Chinese New Year – The Complete Guide To China’s Biggest and Most Important Holiday

Discover Chinese New Year – Chinese New Year Traditions and Superstitions

Chinese New Year, the biggest moment of the year in China!

Families all across China will celebrate in their own traditional ways. Many will make Chinese dumplings (jiăozi – 饺子) as a family and hand out red envelopes (hóngbāo – 紅包) of money to their nearest and dearest.

Chinese New Year - Red Envelope

However, these local traditions go much further than gifts of money and eating dumplings and vary greatly from region to region.

China is a vast place with a huge population and contains many different ethnic minorities.

Traditions not only vary from region to region but also from family to family.

Chinese New Year Traditions – Thomas

Chinese New Year Traditions – Emma

Chinese New Year Traditions – Cynthia

Chinese New Year Superstitions

New Year Resolutions in Chinese

In order to introduce you to different local Chinese New Year Traditions from different parts of China, we asked 3 of our teachers at LTL Mandarin School to tell us all about their own regional traditions and family traditions.

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The Best Things Come In a Big Red Envelope The Red Envelope or Hong Bao, in Chinese Chinese New Year is upon us. And that means, red envelopes, so called 红包hongbao (红=red, 包=envelope, packet), are about to make a major…

After this, we’ll take a look at some superstitions that are observed during Chinese New Year and teach you some common New Year resolutions, so buckle up, we’re about to give you the true insiders guide to Chinese New Year in China.

Before that though, let’s take a look at foreigners in action in a Chinese kitchen. Here’s Daniel making some Dumplings!

Watch Daniel make Dumplings, Chinese style

Chinese New Year Traditions

Chinese New Year Traditions #1 – Thomas from Beijing

My name is Tongda (Thomas), a Chinese teacher from LTL.

I’m an “old” Beijinger, generations of my family have lived here. I grew up in the Tian’anmen area, in a Hutong house.

Different places have different culture and I would like to share with you some traditional culture of Beijing for celebrating the Chinese New Year.

Before Spring Festival’s Eve, people who live in the Hutongs put couplets with blessings on each side of the gate to their courtyard and also put one on the top of gate.

For example: Welcome the New Year, Happy Year of Sheep, all the best and luck in the New Year and so on.

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We also put The Door God on the gate of courtyard, which is used to scare away evil spirits.

We eat dumplings together with the family on New Year’s Eve, watch the Spring Festival TV gala and then watch fireworks through the window.

We also eat New Year’s cake, which in Chinese is called “nian gao” (nian – year, gao – high). Eating this ensures everything will get better and better, year after year.

On the first day of the New Year, we start to visit relatives. However, girls can’t visit relatives on the first day, they normally start on the second day.

We don’t sweep the floor, throw out the rubbish, take a shower or have our hair cut on the first day of New Year.

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Instead we normally buy fruit as presents to give to relatives. Different fruits bring different wishes, for instance:

DID YOU KNOW – In Chinese culture, we have 12 signs of the zodiac – mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog and pig.

On the second day of New Year, Beijingers like to pray to the Cai Shen Deity, the god of prosperity. They teach us that kind and devotional prayers will result in abundant financial resources and people should make these fortunes based on kindheartedness and justice.

During the holiday, we also like to visit Temple Fairs, and pray in Buddhist and Daoist temples for a healthy and bright New Year.

On the 5th day of New Year, we eat dumplings again. On the 15th day of lunar calendar, we eat Yuan Xiao (sweet dumplings made of glutinous rice flour) for the Lantern Festival.

In the evening of Lantern Festival, people like to go for a walk outside which brings them good health and signifies the end of the Spring festival. These are the traditions for celebrating New Year as a Beijinger. Happy Spring Festival!

Tongda (Thomas), LTL Teacher

Chinese New Year Traditions #2 – Emma from Fuzhou

My hometown is in a county town called Yongtai which belongs to Fuzhou city in southern China. 

The days before Chinese New Year’s Eve, every family starts to prepare for the celebration. First of all, we do the spring-cleaning to embrace a new and clean year. The next step is to prepare food for the New Year’s Eve feast.

Emma Teacher LTL Beijing
Emma Teacher LTL Beijing

We don’t have dumplings but Tangyuan (汤圆) which is a kind of round and white food indicating Tuanyuan (团圆, the family reunion).

We also eat another white and round dish but this one is a flat cake made of rice called Niangao (年糕).

A fish dish is a necessity on the table every year, because fish(鱼yu) indicates 年年有余(nian nian you yu)which means every year we will have plenty of food.

Every year, we also enjoy a kind of traditional noodle made from eggs and a kind of sweet potato which is called Longyan (蛋燕).

Before we start the dinner of the New Year’s Eve, we offer some sacrifices to the Goddess of kitchen.

We believe she will bless and protect us. Every year I enjoy the food on the table and I know my mother has already kept half of the delicious food in the kitchen which we will enjoy again on the first day of the New Year. To eat the food that is kept from the last day of last year is another way to improve nian nian you yu.

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After the spring-cleaning, every family starts to decorate their house, like posting new year’s scrolls and the Fu 福 character which normally should be upside and down to show that Fu is arriving.

When it comes to the evening of New Year’s Eve, the children will be very excited as they get the “lucky money” from the senior members of the family and they love the fireworks display.

On the first day of the new year, fathers will set off fireworks to “wake up the New Year”.

Meanwhile mothers start to prepare the big breakfast. Every one should wake up by themselves and appear at the table with their new dresses. We cannot knock at other people’s door to wake them up as it will bring bad luck to them.

On the first day just family members spend time together. From the second day onwards, every family will start to welcome the visitors and they can enjoy the get-together time which is really nice.

These are the things my spring festival consists of.

Emma Chen, LTL teacher.

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Chinese New Year Traditions #3 – Cynthia from Liaocheng

My name is Zhang Xin (my English name is Cynthia), I come from Liaocheng city of Shandong province, east of China.

Because Shandong province is the hometown of the Confucius, the spring festival customs are very important for us.

Spring Festival runs from Laba Festival (the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month) to Lantern Festival (the fifteenth day of the first lunar moon). On Laba Festival, people like to eat Laba rice porridge which is rice porridge with nuts and dried fruit.

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From that day on, people start to clean and clear out their house, buy new clothes and delicious food to prepare for Spring Festival.

Happy New Year in Chinese

On the “small new year” (the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar moon), people need to eat dumplings and “free the kitchen god” who, according to myth, goes to visit the Jade Emperor and reports on the family’s performance in the last year.

The most important day of Spring Festival is New Year’s Eve.

This day of the year is also known as the “big thirty”.

After noon, people will paste couplets and paste the character of “Fortune” upside down as this means fortune will arrive in the future.

In the evening, there will be the family reunion dinner and afterwards the custom of giving gifts of money. When it is 12:00am, every family will light fireworks.

The first day of the new year is also very important. People should get up early in the morning to visit relatives, pay a new year call, and adults need to give children “Ya sui” money for a gift.

From now on, people would visit relatives until Lantern Festival, especially the married women who visit parents on the second day.

On Lantern Festival (the fifteenth day of the first lunar moon), we will eat Yuanxiao (rice glue ball) and appreciate all the beautiful lanterns.

Cynthia, LTL teacher

From all of the teachers and staff here at LTL, 新年快乐

Chinese New Year Superstitions – A Survival Guide

So, we’ve learnt about what Chinese do with their Chinese New Year, but the festival runs much deeper than this.

They say to understand a language you must also understand the culture so we want to dig deeper into Chinese New Year and study some of the superstitions that Chinese deal with during the holidays.

SO let’s get stuck into some rather wacky Chinese New Year superstitions starting with…

The Chinese believe it’s crucial to start the year on the right foot because whatever you do on the first day, week, even month, of the lunar New Year will affect how your year will turn out.

With that said, there are many Chinese New Year superstitions that the Chinese follow to have a lucky and auspicious start to the year.

Waking Up On the Right Side of the Bed

On the morning of Chinese New Year, members of a Chinese family usually wake up by themselves naturally.

You should not tell someone to wake up or visit someone who has not woken up.

Open the windows in the morning of Chinese New Year to allow good luck to come in - Chinese New Year Superstitions
Open the windows in the morning of Chinese New Year to allow good luck to come in – Chinese New Year Superstitions

This is bad luck for the person still in bed. If you go to wake someone up, then they will be rushed and bossed around for the year.

If you visit someone who has not woken up, they will be bed-ridden for the entire year. So it’s better to let everyone wake up on their own schedule. What a perfect opportunity to catch up on some snooze!

Once you do wake up, remind yourself to open the windows, and doors. Not only will the fresh air help you wake up, leaving the doors and windows open on the first day of Chinese New Year, or 初一 (Chū  Yī), allows good fortune and prosperity to enter the house.

The Chinese refers to the first day of a lunar month as 初一 (Chū  Yī), and the second day as 初二 (Chū  èr), so on and so forth until 初十 (Chū  Shí), after which the days are simply referred to as numbers.

Chinese New Year - 初一

What’s For Breakfast?

When the family is ready for breakfast, they should find the rice jar, or 米缸 (Mǐ Gāng) filled.

The rice jar should not be allowed to be empty during Chinese New Year.

An empty rice jar causes anxiety in the family because it’s a bad omen that the family will starve in the year. So if you have a rice jar, remember to fill it up before the Chinese New Year!

Serving congee for breakfast is a taboo on Chinese New Year - Chinese New Year Superstition
Serving congee for breakfast is a taboo on Chinese New Year – Chinese New Year Superstition

While congee, also known as porridge, is a common breakfast in China; the porridge should not be served for breakfast on Chinese New Year.

This is because in the past, porridge were usually consumed by the poor. Having it for breakfast on Chinese New Year means that you will be poor and hungry the whole year.

Maybe you want to have your usual bacon and eggs. Not today.

One should not eat meat for breakfast on Chinese New Year. There are two possible explanations for this taboo. One explanation has its root in Buddhism.

Many religious families believe that not having meat for breakfast on the morning of CNY will help you accumulate good virtue, or 积德 (Jī  Dé); and doing so will bring good karma for the entire year.

Another explanation to not eat meat is a reminder for the family to not be wasteful.

So what can you eat?

汤圆(Tāng  Yuán), or sticky rice balls, and 饺子 (Jiǎo  Zi), or dumplings, are some popular choices. Vegetarian rice buns, or 菜包 (Cài Bāo) with soy milk are also okay.

When you’re done with breakfast, be careful while you put the dishes away. Breaking dishes on Chinese New Year is bad luck. Because broken, or 碎 (Suì) is a negative word and therefore breaking dishes is a bad omen for the rest of the year.

If someone does accidentally drop a bowl or a plate, immediately wrap it with red paper and say a few lucky phrases to make amends. You can say phrases such as 岁岁平安 (Suì Suì Píng Ān), which means peace and security every year, or 大发 (Dà Fā), meaning great wealth.

Dressing For Success, And Luck

Red is the go-to color for Chinese New Year - Chinese New Year Superstition
Red is the go-to color for Chinese New Year – Chinese New Year Superstition

After breakfast, it’s time to change out of your pajamas and get dressed for the day.

Oh the struggle! Before you throw in the towel and put on your usual black skinny jeans and a black sweater again, think again.

Black and white clothes should be avoided on Chinese New Year; because those colors are associated with mourning and death in Chinese culture.

Instead, opt for something more colorful. If you can’t decide on what to wear, you can never go wrong with red, an auspicious and festive, or喜庆 (Xǐ Qìng) color, and the perfect one to ring in the lunar New Year.  

To Clean or Not to Clean

While you have some free time, you might think it’s a good idea to do some cleaning. Stop! You should not sweep or take out the rubbish until the 5th day of the New Year.

The Chinese believe any waste we produce from the first till the fourth day of the New Year is 财气 (Cái Qì),or money luck; whereas those produced from 5th day on is 穷气 (Qióng Qì), which is “poor luck” that causes you to lose money.

So by not taking out the trash or doing any cleaning until the 5th day, you are actually accumulating wealth, or 聚财 (Jù Cái). Yes please!

No cleaning is allowed until the 5th day of Chinese New Year - Chinese New Year Superstition
No cleaning is allowed until the 5th day of Chinese New Year – Chinese New Year Superstition

Speaking of cleaning, you also should not wash any clothes on the first and second day of Chinese New Year.

It’s believed that the first two days of CNY are the celebrations for the birthday of Water God, 水神 (Shuǐ Shén). And doing your laundry might offend the deity.

So if you don’t want to risk catching bad luck as a result, better wait a few more days. What is there to complain?

When to Make Visits

Traditionally, the first day of the New Year is when we start to visit relatives to send them good wishes, or 拜年 (Bài Nián). For the kiddos, this is their annual chance to collect red packets from the adults. The visiting of the relatives usually start on the first day of CNY.

Visiting the homes of relatives is a tradition on Chinese New Year - Chinese New Year Superstition
Visiting the homes of relatives is a tradition on Chinese New Year – Chinese New Year Superstition

However, women are not allowed to visit the relatives until the second day. Women should especially avoid visiting their parent’s family 娘家 (Niáng Jiā) on the first, fourth, or the fifth days of the New Year. Doing so will bring bad fortune to their parent’s family.

Before you go knocking on the doors of your relatives, bear in mind that you should not make visits on the third day of Chinese New Year.

Because it’s the day of the Red Dog, or 赤狗日 (Chì Gǒu Rì). The Red Dog is the God of Blazing Wrath. Visiting on this day is believed to bring quarrel and fights.

To avoid the Red Dog and maintain harmony, the Chinese usually refrain from making visits to the relatives on the third day of the CNY.

Speaking of fights, avoid any arguments during Chinese New year, especially on the first day.

According to Chinese folk tale, the first day of CNY is when the deities makes visits to the families on Earth to delivery good wishes and lucks. If they hear arguments from a household, they will deem this family to be ill-mannered, undeserving of any good wishes, and leave with disdain.

The family would then miss out on their yearly portion of good luck from the deities. What a pity!

Not all CNY visits are created the same. While it’s perfectly okay to visit relatives in their homes, avoid visits to the hospital unless absolutely necessary; visits to the hospital during the CNY can bring illness for the year ahead.

You should also avoid taking medication if you can. Taking medicine on CNY can mean that you will be ill and be needing of medication for the entire year. Perhaps drink more hot water instead?

The Art of Gifting

Not all gifts are acceptable during Chinese New Year - Chinese New Year Superstitions
Not all gifts are acceptable during Chinese New Year – Chinese New Year Superstitions

Let’s say you decide to visit the relatives on the second day of the New Year, or 初二 (Chū èr) with the whole family. You’ve wrapped all the gifts with bright red gift wraps and stashed enough cash in the Red Envelopes for the children.

Do a last minute check to make sure you won’t inadvertently offend your relatives with an inappropriate gift.

You should avoid gifting clocks or watches, sandals, pears, umbrellas, mirrors, as well as things that are white and black.

Listen to our Podcast about gift giving culture in China

Because all of them either sound negative or have a negative omen. For example, clock, 钟 (Zhōng), sounds like the word 终 (Zhōng), which means the end.

So when you’re gifting someone a clock, it seems like you bidding them farewell from this earth, 送终 (Sòng  Zhōng). Another common gift you should avoid is pear, 梨 (Lí),which sounds like 离 (Lí),to separate. You certainly do not want to wish your relatives any kind of separation.

Avoid giving out red packets in odd numbers - Chinese New Year Superstition
Avoid giving out red packets in odd numbers – Chinese New Year Superstition

However, do educate yourself on local taboos. For example, in Mandarin, apple, 苹果 is pronounced Píng Guǒ. But in Shanghainese, it is Bīng Gu, which sounds like passed away from sickness. If you’re in Shanghai, best avoid gifting apples.

Most other fruits are general okay and some are favored for their auspicious sounding names.

For example, apple, 苹果 (Píng Guǒ), sounds like safety, sound and peace, or 平安 (Píng Ān); tangerine sounds like good luck, 吉 (Jí); orange, 橙 (Chéng), sounds like dreams come true, or 成 (Chéng) and peaches 桃 (Táo) stand for long life.

Check also the amount of money you put in the red packets. Generally speaking, all even numbers are acceptable, except those with the number 4 of course. Avoid giving out red packets in odd numbers.

Watch What You Say

Okay so you’re now at your relatives’ house. The spirit is high and everyone is sharing stories, laughing, cracking a joke or two occasionally. Be careful not to get too carried away with what you say.

While wishes are generally safe, you should avoid saying inauspicious, and negative words. Words like 破 (Pò),坏 (Huài),没 (Méi),死 (Sǐ),光 (Guāng),鬼 (Guǐ),杀 (Shā), 病 (Bìng),穷 (Qióng) etc. are taboos during Chinese New Year.

They certainly do not go with the festive occasion. Best to save that really good dark joke for next time.

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Usually during these visits, multiple generations gather under one roof. Try your best to make sure the children don’t cry. Crying on CNY can bring back luck to the family.

Even if the child caused trouble, the adults should avoid reprimanding him/her to prevent he/she from crying and attracting bad luck to the family.

While at the relatives’ place, you suddenly remember that your cousin still hasn’t paid you back for the hot pot dinner last week.

Think twice before you ask him for your money back; because lending or borrowing money on CNY is bad luck for both of you, especially your cousin. Paying back debt on CNY will bring him economics losses all year. Let him celebrate in peace, you can ask him after the celebration is over.

You Are What You Eat

It’s finally dinner time.

The most important dinner in a year to the Chinese is without a doubt the reunion dinner, 年夜饭 (Nián Yè Fàn) on the eve of Chinese New Year.

Chinese families usually prepare a lot of food during CNY, because the abundance of food on the table signifies abundance in the New Year.

You will notice that most of the meat or seafood ingredients used for to prepare for dinner on Chinese New Year were killed a day or days in advance.

This is because no killing of animals is allowed on Chinese New Year.

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The Chinese consider killing and the sight of blood on CNY to be an ill omen.

It will bring bloody misfortunes such as a knife wound, car accident etc. To avoid them, all of the animals were killed beforehand.

Besides meat and seafood, other ingredients may also likely to be prepared ahead of time. This is to avoid using knives, scissors or other sharp objects in Chinese New Year. These things will cut your luck for the next year.

You will likely see fish being served often in the first few weeks of the Chinese New Year.

Fish is served during Chinese New Year for abundance - Chinese New Year Superstitions
Fish is served during Chinese New Year for abundance – Chinese New Year Superstitions

This is because fish, 鱼( (Yú), sounds similar to “left over”; and serving fish signifies the family will 年年有余 (Nián Nián Yǒu Yú), meaning having leftovers every year, which basically also means abundance.

However, don’t eat the head and the tail of the fish from the first till the fifth day of the Chinese New Year. You gotta leave some extra to have leftovers every year!

Another taboo on the dinner table is to avoid cutting 常年菜 (Cháng Nián Cài), which is a popular vegetable to serve during Chinese New Year because of its long stem and leaves, signifying longevity.

Cutting the vegetable will cut the length of your life. For the sake of living a long life, the Chinese always cook the vegetable whole for Chinese New Year.

Getting Ready for Bed

It’s been a long day. You are ready to take a hot shower then jump into bed. Not so fast.

You should not cut or wash your hair during Chinese New Year in order to preserve your wealth - Chinese New Year Superstitions
You should not cut or wash your hair during Chinese New Year in order to preserve your wealth – Chinese New Year Superstitions

You have been accumulating luck all day, showering might just wash all that luck away! In fact, you might want to skip your daily personal hygiene routine for today.

Chinese New Year - Become Wealthy

Not only are you not allowed to shower, you are also not allowed to wash your hair on Chinese New Year.

This is because hair, 发 (Fā) has the same pronunciation and character as ‘Fā ‘ in 发财 (Fā Cái), which means ‘to become wealthy’.

Washing your hair might wash away all your wealth.

On the same note, you should not cut your hair during Chinese New Year either; you don’t want to to cut your wealth! Hair cutting is taboo and forbidden until Lunar February 2, when all festivities are over.

What a day!

Despite all the taboos, you still had a great day with delicious food and fun times with the fam. Best all of, you might even managed to collect some red packets! Not a bad start to the lunar New Year!

New Year Resolutions in Chinese

So to finish, let’s teach you some popular and common New Year resolutions which we can all use to turn over a new leaf!

The beginning of a New Year is a time when, after days of excessive food intake and alcohol consumption, we turn our attentions on our true goals and life purpose with New Year resolutions.

Putting aside the fact they don’t have a good reputation and that we make them know they’re likely to fail, every year, the New Year inspires us to become better versions of ourselves…!

So let’s start our New Year by learning something new with our Top 10 list of New Year’s Resolutions in Mandarin!

Now that your New Year’s Resolutions list is ready to go, all that’s left to do is to pick one (or more) and stick with it.

We have a good feeling about the coming year, but if anything goes wrong with the pursuit of your goals, at least you will be able to say you know how to lie in Chinese!

We hope you enjoyed learning about Chinese New Year traditions, superstitions and resolutions with us today!

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