Chinese New Year Symbols: The Vibrant Tapestry of Tradition and Culture
Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is the most important festival in Chinese culture and a feast for the eyes, rich with vibrant colors, dramatic performances, and intricate designs. It is an occasion steeped in symbolism, with every ritual, decoration, and tradition carrying deep significance.
Let's delve into Chinese New Year symbols and their significance.
Chinese Zodiac: The animalistic calendar
The Chinese Zodiac is an integral part of Chinese culture. This cyclical calendar system comprises twelve Chinese zodiac animals, each representing a lunar year within a twelve-year cycle. It's different from the Western Zodiac system, which is based on the twelve months of the solar calendar and associated with celestial constellations.
In the Chinese Zodiac, each animal sign is tied to a particular year and comes with its own set of characteristics and attributes that are believed to be embodied by individuals born in that year. The cycle starts with the Rat, followed by the Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
If you are curious how the sequence of zodiac animals came about, check out this video below.Megan Campisi and Pen-Pen Chen explain the Chinese Zodiac myth
Delving deeper into the Chinese zodiac signs
In a fascinating blend of culture and astrology, each Chinese zodiac sign is associated with certain personality traits and fortune prospects.
For instance, the Rat, the first animal in the cycle, symbolizes resourcefulness and versatility. So people born in the Year of the Rat are considered quick-witted, intelligent, and able to adapt quickly to new environments. The Ox, in contrast, signifies diligence and determination. So those people born in the Year of the Ox are believed to be strong, reliable, and trustworthy, embodying the hardworking nature of the animal.
Each animal in the Chinese Zodiac has similar symbolic interpretations, providing insights into one's many different personality traits, career, health, and relationship compatibility. Unlike Western zodiac signs, which are monthly, Chinese zodiac signs are yearly, and each sign's influence spans an entire year.
Moreover, Chinese Zodiac animals aren't merely year symbols; they're deeply entrenched in Chinese culture and are prevalent in Chinese New Year celebrations. People often wear, display, and gift objects representing their zodiac sign or the sign of the incoming year as part of the festivities.
The color red: symbol of luck and prosperity
In Chinese culture, red signifies joy, good fortune, and protection against evil spirits. Red lanterns and red envelopes are significant Chinese New Year symbols associated with these meanings. Red lanterns are hung in homes and streets, illuminating the atmosphere with a festive glow. They are believed to ward off bad luck and guide good fortune into households.
Money in red envelopes is a common Chinese new year gift
Family and friends exchange red envelopes filled with money during the Chinese New Year party. Giving red envelopes gives the recipient blessings and good fortune for the coming year.
Lion and dragon dances: A display of vigor and vitality
Lion and Dragon dances are a spectacle to behold during the Chinese New Year celebrations. Both dances involve elaborate costumes and coordinated movements, offering an energetic and lively display that captures the essence of the festive spirit.
The Lion Dance often involves two performers who manipulate a lion costume, one guiding the head and the other the body. They perform nimble and acrobatic movements, mirroring the actions of a lion. The dance starts with the 'lion' sleeping, and as the drum beats quicken, the lion awakens, shaking its head and body. It then embarks on a hunt for lettuce hung high up—a symbol of wealth and good fortune—which it 'eats' and then 'spits' out, spreading good luck to the spectators.
Chinese lion dance
On the other hand, the Dragon Dance involves a larger group of performers who manipulate a long, serpentine dragon costume using poles. The dragon is considered a symbol of power, dignity, and wisdom. The dragon's movements are synchronized with the beat of drums, creating an impressive spectacle. The dance reaches its climax as the dragon 'chases' a 'pearl,' symbolizing its pursuit of wisdom.
Chinese dragon dance
Both dances are not merely festive entertainments; they are rituals with deep cultural significance, believed to drive away evil spirits and bring good fortune and prosperity to the community.
Firecrackers and fireworks: dispelling the old, welcoming the new
Firecrackers and fireworks are inseparable from Chinese New Year celebrations. Their significance traces back to ancient China, where it was believed that the loud bangs and bright flashes could drive away evil spirits and bring good luck.
Chinese New Year firecrackers
Firecrackers, known as 'Baozhu' in Chinese, are usually set off in strings of small explosives wrapped in red paper. The color red is a symbol of good fortune and joy in Chinese culture. These firecrackers are often ignited at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, marking the transition to a new year and scaring away any lurking evil spirits.
Fireworks, on the other hand, are a more elaborate and visually stunning affair. Pyrotechnic displays light up the night sky with dazzling arrays of color, adding to the festive atmosphere. The spectacular shows attract viewers and reinforce the symbolism of driving away negativity and ushering in positivity.
The flavor of New Year: traditional Chinese food
Food is not just about sustenance; it's also about symbolism and tradition. During the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, many families across China come together to share meals and create memories. Preparing for Chinese New Year celebrations are crucial rituals that hold symbolic meanings.
Chinese dumplings | Red House Spice
Dumplings are one of the most popular dishes during the Chinese New Year. They are shaped like ancient Chinese gold ingots, sycee, or yuanbao, so the dumplings symbolize wealth and prosperity. Making dumplings is a family activity where everyone gathers around to stuff and shape these delicious treats.
Chinese new year fish
Fish is another essential dish during the Chinese New Year celebration, symbolizing surplus and abundance. The Chinese word for fish, 'Yu,' sounds similar to the word for 'surplus.' It's customary to leave leftovers for the next day to represent overflowing good fortune.
Chinese spring rolls
Spring rolls, usually filled with vegetables or meat, are also traditional Chinese New Year food. They are golden in color and resemble gold bars, symbolizing wealth.
Sticky rice cake
Baked glutinous rice cake | The Storied Recipe
Nian Gao, or sticky rice cake, is another significant dish during the Chinese New Year. The name sounds like "year higher," symbolizing progress, growth, and the promise of a better year.
Sweet rice balls
Glutinous rice balls | Serious Eats
Sweet rice balls, or Tang Yuan, are eaten during the Lantern Festival, marking the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. They are usually filled with sweet peanuts, sesame, or red bean fillings. These round sweet treats symbolize family reunion and completeness.
Fu character: a symbol of blessings
Fu Chinese character
The Fu character, meaning 'blessings' or 'good fortune,' is a Chinese word symbolizing luck and prosperity. It is a common Chinese character to see during Chinese New Year, where it is displayed on a red, diamond-shaped paper and often hung upside down.
The tradition of hanging the Fu character upside down originates from a linguistic twist in the Chinese language. The words for 'upside down' and 'arrive' sound the same ('dao'), leading to the association of the upside-down Fu character with the arrival of good fortune.
This clever play on words adds a touch of humor and wit to the celebrations and serves as a wish for good fortune and happiness to 'arrive' at one's doorstep in the new year.
Floral decorations: bringing the Spring indoors
Chinese people love to decorate their homes during the Spring Festival with various plants and flowers, symbolizing rebirth and new growth, typical feelings associated with the spring season. Floral decorations are integral to the Chinese New Year celebration and hold different symbolic meanings.
Plum and peach blossoms
The plum blossoms are among the most important floral decorations during the Chinese New Year. They symbolize courage and hope because the plum blossom tree is the first to bloom while the weather is still cold. The sight of plum blossoms during winter is seen as a sign of the imminent arrival of spring.
Peach blossoms are also used as decorations during the Spring Festival. They symbolize romance, prosperity, and longevity. Some Chinese people believe placing peach blossoms in your home will attract love.
Lucky bamboo plant
Bamboo plants, with their ability to endure harsh winter conditions, symbolize resilience and longevity in Asian culture.
The vibrant colors of kumquat trees, laden with fruit during the new year, are also common in many homes during the Chinese New Year. The name 'kumquat' in Chinese is a homophone for 'gold,' therefore, these trees symbolize wealth and prosperity.
Bamboo are also overall great gifts to give and receive in for the new year because of their symbolic meaning.
Other notable flowers
Chrysanthemums and orchids are popular too. Chrysanthemums symbolize longevity and eternity, while orchids are the emblem of fertility and abundance.
And let's not forget the Pussy Willow. With its fluffy white blossoms, it signifies the coming of spring.
In short, the vibrant floral decorations during the Chinese New Year are pleasing to the eye and filled with profound meanings, enriching the Chinese New Year celebration with a sense of hope, prosperity, and renewal.
Family traditions and taboos: The do's and don'ts
Chinese New Year is also about observing certain family traditions and avoiding taboos to ensure good fortune—including paying off debts before New Year's Eve, not using knives or scissors on New Year's Day to avoid "cutting off" good luck, and avoiding negative words.
A personal anecdote from my childhood brings these traditions to life. I remember vividly how my grandmother, with her deep-rooted belief in these traditions, would meticulously clean the house on the eve of the new year to "sweep away" any lingering bad luck. She believed it would create space for incoming good fortune. On the first three days of the Chinese New Year, she avoided sweeping the floor to prevent sweeping the good luck away.
Another tradition involves settling debts before the New Year arrives, symbolizing a fresh start without any burdens. It is considered bad luck to start the new year with unpaid debts.
Additionally, sharp objects like knives and scissors are not used on New Year's Day, as they are believed to 'cut off' good luck. Even the words spoken are chosen carefully to avoid any negative connotations, as it is believed that the words uttered at the beginning of the lunar new year celebrations will set the tone for the rest of the year.
These traditions and taboos emphasize the Chinese people's pursuit of good fortune and their desire to ward off any potential bad luck. They not only add a unique charm to the Chinese New Year celebrations but also offer an insight into the deeply held beliefs and values of Chinese society.
Other Chinese New Year Symbols for good luck
During Chinese New Year, various charms and decorations are used to attract good fortune. These range from paper cutouts to couplets and paintings, all featuring wealth, happiness, and longevity themes.
Paper cutouts: Artistry and auspiciousness
Chinese New Year paper cutouts
Paper cutouts, usually in red, are a popular form of decoration. They often depict images of prosperity, longevity, and good fortune, such as fish, peonies, and children. You can make your own as a Chinese New Year activity or you can buy them precut.
Couplets: Good wishes in poetry
Hanging Chinese couplets
Couplets, written on vertical strips of red paper, are usually hung on both sides of the door. They contain poetic verses wishing for happiness, wealth, and good fortune in the coming year.
Paintings: Depicting prosperity and longevity
Chinese deer painting | InkDance
Traditional Chinese paintings are also displayed, often showcasing scenes of joyful gatherings, bountiful harvests, or longevity symbols like cranes and deer. They serve as a beautiful wish for a prosperous and long life.
Frequently asked questions
What animal am I in the Chinese Zodiac?
The Chinese zodiac animal is determined by the lunar year you were born. The cycle of animal signs repeats every twelve years, starting with the Rat and followed by Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Using a Chinese Zodiac Year chart, you can easily find your Chinese zodiac animal.
If you are curious about which Chinese Zodiac animal you are, check out this handy infographic below. Note that if you are born before the Chinese New Year of that year, you will be the zodiac animal in the previous year.
Chinese Zodiac | Business Insider
Why are even numbers preferred in money gifts for the Chinese New Year?
Even numbers are generally considered to be lucky because it's believed they bring balance. Odd numbers are often associated with funerals, so even numbers are preferred for celebrations and gift-giving.
Why is a reunion dinner held on Chinese New Year's Eve?
The reunion dinner, held on New Year's Eve, is a significant event that symbolizes family unity. It is believed that starting the New Year with family ensures blessings and prosperity for the entire clan in the coming year.
Why is it common to wear new clothes during Chinese New Year?
Wearing new clothes during Chinese New Year symbolizes a fresh start and new beginnings. It represents the shedding of the old and welcoming the new, allowing individuals to enter the new year revitalized and renewed.
Why are fruits given as gifts or decorations during Chinese New Year?
Circular fruits like oranges and pomelos are often used as gifts or decorations during Chinese New Year due to their round shape, which symbolizes wholeness, completeness, and unity. Their golden color also represents wealth and good luck.
Conclusion: The heart of Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year, a significant event in Chinese culture, is not just a time for family reunions and grand feasts. It is a symbolic festivity, rich in tradition and cultural nuances, that offers fascinating insights into Chinese values and beliefs. All these Chinese new year symbols, from the zodiac signs to the vibrant red lanterns and from the booming fireworks to the tasty feast, carries a unique story of heritage, luck, prosperity, and longevity. As we delve into these symbols, we discover the joyous celebration of the lunar new year and the profound wisdom embedded in ancient Chinese traditions.
So, whether you are celebrating the Chinese New Year in China or elsewhere in the world, remember, it's not just about the colorful spectacle but also about the good fortune and values each symbol represents. After all, understanding these symbols is key to truly embracing and appreciating this Chinese festive holiday.
Be sure to check out our 50+ Essential Chinese New Year Vocabulary to know during this time of year!
Jing You is a Chinese native who grew up in the Fujian province and soaked in the Chinese culture while living with her grandparents. She later moved to Singapore to pursue further education. However, she has always been passionate about the Mandarin language despite being in an environment that speaks English predominantly. She was involved in multiple Mandarin and Chinese culture programmes in schools, and brought this passion forward by tutoring elementary school students Mandarin in her adulthood.