Chinese New Year is the most important festival in China where the whole country goes on holiday or at least week and families are reunited. It is similar to western Christmas but MUCH bigger and more traditional. Travelling in China during the New Year festival is a great way of experiencing Chinese customs and traditions but it can also be the worst time to travel in China.
Outlined below is everything you need to know about Chinese New Year and travel in China during this period.
Introducing Chinese New Year
Background – Chinese New Year (春节 Chun Jie) or Spring Festival is a 15 day festival that starts on the first day of the first month of China’s lunisolar calendar and marks the end of winter. This period changes every year and falls between the 21 of January and the 20 of February on the Gregorian or wester calendar with this year for example being on the 10 of February.
Mythology – The legend behind Chinese New Year and many of its customs is that in ancient times is a terrible mythological beast called the nian (年 means year in Chinese) would appear on the first day of every year and terrorise a village by destroying crops, killing live stock and eating people. To protect themselves from the nian, villagers placed food out the front of their door at the beginning of the year. One year the viilagers saw the nian was frightened by a young child wearing red clothing so every year afterwards they used red lanterns and place red banners on doors and windows to keep the nian away. The nian never returned to the village and it was rumoured to have been captured by a Taoist priest and used as his mount.
Public Holidays – The last day of the old year and the first two days of the new year are public holidays. The first Saturday and Sunday after the new year are normally declared as working days so two extra days can be added to the 3 official public holidays which gives people 7 days off in a row. Sounds strange but this is a normal practice in China, people work weekends to add time to their public holidays so they have a longer break and can return home. This way people can have the first 7 days of the new year off and go back to work in the 8th day.
Chinese New Year is the biggest event of the year, very important in terms of culture and most families spend a large part of their income for the festival so preparations can start at least a month in advance.
Several Days Before the New Year
Cleaning – Homes are swept and cleaned several days in advance which sweeps away the back luck from the old year and prepares the home for new luck. Homes cannot be cleaned once the new year starts because this will sweep out the good luck in the new year.
Haircuts & Clothes – People get hair cuts and new clothes and shoes to symbolise a fresh start. Cutting your hair during the festival is considered bad luck so don’t expect too many hair dressers to be open during this time.
Cooking – All cooked foods are normally prepared before the year starts because traditionally no cooking is allowed during the first 5 days of the year.
New Year’s Day
This is the most important day of the whole festival and the time that the whole family comes together for the reunion dinner that is the most lavish meal of the year.
The Evening – The reunion dinner is traditionally held at the home of the senior member of the family. The family get together will continue past midnight and often include games of mahjong and cards. Many families will eat then spend the evening together watching the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV that starts four hours before midnight.
The Food – The dinner will include a number of dishes guaranteed to fill you up and one of the key dishes will be fish to indicate prosperity. There will be an emphasis in expensive meat dishes and minimal vegetables. New Years eve is a time to be happy not healthy. In the north of China jiaozi are a traditional New Year’s eve food while moon cake are the traditional food in the south.
This day is traditionally been for people to honour the elder members of their family and visit the senior members of their extended family. Day one is normally a day for big family reunions and often the only time of the year where many families see each other. This is also the day where married members of the family give younger unmarried members and children hong bao which are red packets with money inside.
Traditionally the day that married women are allowed out of the house to visit their parents and friends. A modern application of this custom is that day one is spent with the husbands family while day two is spent with the wife’s family. Day two is also the day that beggars and unemployed people make the rounds of homes in their area collecting donations in the form of red packets. Not so common in the big cities but very common in the country. Naturally refusing charity leads to bad luck so this is pay day for beggars.
Day Three to Day Seven
These days are mainly for relaxation, spending time with family, eating excessively and having fun. Depending on the area in China and how traditional people are, worshipping gods, scaring away ghosts of poverty and activities such as cleaning alters will also be done during this period.
The official end of the holidays and the day that government employees and office workers go back to work.
This is the day of the Lantern Festival where people eat rice dumplings, light candles outside their home to guide lost spirits home and where families take an evening walk through the streets with lighted red lanterns. This day is also the last day of the Spring Festival and the end of the Chinese New Year.
Should You Travel In China during Chinese New Year?
Very hard to say and depends on you as an individual and on your travel plans. If you plan on travelling a lot inside China then NO you should definitely not travel in China during this time. Public transport as you will read below is insane. If you plan staying in one place like Beijing that has a lot of great tourist attractions then YES travel in China during this time is great.
Good Points – You will have the opportunity to see very colourful and traditional celebrations and customs that show a fascinating and endearing side of Chinese people and their culture. Normally crowded tourist attractions such as the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City will be empty and ideal for visiting. New Year’s eve is like a war zone with fireworks of all sizes going off and walking the streets during this time is a lot of fun.
Bad Points – Winter in China during this period is very cold and the temperature in the north can drop to -30C and below so be prepared. Eating out can be difficult with many restaurants closed and those that are open are often booked out so you need to plan in advance. Most shops will also be closed or running with limited hours so don’t expect to do much shopping during this time.
Crime – The other point to be aware of when you travel in China during the New Year is crime. Thefts and pickpockets increase drastically in the lead up to New Year because professional thieves and poor people such as unemployed migrant workers need money to travel home and also to fund their families New Year celebration.
Public Transport During Chinese New Year
Insane Crowds – Public transport this time of the year is insane with seats on buses and trains almost impossible to buy and bus stops and train stations so crowded that finding seat is difficult and you can forget about going to the toilet. The world’s largest annual migration takes place in China during this period and there are over two billion journeys made during this time.
Migration – millions of migrant workers live and work in the city and travel back home during Chinese New Year. There are also millions of university and college students in winter vacation who also travel back home during this time.
Domestic Travel – A recent trend is for cashed up locals to take advantage of the holidays to travel around China, one of the two times a year when they have enough time to travel.
Air Travel – Most migrant workers and students cannot afford air travel so this is the least crowded way to travel and the way where you have any hope of buying tickets.
Tips for Chinese New Year
Book and Plan In Advance – Plane, bus and train tickets and hotels are likely to be sold out during Chinese New Year so make sure you make your bookings in advance when travelling. Booking in advance will also help you avoid the worst of the inflated prices charged that time of year.
Greetings – Starting day one people are expected to give loud and enthusiastic greetings to people they meet. The more common ones are
-Xin Nian Kuai Le 新年快乐 means happy new year
-Gong Xi Fa Cai 恭喜发财 means wish you prosperity
Gift Giving – As a foreigner you will not be expected to give gifts when you visit your Chinese friends but a small gift would delight your host. Something like a carton of milk or box of fruit would be ideal and you’ll see these for sale on the sides of the roads and in most stores. If you give red packets or hong bao of money, to your Chinese friends or hosts, $7-$8 is plenty and don’t give an amount with 4 in it because 4 sounds like death in Chinese. Ideally give a number with 8 or 6 in it which sound fortune and smoothness/success.
Pace Yourself – Over indulgence is common and even expected during the New Year and so take it easy and pace yourself if you are with Chinese friends.