Chinese New Year is a time for families to be together. Wherever they are, people come home to celebrate the festival with their families. The busiest travel time in China happens during this period. Travelers who plan to visit China during the New Year time are recommended to book everything in advance.
The Spring Festival has a history of more than 4,000 years. It is said that the custom of Spring Festival originated from the belief in deities. When the solar terms changed, dictating farming activities, especially at the end of a year, people would sacrifice to the deities and pray for good harvests.
Nian (年 'year') was not a word for describing time originally. It was used to describe the cycle of crop cultivation until the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC).
The beginning of a year changed during different dynasties until the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). For example, people in the Xia Dynasty celebrated New Year’s Day in the first lunar month of a year, while people in the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) celebrated New Year’s Day in the tenth lunar month.
The exact celebration period of Spring Festival was fixed in 104 BC and was given the name suishou (a.k.a. nian, the beginning of the year), when China was ruled by Emperor Wudi (156–87 BC), and the lunisolar calendar was promulgated. The calendar made the beginning of a year and the 24 solar terms coincide. So, in ancient China, the first day of the lunisolar year was called yuandan (元旦, 'first dawn').
On January 1, 1912, the Republic of China introduced the Gregorian calendar, and named January 1 yuandan. The traditional New Year’s Day was given another name — Chun Jie (春节 'Spring Festival').
The Chinese New Year Legend and Traditional Customs
According to traditional customs, people stay up late or all night with the lights on during Spring Festival’s Eve, and will set off firecrackers as soon as the first second of New Year’s Day comes. There is an interesting legend for the origin of the custom.
Almost every traditional Chinese festival has its own legend, including Spring Festival. In traditional Chinese culture the Spring Festival is also named guonian (过年 'passing a year').
The legend is related to a fierce monster called Nian (年) which ate an animal, sometimes a human being, in a cruel manner everyday. People's faces turned pale at the mention of the monster. Nian appeared in human society every 365 days after dark, and when dawn came, it went back to a wooded mountain. People found that it was very scared of the color red, light, and loud sounds.
Since then, people use red Spring Festival couplets, lights, and firecrackers to drive away the monster every Spring Festival’s Eve.
Chinese New Year FAQs
Is it possible to travel in China during Chinese New Year?
Travel to China is possible over Chinese New Year as long as you are well-prepared. Be prepared to see big crowds in the streets, restaurants, trains and train stations. Travel bookings, especially for trains, are extremely tight, and hotels generally increase their rates.
Will everything be closed over Chinese New Year?
Tourist-related enterprises open as usual, even though government buildings and offices are closed during the New Year holiday. Restaurants, tourist attractions, hotels, airports, and departments stores will be open and ready for more customers.
What is the weather like during the New Year Festival?
China's New Year Festival takes place in the late January to late February period, which is the coldest time in China. North China is a frozen expanse with the average temperature below 0°C (32°F). Take Beijing and Harbin for example. In Beijing the temperature sometimes plummets to -10°C (14°F) during the New Year. It is even colder in Harbin with the lowest temperatures below -20°C (-4°F). Snowy and icy weather is common.
South China is warmer than the north, but it isn’t warm at all in the real sense. Winter in the Yangtze region (Nanjing, Shanghai, and Wuhan) is cold, sometimes frozen, and windy. Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are comfortable in winter. Wintering in southern Yunnan province is enjoyable, but a big difference occurs in temperature between day and night.
Do I need to bring some small gifts for my guide during the New Year? If so what are the best options?
Gifts from tourists to tour guides are not expected. But your tour guides will appreciate it if you do bring a surprise for them. A pair of warm gloves, a warm scarf, or a box of candies are recommended.
In terms of lucky money, how much should I give and how should I give it?
The amount of lucky money varies according to the recipient and the relations between the giver and the recipient. Bosses gifts to employees and parents gifts to children usually range from 200 to 1000 or even more. The money is put in a red envelope. Parents usually give the lucky money to their children on the first day of Chinese New Year. Bosses give the lucky money to their employees on the first working day of the New Year.
Reference: China Highlights. (2014). Chinese Spring Festival 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/special-report/chinese-new-year/