Understanding Chinese New Year: 2 – Origins and History

Understanding Chinese New Year 2: Origins and History

As we delve deeper into our exploration of the Chinese New Year, it’s crucial to understand its historical roots and the rich tapestry of traditions that have shaped this beloved festival. The Chinese New Year, with its blend of mythology, cultural practices, and astrological significance, offers a fascinating glimpse into China’s ancient civilization.

Ancient Beginnings

The origins of the Chinese New Year can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 B.C.), evolving from the rituals conducted at the end of the old year and the start of the new one. These rites were deeply intertwined with agrarian society’s need to bid farewell to the past and pray for a bountiful harvest.

Mythological Stories: The Legend of Nián

Nian - Chinese New Year mythological beast
Nián Chinese New Year mythological beast

Central to the Chinese New Year’s mythology is the legend of Nián (, literally meaning “year”), a ferocious beast believed to prey on villagers on New Year’s Eve. To protect themselves, the villagers discovered that loud noises, bright lights, and red repelled Nián. This legend is the foundation of many New Year customs, such as setting off firecrackers and decorating homes in red.

Imperial Influence and Evolution

Throughout China’s dynastic era, the celebration of the New Year evolved and expanded. The Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), for example, saw the festival become a more elaborate affair with the incorporation of practices like honoring household and heavenly deities and ancestors.

A Festival for the People

Over time, Chinese New Year, often abbreviated as CNY, transformed from a predominantly agrarian festival to a more inclusive celebration. It became a time for families to reunite, feasts to be shared, and debts to be settled. This shift reflected the changing dynamics of Chinese society and the importance of family values. 

Cultural Significance

The festival’s significance transcends mere celebration; it’s a time for renewal, reflection, and new beginnings. Themes of good fortune, happiness, wealth, and longevity are pervasive, seen in every ritual and symbol associated with the New Year. 

Continuing Traditions

As we conclude this post, we are reminded of the Chinese New Year’s power to connect us to the past while we look forward to the future.

In our next post, we will delve into the enchanting world of the Chinese Zodiac and the stories behind the 12 animals that play a pivotal role in the celebrations, laying the groundwork for a deeper understanding of this extraordinary festival.

Sincerely (保拳礼, Bǎo Quán Lǐ),

Shifu Roberto Baptista 

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