Chinese New Year Symbols and Traditions

Every year between January 21st and February 20th, the Chinese celebrate the beginning of a Lunar New Year with a festivity called the Spring Festival. The celebration that marks the beginning of spring, starts on the first new moon every year and lasts for 15 days, ending with a Lantern Festival. As we approach the Chinese New Year of 2022 let’s take a look at some of the traditions, iconography, and decorations that have both festive and symbolic role. 


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Lunar New Year Symbols

Red symbolizes joy, virtue, and sincerity which is why it is often the predominant color in many Chinese celebrations including the New Year one. In the spring festival, you will see many items painted in red from fireworks to garments and decorative objects. In Chinese mythology, it is believed that the color red scares away the beast Nian, which has terrorized villages in ancient China until the locals realized that the monster is afraid of that color. 

Chinese New Year traditional envelop with Fu character
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via Unsplash

Red Envelops

Another New Year custom is gifting red envelopes with a symbolic amount of money. The envelopes are usually given to children and young adults by older people and married couples.  It is believed that the money placed in the envelopes will bring joy and good luck to children, but also fence evil spirits.

Fu Character

Perhaps the most common Chinese New Year symbol is the fu character. In the days of the Lunar New Year, the character that symbolizes happiness and blessing is placed outside of the front doors although sometimes it also appears as interior home decoration. Traditionally the sign would be written on a red diamond-shaped background, in black or gold colors but nowadays, people also embellish the decoration with zodiac animals of the year or other cartoons and signs. Since the Chinese word for “upside-down” is similar to the word “arrive”, residents will hang the fu character upside down at their doorstep to welcome good luck that will arrive. 


Chinese New Year decoration - red lion (dragon)
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Join our online talk Celebrating Chinese New Year and Culture

Zodiac Animals

The Chinese zodiac features 12 different animal signs, each with its meaning and singularities. Each sign represents one year. The year of 2022 for instance is the year of the Tiger, after which years of Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig, Rat, and Ox, will follow, in the 12-year Lunar circle. Just like the Western zodiac, it is believed that every zodiac sign has its own unique qualities which influence personalities, careers, relationships, and fortune. The children born in the year of the Tiger, for example, are believed to be brave, fearless, and natural-born leaders. During the New Year Celebration, you will often encounter drawings, paper cutouts, or figures of the animal whose year is about to begin. 

Fish

During the Chinese New Year celebration, fish decorations are all over the place. Hanging decorative fish everywhere is considered to bring prosperity and plenitude to the house. Since the Chinese word for fish is the same as the word for abundance or extra, it is believed that the fish will bring affluence to a home. During the festival, the people will greet each other with the words “may you have fish every year” meaning “may you have extra every year”.

Red lantern for Chinese New Year celebration
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via Unsplash

Fireworks and Firecrackers

Did you know that fireworks were invented in China? It’s true, the first fireworks and firecrackers were made thousand years ago from bamboo stems and gunpowder, but now they are produced from more modern materials. In the New Year Celebration, fireworks and firecrackers have a symbolic function as they are used to scare evil spirits. Though an abundance of pyrotechnics is used during the Spring festival, the most popular firecrackers are the ones connected by a single string. When one goes off, it starts a chain reaction whose results can be deafening.

Lantern

We already talked about how the Spring festival ends with a Latner festival. During this period, the country is full of lanterns of all sizes, shapes, and colors, mostly made of paper or cloth. However, in line with tradition on New Year’s Eve, most lanterns are red and round or oval, embellished with Chinese calligraphy and gold or black messages of goodwill, fortune, happiness, prosperity, etc.  

Spring Couplet

Couplets are strips usually colored in red and positioned around the home entrance. Some homes feature permanent couplets as everyday decoration, others only put temporary New Year couplets. Couplets consist of two vertical stripes with letters written in black or gold, each placed on a different side of a doorway. Sometimes there is a third horizontal stripe above the doorway that features 4 letters. These decorative items, personify wishes of peace, success, and others holiday greetings. 

Fish decoration as a traditional symbol at Chinese New Year celebration
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via Unsplash

Fruit Blossoms

Apart from paper and fabric decoration, many Chinese people will use fruit blossoms for natural decoration. The blossoms are meant to summon a good fruit harvest later in the year. Plum and peach blossoms are particularly popular, as plum symbolizes reliability and endurance, while peach is for romance and longevity.

Get Ready for a Chinese New Year Celebration

The Lunar New Year of 2022 falls on February 1st. In the wake of a Chinese New Year, we will host an online lecture dedicated to one of the most massively celebrated events on the planet. Led by an expert speaker Catherine Xiang, the online talk Celebrating Chinese New Year and Culture, will teach you how Chinese decorate their home, and other venues, the history of symbols, and their impact on different art practices and everyday life.   

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