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History, Traditions, and Meanings Behind Chinese New Year Celebrations

Universitas Indonesia > News > History, Traditions, and Meanings Behind Chinese New Year Celebrations

With a population of more than 1.4 billion people (United Nations Population Fund, 2023) and a diaspora spread worldwide, the Chinese community has succeeded in maintaining its traditions amidst global cultural flows. This success results from rituals and celebrations that remain alive, one of which is the Chinese New Year celebration, also known as the Spring Festival in China. In Indonesia, Chinese New Year celebrations are synonymous with charming traditions, from lion dance performances to giving angpao.

Cultural expert Faculty of Humanities UI, Dr. Rahadjeng Pulungsari Hadi, M. Hum., said Chinese New Year rituals remain preserved, especially when gathering with family or returning to their hometown. Each family will eat typical spring celebration dishes, visit the temple, and give angpao or hongbao on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

The tradition of sharing angpao is a long-awaited part of Chinese New Year. “Angpao or hongbao means red envelope. On red envelopes, there are Han characters or letters that mean Happy New Year, Abundant Fortune, Luck, Happiness, etc. These characters show good hopes and prosperity. In general, the angpao or hongbao are given to unmarried people and children,” said Rahadjeng.

Chinese New Year celebrations are always related to the red color because this color is supposed to ward off evil and bring good luck, prosperity, and abundant fortune. According to Rahadjeng, it aligns with the myth of the existence of an evil giant, Nian, who likes to eat humans and livestock during spring. Nian can be hindered by red cloth and firecrackers.

“This myth emerged during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). There was a giant creature, Nian, who came to a village to eat humans and livestock. Various versions of Nian’s expulsion from the village emerged. One of them was, when Nian arrived, a resident wearing a red shirt confronted it while lighting firecrackers and made Nian run away in fear. Since then, Nian never disturbed the village again,” she said.

Seasonal changes have always been a big concern for Chinese people. Although it is uncertain when this spring celebration began, traditional Chinese farming communities have been accustomed to celebrating the harvest after farming since 1600 BC or the Shang Dynasty. The change from winter to spring brings hope. Spring brings a different natural atmosphere, with flowers blooming, plants turning green, and plant shoots appearing.

In Indonesia, Chinese New Year takes place in January and February, the rainy season. Rahadjeng said that rain falls during Chinese New Year celebrations and is associated with abundant blessings, prosperity, and a good harvest. “In ancient times, Chinese people cultivated crops to meet their food needs. The rain was an incomparable blessing at that time because it grew plants and produced harvests while the dry season is a famine season and detrimental to farmers,” she said.

It is not only the connection with rain that makes Chinese New Year celebrations in Indonesia unique, but also Chinese cultural acculturation in Indonesia. “One form of acculturation is the celebration of the 15th day of Chinese New Year, known as the Cap Go Meh celebration. Lontong Cap Go Meh then became popular and was eaten during the celebration of the 15th Chinese New Year. There is no tradition of eating Cap Go Meh lontong in China,” continued Rahadjeng.

Lion dance in Indonesia is also an acculturation of Chinese and Indonesian culture despite the movements and acrobatics being similar to dances in China. Rahadjeng said, “The word ‘Barong’ came from Indonesia because it is unknown in China. This dance is called ‘Lion Dance’ in China and performed during the spring festival along with the dragon dance to protect against bad energy.”

Lanterns are often decorated on the 15th day of Chinese New Year to mark the end of the celebrations with images of zodiac signs. Lanterns symbolize light and hope. According to Rahadjeng, Chinese New Year is a new year that begins with a new zodiac ruler. Therefore, red lanterns that are brightly lit and installed in the upper position aim to signify high hopes for goodness in the new year under the authority of the new zodiac.

Chinese New Year 2024 (2575 Kongzili) on February 10 is the Year of the Wood Dragon. In Chinese culture, dragons are mythological creatures with tremendous power because they can control all the elements on earth, including walking on land, flying in the air, diving in water, and breathing fire. That is why dragons are often considered powerful and associated with high positions, such as powerful emperors or gods with unique abilities.

Rahadjeng believes that the year of the Wooden Dragon can bring a wave of strength and pass with perseverance for the sake of the development process. “The Year of the Dragon 2024 promises to be a greater time than the previous year. However, only strong people can encounter this wave of dragon power. The Wood element, a combination for the year of the Dragon 2024, symbolizes perseverance, tenacity, and growth,” she added.

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