In the U.S., 2019 ended two weeks ago, according to the Gregorian Calendar, but the lunar calendar says the new beginning is this weekend.
The Lunar New Year is the second new moon after the winter solstice and happens sometime between late January and early February. This year it’s Saturday.
This is the biggest holiday of the year in China and marks the start of the Spring Festival.
No, it doesn’t look like spring outside. It’s freezing, and it is in China too. The festival celebrates the seed of spring beginning to stir deep within Earth’s Northern Hemisphere.
In China, 2020 is the beginning of a new 12-year cycle starting with the Year of the Rat. Many Americans know China’s 12 zodiac animals from placemats at Asian restaurants. These signs are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Some believe the years represented by the animals reflect the temperament of people born in those years, similar to western astrology.
To learn more, Inland 360 talked to Professors Xiaobing Peter Tan and Jeff Kyong-McClain, the Chinese and American directors (respectively) of the University of Idaho Confucius Institute. The institute exists to create connections between Idaho and China, which is the world’s most populated country and second biggest economic power.
Why does China go by the lunar calendar?
China goes by both the Gregorian calendar, which follows the Earth’s course around the sun and accurately reflects the season’s changes, and the lunar calendar, which follows the moon’s course around the Earth, Tan said.
More than 3,000 years ago, only the lunar calendar existed in China, and most traditional festivals remain based on that calendar.
What is the significance of the rat in the 12-year cycle of zodiac animals?
There is a story that a race was held between all the animals to settle the dispute of which one should come first, Tan said.
The rat is the least likeable and smallest animal. It is also clever. In the race, the rat took advantages. It rode on the back of the ox. As ox approached the finish line, rat jumped off and was ranked the first animal, followed by ox. Pig was fat and moved not so fast. It was lazy and last so it is ranked 12.
People ask why there was no cat in the race. Before the race, the rat put poison medicine in the tea of the cat. The cat overslept and did not take part.
What is said to be characteristic about people born in the year of the rat?
People focus on good things. While many people don’t like rats, rats represent cleverness and intelligence, Tan said.
Some people wait to have children until the years of the dragon or tiger, which are seen as good and powerful animals, he said. Not everyone puts stock in these beliefs.
How do people celebrate the Spring Festival in China?
It’s often compared to Christmas in the U.S. in that people are expected to go to their hometowns to spend time with family and eat traditional foods, said Kyong-McClain, who spent several years in the country. People take a big chunk of time off from work for the festival, which lasts several weeks.
On New Year’s Eve, parents give their children red envelopes filled with money to wish them good luck and an auspicious new year, Tan said. Adult children who are single also receive envelopes. Decorations are red, a color of luck and prosperity.
Fireworks and firecrackers ward off evil and add an element of protection, Tan said. It’s also a tradition to gather around the television to watch the New Year’s Gala, a variety show on China Central Television.
However, traditions are changing with technology, Tan said. Instead of using paper envelopes, more and more people send money via apps and WeChat, the country’s version of Facebook. Explosives are now banned in some larger cities to protect air quality. With the internet, there is decreased interest in television.
What happens when everyone in the world’s most populous country is expected to travel elsewhere at the same time?
Travel is crazy, Kyong-McClain said.
China only urbanized in recent decades, so many grandparents and parents still live in rural areas. TV news is filled with images of train stations packed with people. The major cities become nearly silent and empty of traffic.
Toll fees on roads are eliminated between the first and sixth day of the Lunar New Year to make it easier for people to travel, Tan said. High-speed trains have helped reduce congestion, somewhat.
On the sixth day, office workers are expected to return to their jobs. The trip from Tan’s hometown to the city where he lives typically takes eight hours. One year, the return trip to the city took him 19 hours.
IF YOU GO
Chinese Film Night starting Feb. 12 in Moscow features four kung fu films by the Shaw Brothers, influential moviemakers who helped inspire the work of Quentin Tarantino.
The free, 7 p.m. showings at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre are organized by the University of Idaho Confucius Institute.
- Feb. 12 – “Come Drink with Me” (1966)
- March 11 – “One-Armed Swordsman” (1967)
- April 8 – “Blood Brothers” (1973)
- May 13 – “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (1977)