This Date in UCSF History: Lunar New Year Facts and Lore

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Originally published on February 22, 1996.

Chinese New Year is a misnomer. The arrival of the same new year is celebrated in Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia. Unlike its Western counterpart, the lunar year is based on the cycles of the moon. 

As a result, Chinese New Year may fall anywhere in January or February of the Western calendar. Every few years an extra month is added to correct for the discrepancy with the solar calendar. For example, there were two Augusts in 1995. The lunar calendar repeats according to a 12-year cycle. 

Each year is symbolized by an animal. According to one legend, all the animals of the world were invited to visit Buddha but only 12 showed up. To reward them for their loyalty, Buddha named a year after each of them in the order that they appeared before him. 

Another version of the story says that to determine the order of the years, the gods held a race across a river. All 12 animals gathered at the bank and jumped in. 

The sneaky rat jumped on the back of the mighty ox, who quickly paddled his way across. Just as the ox was about to clamber ashore, the rat hopped off his back and won the race. 

The order thus became rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The Chinese “zodiac,” like its Western counterpart, predicts a person’s personality based upon his or her birth date. 

Whereas many Western cultures associate personality with the location of stars and planets on one’s birth date, the Chinese horoscope predicts personality based upon the year itself. 

In China, this is not just a fortune-telling game for self-amusement; it is a religious art that has been historically practiced in temples. The lunar year is divided into 24 periods, each closely related to the changes of nature. 

These divisions provide information to the farmers on the proper times for planting and harvesting. In China, certain dates of the year are auspicious for sowing crops. August 15 on the lunar calendar, the midpoint in the fall season, is the date when harvests are due. 

To celebrate a successful harvest and a prosperous year ahead, peasants designate the day as the Moon Festival. 

According to traditions thousands of years old, the Moon Festival is the time for family reunions. Loved ones sit together under the perfect full moon enjoying moon cakes. The Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is the first day of the lunar year. 

According to one legend, the word Nian, which in modern Chinese means “year,” was originally the name of a monster that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of the new year. His big mouth, capable of swallowing many people with one bite, terrified everyone. 

One day, a mysterious old man came and offered to subdue Nian. He said to Nian, “Why can’t you swallow the other beasts instead of people, who are not your worthy opponents?” From then on, Nian changed his ways and instead fed on other beasts that harassed people.

Soon after, the old man disappeared riding Nian. The townspeople realized that he must have been an immortal god. With Nian gone and the other beasts of prey scared into the forests, people finally began to enjoy peace. 

Before the old man left, he told everyone to put up paper decorations on windows and doors at each year’s end to scare away Nian in case he sneaked back. The decorations had to be red, he said, because red was the color the beast feared the most. 

The tradition of observing the conquest of Nian has been passed on through the years, though most people today have no idea how it was started. 

The term “Guo Nian,” which may mean “surviving the Nian” became “celebrating the new year.” Every year, people put up lanterns and red papers. They throw lighting firecrackers at lion dancers in the streets who represent Nian, symbolically scaring him away. 

The bright red and gold ornaments and music add to the festive atmosphere of Chinese New Year. The New Year celebration extends from the middle of the last month of the previous year to the middle of the first month of the new. 

Days before the New Year, every family gives the house a thorough cleaning, hoping to sweep away any ill-fortune that may have plagued the family and to make way for the good. People decorate doors and windows with paper cutouts and couplets on the themes of happiness, wealth, and longevity. 

The eve of the New Year is carefully observed. Supper is a feast, with all family members coming together. Jiaozi, which are dumplings boiled in water, is a popular dish. 

In Chinese, the word jiaozi sounds very similar to the word which means “to sleep together and have many sons,” a common wish in a culture that values male progeny. Every light is supposed to be kept on throughout the night. 

At midnight, the sky is sprinkled with colorful fireworks and filled with the crisp sounds of firecrackers. Very early the next morning, children greet their parents and other close relatives and receive presents of cash wrapped in red paper. 

The family then goes door to door delivering good wishes to relatives and neighbors. During the several days following the New Year, people continue to visit each other and exchange gifts.

Different regions of the country and different ethnic groups have diverse traditions and practices, but the friendly and warm atmosphere pervades throughout the land. 

On the fifteenth day, the New Year celebration comes to an end with the Festival of the Lanterns. 

On that day, lantern shows and folk dances are performed everywhere. Tuang Yuang, another kind of dumpling made of sweet rice flour stuffed with sweet fillings, is the traditional food.

Personality Traits According to the Chinese Zodiac

RAT 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936 You are imaginative, charming and very generous to those you love, though you do have the tendency to be quick-tempered and overly critical. You will be happy as a writer, critic or publicist.

OX 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, 1925 You are a born leader, and you inspire confidence in those around you. Be careful about being too demanding. You are methodical and good with your hands. You will make a good surgeon, general or hairdresser.

DRAGON 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952,1940 You are full of life and enthusiasm and a very popular individual with a reputation for being “fun loving.” You will make a good artist, priest, or politician.

SNAKE 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941 You are wise and charming. You are also romantic and a deep thinker, but you tend to procrastinate and be a bit stingy about money. You will make a good teacher, writer or psychiatrist.

MONKEY 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932 You are very intelligent, clever and well-liked by everyone. You will have success in any field you try.

ROOSTER 1993, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933 You are a hard worker and definite in your decisions. You are not afraid to speak your mind and are, therefore, sometimes boastful. You will make a good restaurant owner, publicist or world traveler.

TIGER 1986,1974,1962,1950,1938,1926 You are sensitive, emotional and capable of great love, but you tend to be stubborn about what you think is right. You will make an excellent boss, explorer or race car driver.

HORSE 1990,1978,1966,1954,1942,1930 You are an amazingly hard working and very independent, although you are intelligent and friendly, you can sometimes be a bit selfish. You will find success as an adventurer, scientist or poet.

DOG 1994,1982,1970,1958,1946,1934 You are honest and faithful to those you love, but you tend to worry too much and find fault with others. You will make an excellent business person, teacher or secret agent. 

RABBIT 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927 You are affectionate, cooperative and always pleasant, and people like to be around you. You can, however, get too sentimental and seem superficial. You will make a successful business person, lawyer, diplomat or actor.

SHEEP 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931 You are charming, elegant and artistic, and you like material comforts, but you also have a tendency to complain about things and worry a bit too much. You will make a good actor, gardener or beachcomber.

PIG 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935 You are a good friend because you are sincere, tolerant and honest, but by expecting the same from others, you may be terribly disappointed. You will thrive in the arts as an entertainer, or you may make a great lawyer.