Chinese New Year Explained! Traditions, Greetings, Etc.

2015 February 9
by Wenjuan Zhao

Hello, everyone! Welcome back from a wonderful Christmas and New Year holiday. In America and many other countries, the most important holiday season once a year has come to an end and it is time to work to make 2015’s resolutions come true. But across the Pacific Ocean, people in China haven’t officially crossed over into the new year. January 1st in China is called 元旦/yuán dàn/ and is celebrated by taking a 3-day national holiday; but the beginning of the Chinese New Year is the Spring Festival 春节/chūn jié/. The Spring Festival, which is the longest holiday celebrated in China, starts from Chinese New Year’s Eve and goes to the Lantern Festival (元宵节) on the 15th day of the first month in the Chinese calendar. Preparations for New Year festivities begin well in advance of the actual date of the holiday.

In one of my earlier articles, I mentioned that the Spring Festival is the Chinese version of Christmas: the family coming together, gift-giving, display of decorations, and reunion meals. Today I am going to teach you two things that you can use to impress your Chinese friends or families members if you join them to celebrate the Spring Festival.

First is how to wish Chinese people a Happy New Year in their language and in the most authentic Chinese style possible. I will teach the body gesture first. The younger generation bow when addressing the elder generation, and wish them a peaceful and prosperous year. Between friends or colleagues, you can use the hand gestures shown in the image below. For women, the right hand wraps around the left hand which is loosely bent. For men, the left hand wraps around the right hand which forms a fist underneath.

hand

Next, how to say happy new year in Mandarin.. The greetings are loud and enthusiastic sayings, often referred to as 吉祥話 (jí xiáng huà ) in Mandarin, meaning best-wishes words or phrases. The popular themes for greetings are “good fortune” , “happiness”, “wealth”, or “longevity.”

You can say these words directly to the receiver or you can add before your wishes the phrases 祝您/zhù nín/(Wish you…, addressing older or more respected people)…or 祝你/zhù nǐ/(Wish you…, addressing friends or younger people, informal).

Here are some of the most common 吉祥话 in Mandarin:


You can give wishes specifically to your friend’s job or business:


You can also give wishes to their family and health:


2015 is the Year of the Sheep according to the Chinese zodiac. Thus we have tailored greetings for the Sheep year羊年/yáng nián/. These greetings make the best use of homophonous words and showcase the Chinese love of word play. The words we use share the same pronunciation of羊yáng include洋,阳, and 扬, all have positive meanings.

洋: Noun and adjective. Ocean. Sea. Vast. Modern. Western. Abundant.

阳: Noun and adjective. Sun. Warm and bright.

扬:Verb. Spread. Praised.


I also want to wish you 羊年行大运!/yáng nián xíng dà yùn/! May the year of Sheep bring you great fortune!

The second thing I am going to teach you is how to appreciate and read 春联/chūn lián/, a special, widely seen type of couplets. A couplet/对联duì lián/ is a pair of lines of poetry which adhere to certain rules. 春联, the Spring Couplet, are poetic couplets of calligraphy written with fragrant Indian ink on vertical strips or diamond-shaped red paper, and use a New Year’s decoration that expresses happy and hopeful thoughts for the coming year.

春联 should be read from right to left. 上联/shàng lián/ (the upper line) is posted on the right side of the front door. 下联/xià lián/ ( the lower line) is posted on the left side of the front door. In addition, a third horizontal piece may be posted across and on top the door, called 横批/héng pī/. Here is an example.

couplets

(上联)八骏嘶风传捷报,/bā jùn sī fēng chuán jié bào/

Eight majestic horses gallop in to bring the news of success.

(下联)五羊跳跃崭新图。/wǔ yáng tiào yuè zhǎn xīn tú/

Five sheep leap to unfold a brand new blueprint.

(横批)羊年吉祥 /yáng nián jí xiáng/

All the happiness and prosperity in the year of the Sheep!

It is also common to hang calligraphic writing of the Chinese characters for “春spring,” “财wealth,” and “福blessing” like what you see in the middle of the image above. There are two couplets of “福”, with the upper one shown upside down. Seeing this, you would say 福倒了/fú dào le/! 倒 (meaning “inverted”) is the homonym for 到(meaning “arrive”), thus signifying that Spring, wealth, or blessing has arrived.

对联/春联is an art related to both the Chinese language and Chinese characters and is one of the gems of the vast Chinese culture heritage. There are rules that must be adhered to when writing couplets:

  1. Both lines must have the same number of Chinese characters;
  2. The lexical category of each character must be the same as its corresponding character;
  3. The tone pattern of one line must be the inverse of the other. If one character is of the level (平)tone, its corresponding character in the other line must be of an oblique (仄) tone, and vice versa.
  4. The meaning of the two lines should to be related, with each pair of corresponding characters having related meanings too but not repeating the each other.
  5. They are also normally rhymed.

I hope you learned something more about the fascinating Chinese New Year customs today and I hope you will have the opportunity to show off to your Chinese friends soon. In the next article, I will introduce you to more of the Spring Festival customs. There will be a folklore stories, festive events, and, of course, food. 祝大家学习进步/zhù dà jiā xué xí jìn bù/!(Wish you all make progress in your studies!)

 

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