The Chinese New Year is like "Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Super Bowl combined"

Chinese Festival posterFor members of the Chinese community, the upcoming New Year holiday, Feb. 19, is like combining Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Super Bowl for Americans, according to Leng Hui, associate director of Miami University’s Confucius Institute.

Hui invites all faculty, staff and students to attend the Chinese New Year’s Eve celebration, 9 a.m.- 4 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 18, at the institute on the eve of the Year of the Goat.

She explains the significance of the Chinese New Year.

Q: Why is the Chinese New Year Feb. 19?

A: The Chinese New Year Celebration follows our lunar calendar. In 2015, the very first day of the new year is Feb. 19. Since it’s based on the lunar calendar, like Easter in America, the first day of the new year varies. In 2014, the first day was Jan. 31; in 2016, the first day will be Feb. 8.

Q: What is the significance of this holiday?

A: The Chinese New Year, which is also called the Spring Festival (春节, or chūnjié in pinyin), means a great deal to each Chinese person. The significance of it to the Chinese is like the combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Super Bowl to Americans. Most importantly, it means family reunion.

Most Chinese people make their way home either by train, bus, plane or bicycles, regardless how far away they are from parents. In the last 20 years the largest migration of human beings on earth comes on the days before the Chinese New Year.

The trains are so crowded that many people have to stand up the entire journey, perhaps as long as 24-36 hours. This coming home for the Chinese New Year family reunion has its own name in Chinese language, that is, chūnyùn (literally, spring travel).

Therefore, being together with parents during the Chinese Spring Festival is paying respect to parents, a sign of filial piety, a concept that few Americans are familiar with. In the Confucian philosophy, filial piety consists of several factors, including loving one's parents and being respectful, polite, considerate, loyal, helpful, dutiful and obedient. 

Leng Hui

Leng Hui

Q: Why is it a 15-day celebration?

A: Since it marks the beginning of a new year, the Chinese New Year is a festival, and people put lots of effort to celebrate it. Preparations normally start seven days before the new year, called xiǎo nián (literally, mini year). It’s the day people begin to thoroughly clean their houses, go shopping and get ready for the New Year.

Since the eve of 1983 Spring Festival, Chinese families always watch the Spring Festival Gala on TV. “The Gala has the largest audience for any entertainment show in the world.

Last year, this huge variety show drew an estimated 800 million viewers to the broadcast, making it a much bigger event than the Super Bowl.

The 15th day after the Chinese New Year’s Day, which is called the Lantern Festival, marks the end of its folk celebration. People go to parks with the lanterns of their own design to join the lantern exhibition there. Language riddles are often posted on big lanterns for people to crack as a game. In fact, people start lighting up lanterns at home since the New Year’s Eve, and they are lit up every night until after the Lantern Festival.

Q: What is the significance of the goat this year?

A: In the Chinese lunar calendar, each year has its name after an animal, and every 12 years the cycle is repeated.

The year of the goat (羊yáng), or sheep or ram, as people call it, falls in 2015 or any 12th year ahead or after. Indeed, the image of sheep gives rise to at least four important concepts in Chinese culture.

The first one is “beauty.” Beauty (美Měi), an aesthetic value, in writing is related to a big sheep. That is, a big sheep in ancient China when the character was invented over 5000 years ago, was considered beautiful.

The second one is the concept of “kindness.” Kindness (善Shàn), a moral value, in writing is related to sheep’s eyes, which are gentle and humble. In this sense, it’s similar to an English idiom “make sheep’s eyes at somebody.”

Thirdly, the concept of “good luck” is also related to sheep. In Chinese writing system, good luck (祥xiáng) is a character with a sheep in it.

The fourth concept is related to the good taste of food. If the food is delicious, in Chinese it is 鲜(xiān). Can you see the 4羊 in the four Chinese characters of 美, 善, 祥 and 鲜?

If a person was born in the year of the goat, he or she is likely to be no different from people born in other years. However, based on the Chinese zodiac legend, these people might be more tasteful, crafty, warm, elegant, charming, intuitive, sensitive and calm.

Q: Can you elaborate on the traditions surrounding the celebration?

A: The emphasis on the family reunion is reinforced by the big family dinner on New Year’s Eve, which is called团圆饭tuányuán fàn. Although it is translated into reunion dinner, its implications are far beyond the reunion per se. Tuán and yuán in Chinese characters, both suggest a full circle, implying perfectness, solidarity, the ultimate joy and satisfaction. Without the tuányuán fàn, that is, if anyone cannot make it back home for the reunion dinner, not only he or she themselves would be sentimental and often feeling terribly nostalgic, but also their family members will miss them a lot. As such, you may understand the sacrifice the Chinese students make when they decide to stay on campus for their study instead of leaving for home.

The dinner itself has the same importance as Thanksgiving dinner in America. While Chinese won't be eating turkey, everyone will be eating dumplings and many other dishes. Fish will most likely be served.

To clean houses thoroughly before the Chinese New Year is very symbolic. It’s a self-discipline, which, as a way of greeting the new year, is also an expectation that the new year will bring them good luck.

5. What will happen next week during the Institute's celebration?

We will set up cultural booths to introduce the significance of Year of the Goat, Chinese art of paper and some fun and typical Chinese games. Hands-on activities such as block printing, calligraphy, making kites, paper folding and paper cutting are provided. Guests are also treated with Chinese snacks and can learn popular Chinese New Year greetings.

interview by Carole Johnson, university news and communications