Welcoming the Year of the Tiger!

Chinese people around the world are preparing for the lunar new year, also known in Chinese as Spring Festival 春节 Chūnjié – the Year of the Tiger! It’s celebrated according to the lunar calendar, and in 2022 it falls on February 1st, ending with the Lantern Festival on February 15th.

Read on to take a look at the origins of, and stories behind, one of the world’s most celebrated holidays! 

People buy red paper cuts for Spring Festival

The precise origins of Spring Festival are lost in the mists of time. It may have developed out of winter ceremonies honouring gods and ancestors around the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). By the 200s AD, the traditions of New Year that we see today, such as having a big family dinner, were developing, and this development continued through the centuries, particularly during the prosperous Tang, Song and Qing dynasties. 

A family celebrates Spring Festival during the Qing Dynasty (by Yao Wenhan)

The name ‘Spring Festival’ (春节 Chūnjié)  is actually quite modern: it’s from 1912, when the Republic of China adopted the Gregorian calendar. The old name for the lunar new year (Yuan Dan 元旦 Yuándàn) was re-appropriated for January 1st and Sun Yatsen came up with the term Spring Festival for the Lunar New Year. 

The act of driving away the monster Nian with loud noises and fire is said to have inspired many Spring Festival customs

Also surprisingly modern is the well-known legend of the monster Nian. It’s now a staple of the Spring Festival mythos, but in fact there’s no record of it at all before the 19th century. The story goes that every winter as food became scarce the monster Nian would attack villages, eating not only the crops but children too.  The villagers used fire and banged together their pots and pans to scare the monster away, and every winter they preempted attacks by lighting many lanterns, fires, hanging red everywhere and making loud noises. These customs have come down to us as the traditions of dressing in red, decorating buildings in red, hanging lanterns, banging drums, setting off fireworks, and creating representations of creatures capable of scaring away evil: dragons and lions, seen in dragon and lion dances.

Much, much older is the story of the twelve animals, and how each year in the twelve-year cycle came to be represented by a different animal. The twelve animals are known as 生肖 Shēngxiào, starting with the rat and ending with the pig. The Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven) ordered that animals would be designated calendar signs and the twelve that arrived first would be chosen. On that day, the rat got up early and rushed to see the Jade Emperor. On the way, he came across the ox, who ran much faster. Being kind, the Ox agreed to take the rat on his back. When they arrived, the rat jumped off and scampered ahead, becoming the first animal to arrive, while the ox had to settle for second place! The story goes on to explain the positions of some of the other animals too. The origins of the system and the story are unknown, but the twelve animals were well-established by the first century AD. 

Sugar art at Dongyue Miao Temple Fair

Chinese people nowadays usually celebrate Spring Festival by decorating the outside of their homes with lucky red decorations, having a big family meal, and watching the Spring Festival Gala. However, these traditions are gradually declining, especially in urban areas. For some city dwellers the festival is just a chance to relax and do nothing, and prior to 2020 travelling abroad at this time of year was becoming increasingly popular too! In the four to five days after New Year’s Day, many people go to temple fairs, which are usually held in a park or temple. There are fun games, lots of food, and small gift items are sold. This is also a good place to see some traditional crafts in action, such as sugar painting, sugar blowing, dough figurines and paper cutting. 

This year, due to Covid-19 restrictions and the Olympics which begin on February 4th, Spring Festival is set to be more muted than usual – especially for those of us living in Beijing! All temple fairs have been cancelled, and many people will not be travelling home as they normally would. Here’s hoping that things are back to normal by the time the Year of the Rabbit comes around!

Want to know more about the festival? Check out all our Spring Festival events here!

How will you be seeing in the Year of the Tiger? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys 

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