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Every year in early February, China sees hundreds of millions of people on the move.
It is the largest wave of short-term migration in the world. Why are so many people moving at the same time? There is a common motivation behind this— to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Lunar New Year, also named the Spring Festival, is the most important festival in Chinese culture. It takes place on the first day of the lunar calendar. The use of the lunar calendar method is related to the ancient Chinese farming civilisation. In ancient times, people discovered the rule of the alternating seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter according to the growth cycle of crops, which gave rise to the concept of the year.
In the Xia 夏dynasties (BC2001-BC1558), people began to use the cycle of the moon as the month, and the year was divided into twelve months, which was called the Xia Calendar夏歷. That is why the Lunar New Year is usually a little later than the Western New Year—because they use different methods of counting the years!
People believe that the Spring Festival is a day for the reunion of Heaven, Earth, and human. Therefore, people usually hold sacrificial ceremonies, inviting deities from Heaven, ancestors from the Earth, and getting together with relatives and friends, eating, drinking, and doing recreational activities. In fact, since antiquity, people have held sacrificial activities at Spring Festival.
According to the Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period 春秋左傳, the emperor would bring his wives and ministers with him to offer sacrifices to Heaven on this day, praying for the prosperity of the country and the peace of the people in the New Year.
Unlike dry historical records, folk accounts of the origins and customs of the New Year are livelier and more interesting. It is said that long ago, there was a monster of the deep sea with horns on his head and sharp teeth.
Every Spring Festival day, he would go to the village to snatch food and hurt the people. Until one day, an old man dressed in red pasted red paper in front of the villagers' doors, lit candles in the house, and set off firecrackers in the yard, scaring away the monster.
So, these activities were passed down. One speculates that the legend of the monster may be a form of group psychology in an agrarian society. People have run out of food at the end of winter and feel uncertainty about New Year’s crop. So, it is reasonable that they would imagine a monster attacking them and pillaging their only reserves.
Another distinctive feature of the Lunar New Year is that it is often associated with twelve animals, for example, 2021 is the Year of the Ox.
There is no certain explanation about this custom, but it may be a method of animal chronology derived from animal totem worship. Folk legend has it that the gods send the animals to race, and the first twelve animals to arrive take charge of the twelve months of the year.
With the change of times, the customs of the Spring Festival are gradually evolving, and different regions celebrate the occasion with local characteristics. However, the purpose of all activities is to get family and friends together and celebrate a new beginning.
This year, due to the COVID-19, many Chinese living either in foreign countries or in other cities could not go home, but nostalgia lingers: they see their families online and have sumptuous reunion dinner with their local friends.
By Linfang Wang.
Linfang Wang is a PhD Scholar in the ANU School of Culture, History and Language (CHL). Her area of interest is medieval intellectual history and Daoist thoughts in the Northern Song dynasty (from the 10th to 13th century). Prior to Linfang Wang’s PhD studies, she completed an Honours degree of Asian Studies at the Australian National University (ANU).