Chinese Spring Festival: Everything You Need to Know

When is the Chinese Spring Festival?

春节 / chūnjié, also known as the Spring Festival and the Chinese New Year, is observed in accordance with the traditional Lunar calendar, so the exact dates differ from year to year. In 2021, the Spring Festival will be celebrated on February 12, but the seven-day public holiday will start one day before that – on 除夕 / chúxī / the New Year’s Eve. Believe it or not, but in the past holiday was even longer than that: it lasted for half a month and ended with 元宵节 / yuánxiāo jié / the Lantern Festival on 正月十五 / zhēngyuè shíwǔ / the 15th day of the first month.

  • 除夕[chúxī]: New Year’s Eve
  • 春节[chūnjié]: Spring Festival
  • 正月初一[zhēngyuè chū yī]: the first day of the first lunar month
  • 正月初二[zhēngyuè chū èr]
  • 正月初三[zhēngyuè chū sān]
  • 正月十五[zhēngyuè shíwǔ]
  • 元宵节[yuánxiāo jié]

Chinese Zodiac and Year of the Ox

What is the Chinese zodiac? It is a repeating cycle of 12 years based on the lunar calendar, where each year is represented by an animal. In order, they are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.

Back in the olden days, one’s birth year was believed to determine their personality and fate, and to this day, the Chinese zodiac still is an important part of the Chinese culture.

If you were born in the year of the Ox, then 2021 is your 本命年 / běnmìngnián. You only get one every 12 years, so pay attention to the dos and don’ts of 本命年! The best way to make this year special is to wear something red or carry a special jade decoration all year round. 

Do you know your Chinese zodiac sign? Find your birth year in the table below!

Chinese Pinyin English Year
shǔ  Rat 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020
niú Ox 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021
Tiger 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022
Rabbit 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023
lóng Dragon 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024
shé Snake 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025
Horse 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026
yáng Goat 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027
hóu Monkey 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028
Rooster 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029
gǒu Dog 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030
zhū Pig 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031

Chinese Spring Festival Greetings

You may want to have this cheat sheet for Chinese New Year greetings, because when it comes to expressing best wishes, Chinese have a long list of 成语 / chéngyǔ / four-character idioms and proverbs. This is definitely a good time to show off your Chinese vocabulary.

  • 万事如意[wànshì rúyì]: may all your hopes be fulfilled
  • 恭喜发财[gōngxǐ fācái]: may you have a prosperous New Year! 
  • 心想事成[xīn xiǎng shì chéng]: to have one’s wishes come true
  • 身体健康[shēntǐ jiànkāng]: as sound as a bell
  • 福如东海[fú rú dōnghǎi]: (lit. may your happiness be as immense as the East Sea) may your happiness as much as possible
  • 步步高升[bù bù gāo shēng]: to rise steadily (specifically in career)
  • 学业有成[xuéyè yǒu chéng]: to be successful in one’s studies 
  • X年大吉[X nián dàjí ]: wish you be extremely lucky in the year of (Chinese zodiac)
  • 合家欢乐[héjiā huānlè]: may your family be happy
  • 团团圆圆[tuántuán yuán yuán]: to have a reunion
  • 年年有余[nián nián yǒuyú]: (lit. have abundance year after year)

Fun fact: 余 / yú sounds just like 鱼 / yú / fish – that’s why fish is an important dish at the traditional Chinese New Year dinner.  What else is there on the menu?

Traditional Food for Chinese Spring Festival

The Spring Festival Dinner menu varies from region to region, but steamed or braised whole fish, which represents wealth and abundance, will be a staple in every household that values tradition. Other than that, Northerners will have 饺子 /  jiǎozi /dumplings, and Southerners will have rice cakes 年糕 / Niángāo and 汤圆 / tāngyuán / glue pudding. Every popular dish has its own auspicious meanings, so eat up!

To have a more vivid image of the Chinese New Year dinner, please enjoy this video!

Chinese Spring Festival Customs

Cleaning and Decorating

Big cleanup is an essential Chinese Spring Festival convention: it’s said to bring good fortune and sweep the bad luck away.

Chinese spring festival couplets

One of the most typical decorations for the Spring Festival is 春联 / chūnlián / Spring Festival couplets, i.e. paired phrases, typically of seven Chinese characters each, written on red paper and pasted on each side of the door frame. Read them from 上联 / shàng lián / right to 下联 / xià lián / left, and then look for the 横批 / héngpī / on top of the doorframe.

The Spring Festival couplets are filled with best wishes and will keep evil spirits away – but if you aren’t taking any chances, paste a / fú / happiness on your door as well! Many people paste the character upside down on purpose, because the words / dào / upside down and / dào / arrive are homonyms in Chinese.

There are lots of decorations symbolizing good luck. Take a look at the list below; if you see any of these around you, then you’ll know the Spring Festival is coming!

  • 春联 [chūnlián]: Spring Festival Couplets
  • “福”字 [“fú” zì]: Fu Characters
  • 红灯笼[hóng dēnglóng]: Chinese Red Lanterns:
  • 中国结[zhōngguójié]: Chinese Knots:
  • 剪纸, 窗花[jiǎnzhǐ, chuānghuā]: Paper Cuttings:
  • 好运竹[Hǎo yùn zhú]: Lucky Bamboo:
  • 发财树[fācái shù]: Money Tree and:
  • 金钱桔[jīnqián jú]: Kumquat Tree:

Spring Festival Shopping 

Presents, food and everything prepared for the Spring Festival is called 年货 / niánhuò. Many stores and restaurants close their doors during the Spring Festival, so stocking up in advance is an important tradition. 

Spending Time with Your Family

Nowadays, when most people work in big cities, going home for the holidays becomes a grueling task. 春运 / chūnyùn / the Spring Festival Rush is the largest annual human migration that lasts for about a month – the train and plane tickets are in high demand, and everyone tries to get them in advance. But why go to such lengths?

This has a lot to do with Confucian tradition, which values family relations before all. In China, family reunion (家人团圆 / jiārén tuányuán or 家人团聚 / jiārén tuánjù in Chinese) is the most important part of the year, and the reunion dinner even has its own name – 年夜饭 / niányèfàn.

Of course, nowadays, in the era of Corona, family reunions aren’t the most responsible thing to do, so unless you already got vaccinated and don’t intend to go to a high-risk region, tune in via video call on WeChat.

Chinese Spring Festival Greetings

Watching CCTV New Year’s Gala 

春晚 / chūnwǎn / CCTV New Year’s Gala just might be the world’s most-watched TV program that only airs once a year. To get a sense of how important it is, look up 美国春晚 / Měiguó chūnwǎn – the unofficial Chinese name for NFL Super Bowl. The New Year’s Gala is a 4.5-hour live broadcast featuring music, dancing, comedy sketches, as well traditional opera and acrobatic performances. Due to its lack of innovation, 春晚 / chūnwǎn can’t be called the youngsters’ favorite, but older generations of Chinese people watch it religiously, and derive great joy from it, too! 

Setting off Firecrackers

China has a long history of setting off firecrackers to scare away evil spirits and celebrate the coming of the new year. Back in the day, everyone and their grandma set off firecrackers, but fewer and fewer people are doing it, both for environmental and safety reasons, preferring to enjoy the big city fireworks instead.   

Giving out  Red Envelopes

Red envelopes filled with money are a huge part of the Spring Festival: they’re given to kids, newlyweds, young parents, and basically, everyone you love and cherish (sincerely or not). The money given by older relatives to younger ones is called 压岁钱 / yāsuìqián. Anyone under 18 years of age can get it, as long as they respect the ritual of 拜年 / bàinián / paying a ceremonial New Year’s visit to their older relatives.


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