Chinese New Year History

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jan. 13, 2023

Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is the most important traditional festival. Falling on the first day of the lunar calendar, the Chinese New Year has a history of over 4000 years.

Chinese New Year Origin: 4000 Years Ago

Chinese New Year can be traced back to 4000 years ago. Since there was no written record in Ancient Times (before 2000 BC), the exact beginning year is still uncertain.

Some people believe that the Chinese New Year originated in Yushun Time (虞舜时代 yú shùn shí daì).

In Ancient Times, people believed astrology, they also thought ancestors and gods could control the fortune of people. So ancient people would go hunting and kill animals in winter, offering sacrifices to ancestors and gods at the beginning of the lunar year.

Chinese Calendar Established: 3000 Years Ago

In Ancient Times, people didn't have the concept of a "year". They usually celebrated the "New Year" at the beginning of spring.

In the Zhou Dynasty, the 11th lunar month was considered the beginning of the year (called 岁首 suì shǒu or 正月 zhēng yuè in Chinese) according to the Chinese sexagenary cycle.

Though the leading custom was still offering sacrifices to ancestors and gods, some people started to worship nature and bless harvests at the turn of the year.

From this time, the festival began to have names, such as 元日 (yuán rì), 改岁 (gǎi suì), or 献岁 (xiàn suì).

Chinese New Year Date Was Fixed: 2000 Years Ago

In ancient times, the Chinese New Year celebration date varied from mid-winter to early spring. The date was fixed on the first of the first lunar month in the Han Dynasty.

Besides offering sacrifices to ancestors and gods, some other celebrating activities appeared, such as burning bamboo and drinking Tusu wine (屠苏酒 tú sū jiǔ).

In this time, Chinese New Year has different names as 正日 (zhèng rì), 正旦 (zhèng dàn), 岁旦 (suì dàn).

Spring Festival Couplets
Spring Festival Couplets

Chinese New Year Became a Popular Festival: 1000 Years Ago

Before the Tang Dynasty, Chinese New Year is only celebrated by the upper-class such as the royal family and rich people.

With the development of the social economy, the celebrations of the Chinese New Year became popular among ordinary people. The function of the Chinese New Year is not only worshiping but also entertaining.

More and more activities appeared, such as putting up Spring Festival couplets and staying up late on New Year's Eve.

At this time, Chinese New Year has different names as 岁日 (suì rì), 新正 (xīn zhèng), 新元 (xīn yuán).

From the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) to the Qing Dynasty (1636 - 1912)

From the Song Dynasty, more celebrating activities appeared, such as setting off firecrackers, guessing lantern riddles, and visiting relatives. People got a 7-day holiday during the festival. The customs were similar to those in modern times.

Chinese New Year was an important festival in the Qing Dynasty. The royal family would hold huge celebrations and grand banquets. It was very extravagant.

At this time, Chinese New Year has different names as 元旦 (yuán dàn), and 元日 (yuán rì).

New Trends in New Year Celebration Appeared

 Modern Fireworks
Modern Fireworks

During the Beiyang government period (1912-1928), President Yuan Shikai decreed that the Chinese New Year would fall on the first day of the lunar month, and named it 春节chūn jié (Spring Festival) in Chinese.

While 元旦 (yuán dàn) would fall on January 1 of the Gregorian calendar, it is considered the official start of the new year.

Nowadays, Chinese people will have a 7-day holiday from Chinese New Year's Eve (除夕 chú xí) to the sixth day of Chinese New Year. In 2023, the Chinese New Year holiday is from January 21st to January 27th.

Besides traditional customs, some new celebrations appear. Watching the CCTV (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala on Chinese New Year's Eve, giving digital red envelopes via Wechat, and going on a short trip become new trends in the New Year celebration.

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