By: YC Chin
This year, Chinese New Year falls on Monday, 8 February. The specific date changes every year because the date is decided upon – like the dates of so many ‘auspicious’ events in the Far Eastern world – by the lunar calendar. The cycles of the moon don’t synch with the cycles of the sun, which the Julian calendar is based on.
This year is the year of the monkey – one of twelve animals that appear in the Chinese zodiac. Unlike the Greek Zodiac signs, it changes once every year instead of every month. This means you can effectively guess someone’s age if you know their zodiac sign – you have a margin of error of twelve years.
Like Christmas in the West, Chinese New Year festivities begin long before the actual date: mothers all over the world fret as to what to cook for the big feast on Chinese New Year’s Eve well in advance.
Photograph: Chinese character ‘fu’ – meaning ‘fortune’ or ‘good luck’ – displayed upside-down as part of decorations, by Yiran Jiang
Everything has to be done in an ‘auspicious’ manner, pandering to superstitious beliefs. For instance, one must never ever clean the house over the period of Chinese New Year, as it is believed you will be ‘sweeping the luck out of your house’ if you do; your fridge – and most importantly your rice stores – must be filled to the brim, as a symbol of prosperity to last the coming year.
Photograph: taken in Chinatown, Bangkok, 2014 by Angana Narula
Similarly, on a specific day known as Day, one must deposit a sum of money into one’s bank account, to symbolise ever abundant wealth flowing into your coffers over the year. You will find stupidly long queues of people at banks doing this every year. On Chinese New Year day, one might wear red: a traditionally auspicious colour. Never wear white or black, for these are the colours associated with funerals and the notion of death. Nowadays, these ‘rules’ are less rigid, but if you’re visiting your aged grandmother, don’t expect to get off the hook if you show up in white.
Aside from the home, shops all over the world are abuzz with activity. They sell all manners of decorations and food items – the mince pies of Chinese New Year.
Photograph: The lion dance in Hong Kong, which takes place around Chinese New Year and during the Lunar New Year fair, by Chantelle Pang
Every country celebrates Chinese New Year slightly differently. For instance, in China, beef or pork dumplings are a staple food item that are made in the house during the holiday season. However, in Singapore – another Chinese-majority country – this often isn’t the case. Different dishes are eaten: likely a function of the different geographies and cultures.
Photograph: Shredded pork dumplings ready to be steamed, made with housemates in Durham for a Chinese New Year meal, by Astrid Cao
Photograph: food eaten at a New Year’s meal in Hong Kong, by Chantelle Pang
The actual celebration of Chinese New Year begins the night before, on Chinese New Year Eve. This is the night when you traditionally have dinner with your family.
It seems like nothing too significant, but when it is increasingly the norm for parents to be left at home while their children are on different corners of the country (or globe) to study or work, a meal together might indeed be hard to come by. Asian peoples of the world will take time off work to travel back home just to have what is termed ‘reunion dinner’.
Over the fifteen days of Chinese New Year, one is generally expected to visit relatives and extended family. For adults, it’s a great time to see their siblings and catch up. Children and young people have incentive to follow as well: apart from exchanging a pair of mandarin oranges, it is custom that every older or married person must give a ‘red packet’ (a red decorated envelope) containing money to anyone unmarried (that’s us). As with all customs, there are rules. The amount of money in it must be an even number – as ‘all good things come in pairs’. The actual amount just depends on how generous the giver is feeling. It isn’t uncommon to receive £200 from one relative, and then £2 from another.
Photograph: ‘Lucky money’ by Maxim Luan
As students in Durham, in the middle of our seminar or tutorial work, summatives, and dissertations, it is virtually impossible to find time to make the trip home for reunion dinner. Indeed, for many first-years, it is likely to be their first Chinese New Year spent away from home: try to imagine if you had to spend Christmas in Durham during term time. It isn’t easy, and most will definitely be feeling homesick during the holiday season.
But when your college environment begins to feel like your home away from home, perhaps there’s nowhere more appropriate to spend the new year than on the dining table in college with your close friends. As these photos show, Durham students haven’t let being away from home stop them celebrating Chinese New Year.
Photograph: Celebrating Chinese New Year with friends in Durham, by Celia He
Photograph: Making decorations at St Aidan’s College last week, by Kate Fan
Photograph: food eaten at a Chinese New Year meal in Gilesgate, by Yiran Jiang
Featured photograph: Decorations in Singapore, taken during preparations for Chinese New Year this year, by Katie Jelpke