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History of the Spring Festival Posted by on Jan 19, 2012 in Culture, festivals, history

It’s that time of the year again, as China gears up for its most important holiday, the granddaddy of them all –  the Spring Festival (春节 – chūn jié). Also known around the world as Chinese New Year (农历新年 – nóng lì xīn nián), this holiday begins on the first day of the first month (正月 – zhēng yuè) of the lunar calendar and lasts for a solid 15 days. The celebration ends with a bang (literally), during the Lantern Festival (元宵节 – yuán xiāo jié).

A crowded train station.

While China has many festivals, this one is by far the most important and it is also the longest. Students enjoy a lengthy vacation, while all working adults will get seven days off. During the Spring Festival, nearly everyone in China heads home, representing the biggest mass migration of people on Earth every year. This is known in Chinese as Spring Festival travel season (春运 – chūn yùn). During this time, airports, train stations, and bus stations are absolute insanity all across the country. Tickets can be impossible to come by, and the frustration of not being able to return home for the holidays leads some to take drastic measures, like this guy who decided to go streaking through the station in protest.

Video from EuroNews about the start of the 2012 travel rush in China.

There are many traditions and customs associated with this holiday, many of which are known throughout the world – the lighting of fireworks, the zodiac symbols, and the famous lion dances. Before we get to all of the celebrations associated with the Chinese New Year, let’s examine some of the history of this great festival.

In Chinese language, the character 年 (nián) means year. There’s also a tale from Chinese mythology of a beast called Nian (年兽 – nián shòu), who lived under the mountains or the sea. Once a year, the beast would come out of hiding to attack and even eat people. Worst of all, it was especially fond of children.  As the story goes, it attacked a village one year, ravaging its crops and feasting on its people. From then on, the villagers would flee the village every year in order to avoid the devastation. However, one year an old man came to the village and asked a local grandma if he could stay in her home. She obliged, although she and the others thought the man would surely die. Once again, all of the villagers ran away, while the old man stayed behind.

A short animation about the old man coming to the village (in Chinese with Chinese characters for subtitles).

Image by Bridget Coila from flickr.com.

That night, Nian showed up just like always. This year, however, things were different, as it noticed red (红色 -hóng sè) paper on the gate. Then it heard the loud noise of firecrackers (烟花 – yān huā), which terrified the monster. In the middle of the home stood the old man, dressed in red from head to toe. The abundance of red and the loud sounds of the firecrackers were too much for Nian to bear, and he fled in fear. The next day, the villagers returned, surprised to see the old man had survived. From that year on, they decided to wear red robes and light firecrackers in order to scare away the beast. Luckily, their plan worked, and the evil Nian was scared away for good. It never bothered that village again, and while it is still believed to exist, it is said that the Nian is scattered amongst the mountains and will never appear in front of humans again. From this story come many of the Spring Festival traditions, such as decorating homes with all things red, lighting firecrackers, and performing a lion dance.

A cartoon about the story of Nian (in Chinese with English subtitles).

Live performance of the Nian story from the CCTV New Year’s Eve TV program (in Chinese with Chinese characters for subtitles).

Later this month, we’ll take a look at some of the many customs and traditions associated with the Spring Festival. In the meantime, stock up on red and fireworks to keep Nian away for another year.

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.

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