Origin & History of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) 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 Yinshang Age (17th century BC - 1046 BC) to present day, the festival has several names such as Yuanchen, Yuanri and Yuandan.

The holiday was closely associated with agrarian society in history. Ancient people concluded the disciplines of cycles of seasons from their planting experience, and the concept of ‘year’ came into being with the outcome of calendar in the Shang Dynasty (17th century BC - 1046 BC). 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.

However, the name of ‘Nian’ (year), in fact, emerged in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 256 BC), and worshiping performance also turned to be social practice to observe the beginning of farming work in spring. Not only worshiping ancestor and praying for good harvest, they also began to enshrine Kitchen God, Gate God, Joy God, Wealth God, and Well God.

In the Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 BC), the turn of a year cycle was called Shangri, Yuanri and Gaisui, and October was taken as the start of a new year cycle. Zhengri and Yuanri were widely used in Han Dynasty, and people had partially got rid of the blind belief in divinities and ancestors, but stressed more on the association between time and life.

The festival date had been really entrenched since the emperor Wudi of Han Dynasty fixed the first day of January in Chinese lunar calendar as the New Year’s Day, which has been using till the present days. At that time, Chinese New Year had become a nationwide event. There was a big festival fair launched by the government, and civil people also gathered for celebration. New custom activities also arose, such as burning the bamboo (setting off fireworks nowadays), hanging peach boards (pasting Spring Couplets nowadays) and staying up at night.

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 word Yuandan and Xinnian were created to mark the turn between two years.

Towards Tang and Song Dynasties, the celebration was finally given a standard name, Yuanri. In the flourishing Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD), the function of Chinese New Year had shifted from worshiping and praying for good to social entertainment. People got public holidays for gathering with family. At that time, it evolved into a festival for people’s jubilation sharing 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 festival had been named Yuandan, and celebrations were more of social interaction. People began to visit friends, relatives and gave gifts to sharing blessing. More interesting activities such dragon dance, lion dance, walking on stilts and Shehuo performance took place during the holiday.

In 1912, the government decided to abolish Chinese 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 called Yuandan (New Year's Day) and the first day on lunar calendar called Chunjie (Spring Festival or 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 its ancient origins and development throughout history.

 Further Reading:
Chinese New Year Dates
Chinese New Year Facts
Legend Story of Monster Nian

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