Spring Festival customs reveal Chinese view of time

By XIAO FANG / 02-10-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

People walk through an alley decorated with traditional lanterns near Houhai Lake in Beijing on the second day of the Chinese Lunar New Year on Feb. 2, 2022. Photo: CFP

Chinese people might seem conservative, but there are seeds of growth in our cultural history. The Chinese people have always aspired to change the status quo and pursue a better life. We can fully understand the Chinese concept of time via the Spring Festival and its customs.

Agriculture has a long history in China. Agricultural civilization is deeply influenced by the seasonal changes of climate, astronomy, and phenology, so the Chinese are well aware that the cycle of the four seasons is not a stationary, dull repetition of the past, but is dynamic with similarities and differences each year. Life cycles coincide with the passage of time. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter are a process of growth and decay for all living things. Winter ends and spring starts, while the old year ends, the New Year arrives. In the cycle of the four seasons, Chinese people have a strong sense of renewal at the beginning of the annual cycle, which is the end of winter and the beginning of spring. They have invented a series of customs and rituals to celebrate the transition of time, bid farewell to old days, and welcome the new. 
Due to long-term agricultural settlement habits, the Chinese perception of time is accompanied by strong ethics. At the time juncture, the Chinese emphasize the power of family and social collectives to drive away the cold and embrace spring together. Through a series of serious or light festive rituals and customs, people intend to enhance their emotional bonds and ethical relations in society, which indeed realizes the connection between man, history, and nature, and embodies people’s expectations for a new start in life. “Guodanian” literally translates to “celebrate a grand Lunar New Year” and is a vivid folk term, in which “nian” is a time segment that centers on the Lunar New Year’s Eve and the very beginning of Lunar New Year’s Day. In the long span of history, the Chinese have formed different customs for the three time periods before the Lunar New Year’s Eve, on New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. 
Early preparation
As an old Chinese saying goes, the Lunar New Year comes right after the Laba Festival. When families and temples cook laba porridge, filling the air with its fragrance, Chinese people will know that the Spring Festival is just around the corner. In fact, Chinese people start their preparations for the Spring Festival more than 20 days ahead. The Laba Festival falls on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month. After eating laba porridge, people begin a series of Spring Festival preparations. 
The central purpose of the “bidding farewell to the past” rituals is to adjust and enhance all types of interpersonal relationships for the year. People usually send out gifts and gather together, to express their respect and gratitude toward nature, relatives, neighbors, friends, colleagues, business partners, and customers. These general reflections upon a range of ethical relationships at the end of the year are similar to year-end summary meetings of enterprises today, where people look back at one’s work performance in the past year. The tradition of “bidding farewell to the past” rituals date back to the Chinese nation’s early days.
Gift exchange between relatives and friends is one of the primary rituals of “bidding farewell to the past.” For the prospective son-in-law, this tradition is even more important, as he is expected to send New Year’s gifts to his future parents-in-law to strengthen the marriage relationship. This marriage-related ritual occurs three times each year: for the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the Spring Festival. 
At the same time, rituals of “bidding farewell” to relatives and friends are mainly seen as the younger generation visit their elders, and peers visit each other. People give gifts to each other to express warmth and love during the cold season. This ritual is of great contemporary significance, because it has been changed into a charitable New Year custom. The rich could lend material support to those in need, and the government and relevant departments have formed a tradition of visiting vulnerable groups to uplifting the disadvantaged and offer gifts.
Eating and drinking together is another important ritual to bid farewell to the old year. At the end of the year and in the cold of winter, people from all walks of life like to gather together to strengthen bonds.
In addition to sending gifts and feasting, “bidding farewell to the past” rituals also mean saying goodbye to the personified gods of all natural things, cleaning the environment, and cleansing the mind and body. Cleaning before Chinese New Year has been a custom in China since ancient times. Every year before the Spring Festival, Chinese families clean their houses, appliances, bedclothes, and curtains, hoping to drive bad luck and old things away. The custom shows Chinese people’s wish to eliminate the old and establish the new, to make material, social, and spiritual preparations for the renewal of everything in the New Year.
Staying up late
Families gathering together and staying up late to welcome the New Year is the climax of the Spring Festival. Chinese people have long valued family relations, and most of the traditional folk festivals are built around family reunions. Lunar New Year’s Eve is the most important reunion day, as the Chinese believe the reunion on this particular day is priceless and indispensable. 
Reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve is the most cheerful event for Chinese families. On New Year’s Eve, reunited family members gather to enjoy sumptuous dishes around a table. The annual reunion dinner fully displays the family members’ mutual love.
In today’s urban life, due to limited family living spaces, some New Year’s Eve dinners have been moved to restaurants, but the solemn and happy customs are still inherited. Whether dining at home or outside, the reunion dinner offers a good taste of home, and intimate communication with family, which carries emotional strength for the New Year with it.
People give red envelopes to their younger generations after their family reunion dinner, showing their care and love for their children and grandchildren. It is believed that the lucky money can protect the children from evil things and help them have a peaceful year. The tradition of giving red envelopes started early, but it gained popularity only after the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. At first, there were gifts of special money, similar to today’s commemorative coins, and also regular money, with the initial intention of relying on the collective strength of the family to ensure that children grow up safely in the New Year.
Staying up late on the Chinese New Year’s Eve is one of the most important traditional practices. This custom has a history of about 2,000 years in China. In this practice, family ethics are further emphasized, and it is believed that staying up all night drives away evil spirits and ushers people into a lucky and blessed New Year. Nowadays, while getting together to wait for the arrival of a new year, the whole family usually watches the Spring Festival Gala and chats. 
Paying visits to relatives
After New Year’ Eve, the Chinese start fresh and are keen to celebrate their new life with mutual greetings. Traditional society in China has rules and a certain order for extending greetings. Since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), it has been a political tradition for the court to hold a grand ceremony on the first day of the New Year, where the emperor would accept greetings from civil and military officials. After the festival, the emperor and his subjects return to political order and the emperor reconfirms the loyalty of his subjects via greetings. Therefore, the New Year’s greeting is highly valued as part of political culture.
For the general public, New Year’s greetings include worshipping ancestors and sending greetings to elders, relatives, and friends. For example, the He clan of Henglu, Jiangxi Province, holds a group worship on the first day of Chinese New Year every year. Based on ethical order in genealogy records, the younger generation pays New Year’s greetings to the elder, and this order can be rather strict.
On the second day of the first lunar month, relatives and friends visit each other to pay New Year’s greetings. New Year’s greeting gifts in Lishui, Zhejiang Province, are wrapped in thick paper with white sugar, rock sugar, longan, and lychee, commonly known as a “gift bag.” Such a gift bag is not heavy, weighing usually 500g to demonstrate goodwill. If it is a new son-in-law paying visits to in-laws and relatives, it is necessary to bring a pair of gift bags to show respect. 
Welcoming the New Year
At the end of winter and the beginning of spring, people welcome Chinese New Year. Ever since the first month in the Xia calendar was officially determined as the beginning of a year during Emperor Wu of Han’s reign in 104 BCE, the celebration of the “Start of Spring” solar term always goes hand-in-hand with the Spring Festival. The customs of “Start of Spring” mainly consist of pasting couplets, tasting spring food, and drinking spring wine.
Spring Festival couplets have been widely popular since the Song (960–1279) and Ming dynasties. Prior to that era, the main purpose of hanging peach wood charms at the door was to remove evil. The couplets, which give a background to the times and express good wishes in neat, antithetical, concise, and exquisite words, are a unique literary form in China. Every Chinese New Year, the red couplets are displayed on the door frames of every urban and rural family and light up the festive atmosphere.
Spring rituals and customs are naturally inseparable from food traditions. People are accustomed to eating seasonal dishes, such as spring rolls and spring pancakes. In today’s cities and villages, they still largely follow festival food customs, which speaks to the significance of welcoming spring. 
Drinking spring wine is an important custom to welcome spring in the New Year. Wine is a good tool to worship gods. After making a tribute, people drink to celebrate the New Year. New Year’s wine is also called spring wine. Nowadays, wine is still an indispensable drink which adds to the festive atmosphere.
In summary, the main Spring Festival customs reflect people’s awareness of time renewal. The Chinese integrate humanistic care and life consciousness into New Year celebration rituals and customs, connecting faith and worship, nature and society, family and nation, so that Chinese New Year becomes a serious and grand national festival.
The Spring Festival is valuable as intangible cultural heritage of the Chinese nation. It vividly presents the core values of the Chinese people, and is an important opportunity to forge a strong community for the Chinese nation and strengthen the bonds of Chinese people around the world. In the era of globalization, Spring Festival celebrations and customs enable us to enjoy the convenience of the Gregorian calendar while continuing our national cultural time.
Xiao Fang is a professor from the Department of Anthropology and Ethnology at the School of Sociology at Beijing Normal University.