Chinese New Year History

Chinese New Year has a far-reaching history of over 3,800 years. The origin of the festival can be traced back to the worshiping activities in China’s ancient agrarian society. The date for the ceremony wasn’t fixed till the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), when Emperor Wudi commanded to use the lunar calendar. From its ancient origins in Shang Dynasty (17th century BC - 1046 BC) to present day, the festival has several names such as Yuanchen, Yuanri and Yuandan.
 

Timeline of Chinese New Year

Dynasty New Year Date Name Variation
Xia (21st – 17th century BC) 1st day of 1st lunar month Shangri,
Gaisui,
Yuanri,
Xiansui
Shang (17th century BC – 1046 BC) 1st day of 12th lunar month
Zhou (1046 – 256 BC) 1st day of 11th lunar month
Qin (221 – 207 BC) 1st day of 10th lunar month
Han (202 BC – 220 AD) 1st day of 1st lunar month Suidan, Sanzhao, Zhengri, Zhengdan
Wei & Jin to Ming (220 – 1644 AD) 1st day of 1st lunar month Yuanshou, Yuanri, Yuanchen, Xinzheng, Suiri
Qing (1644 – 1911 AD) 1st day of 1st lunar month Yuanri, Yuandan
1914 to now 1st day of 1st lunar month Chunjie
 

Origin Early in Shang Dynasty (17th century BC – 1046 BC)

The history of Chinese New Year was closely associated with agrarian society in old times. Ancient people concluded the disciplines of cycles of seasons from their planting experience, and the yearly celebration came into being with the outcome of calendar in the Shang Dynasty. The earliest worshiping activities became the embryo of the festival. People attributed their food, clothes and harvest to the god and ancestor’s will, so they held sacrifice ceremonies to pray for blessing and peace at the end of each year.
 

Emergence of the Name of ‘Year’ in Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC)

Chinese New Year HistoryThe name of 'Year', 'Nian' in Chinese, emerged in the Zhou Dynasty, and worshiping performance turned to be social practice to observe the beginning of farming work in spring. Not only worshiping ancestor and praying for good harvest, people also began to enshrine Kitchen God, Gate God, Joy God, Wealth God, and Well God.
 

Date Fixed since Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD)

In the Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 BC), the turn of a year cycle was called Shangri, Yuanri and Gaisui, and the 10th lunar month was taken as the start of a new year cycle. In Han Dynasty, the festival was called Suidan or Zhengri. People had partially got rid of the belief in divinities and ancestors, but stressed more on the festival's association with life.

The festival date had been finally entrenched since the Emperor Wudi of Han Dynasty fixed it on the first day of the first month in Chinese lunar calendar, which was of great significance in Chinese New Year history, for the date has been using for thousands of years till now. At that time, the festival had become a nationwide event. There was a big carnival launched by the government, and civil servants gathered for celebration. New activities also arose, such as staying up at night, burning bamboo, which is just like setting off fireworks nowadays, as well as hanging peach boards, which later became the Spring Festival couplets.
 

Entertaining Activities Enhanced from Wei & Jin to Qing Dynasty (220 - 1911 AD)

In Wei and Jin Dynasties (220 – 439AD), the celebration was still a grand fair for the government, and common people would use the cracking sound of burning bamboo to subdue the evil spirits. Staying up tradition was also widely kept, and people would dress in tidy to kneel down to senior family members. The words Yuandan and Xinnian were created to mark the turn between two years.
 

Dragon DanceTowards Tang and Song Dynasties, the celebration was given a name Yuanri. In the flourishing Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD), the function of Chinese New Year had shifted from worshiping and praying to social entertainment. People got public holidays for staying with family members. At that time, it evolved into a festival for common people to share jubilation indeed. With the invention of black powder in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 AD), firecrackers also came into the celebration.

From Song Dynasty to Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 AD), the Lunar New Year had been named Yuandan, and the celebrations were more of social interaction. People began to visit friends, relatives and gave gifts to sharing blessing. More interesting activities such as dragon dance, lion dance, walking on stilts and Shehuo performance were getting popular in this period.
 

1912 to Now: Both Gregorian New Year & Lunar New Year are celebrated.

In 1912, the government decided to abolish the Lunar New Year and the lunar calendar, but adopted the Gregorian calendar instead. People were unwilling to change the tradition, so the policy did not carry out successfully. A compromise was made that both calendar systems were kept, and the Gregorian calendar used in government, factory, school and other organizations while lunar calendar used for traditional festivals. The first day on Gregorian calendar, the New Year's Day, was called Yuandan, while the first day on the lunar calendar was called Chunjie (Spring Festival), which is the present widely celebrated Chinese New Year.

After 1949, the Spring Festival was listed as a nationwide public holiday, and people got days off work and school. Today, it is the most important traditional festival in China, and many old customs are inherited from the long Chinese New Year history.

- Last modified on Jan. 17, 2019 -
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