Also known as Chunjie (春节) or the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year is a major international event, celebrated by more than 1.5 billion people each year. As an inherently superstitious culture, Chinese New Year has plenty of key symbols and their meanings are generally associated with themes of good fortune, prosperity and happiness.
No matter where in the world it’s celebrated, there are always traditionalkey symbols that can be seen at this time – and as the Chinese culture is inherently superstitious, these symbols and activities are meaningful in their intention to bring good fortune, prosperity and happiness.
The colour red
The colour red is significant in Chinese culture for the belief that it symbolises good fortune and joy. Legend has it that the ancient monster ‘Nian’, who appeared on New Year’s Eve to devour entire communities and livestock, was afraid of the colour red. It is now synonymous with celebrations and festivals in China, with red decorations, red gifts and red clothing some of many ways of showcasing the lucky colour.
Traditional gifts at Chinese New Year include ‘hóngbāo’ (紅包) – red envelopes that are normally gifted to children (although other family members, friends and colleagues may also give and receive envelopes with different sums of money contained accordingly). The sum of bills never includes the number ‘4’ as the pronunciation of ‘four’ in Chinese sounds very similar to the word for death, but it’s thought that the number ‘8’ is prosperous and brings good luck.
Maintaining a clean house is a custom that overlaps with many other cultures (more commonly known as ‘spring cleaning’). In China, it’s traditional for families to clean their houses and property ahead of the Spring Festival to drive away any bad luck from the previous year. For even more luck, some people will use tools made of bamboo to sweep away the dust due to the belief that bamboo can drive away evil spirits.
Gunpowder is listed as one of the ‘Four Great Inventions’ of China, dating back to the Tang dynasty (9th century) when an inventor from Hunan used firecrackers to scare away evil beasts and spirits (including the infamous Nian). Even before this invention, the Ancient Chinese believed that sparks would bring good luck; fire could dispel bad luck; smoke would create positive energy (Yang) and loud noise could scare away evil spirits. As firecrackers produce all four effects, they have become synonymous with Chinese celebrations and as a wish for good luck.
There are many different types of lanterns in Chinese culture, with floating lanterns set adrift on the water during the Dragon Boat Festival and flying lanterns released during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Hanging lanterns, however, are symbolic of a wish for a bright future, with buildings and public places are strung with red hanging lanterns at Chinese New Year.
Dumplings and spring rolls
Both Chinese dumplings and spring rolls are delicacies enjoyed far beyond China, but they are consumed more at Chinese New Year due to their association with wealth. Dumplings have been eaten in China (particularly in the north of the country) for more than 1,800 years and they are designed to look like Chinese silver ingots. Spring rolls (so named due to traditionally being eaten during the Spring Festival) turn a golden colour when fried and are thus also associated with money and prosperity.