or to give gifts with unlucky meanings, colours, words or numbers.
All cleaning is done in the days leading up to Lunar New Year, when people scrub their homes and get rid of clutter that is no longer necessary or useful. This is to signify letting go of the old and making space for the new. Many people also splurge on new clothes and get a haircut.
Other Chinese New Year activities
Other Chinese New year activities include visiting markets, where ahead of New Year’s Day vendors sell decorations, red envelopes, toys, clothes and trinkets. In Southern Chines, street markets are also teeming with flowers and potted plants.
Other markets called ‘temple fairs’ are also associated with the religious part of Chinese New Year. They include sugar-work animals from the lunar zodiac, prayer scrolls and incense. They are similar to the Christmas markets in Europe.
Many people also like to pray at their local temple on the third day of Lunar New Year, lighting incense and asking for blessings and good luck in the year ahead. Some temples will even put on festive dragon and lion dances in the courtyard.