Chinese historians share Lunar New Year tales

Illustration of a neon dragon in celebration of Chinese New Year.
Artwork created using content by Sohaib Qureshi (Vecteezy) and Henry & Co. (Unsplash).

As a child growing up in rural China in the 1970s, Xiuyu Wang remembers competing with his friends to get as many fireworks as possible to usher in the Lunar New Year. It is a celebration of the arrival of spring and the most important holiday in China.

Xiuyu Wang.
Xiuyu Wang

“We’d save up ahead of time to get as many firecrackers as possible from the local market,” said Wang, who moved to the U.S. in 1991 and is now an associate professor of Chinese history at Washington State University, Vancouver. “And then, early in the morning of the new year around 2 or 3 a.m., you would hear one go off and then another until it reached kind of a deafening crescendo.”

Fireworks have been used to mark the Lunar New Year in China for thousands of years. Wang said one popular notion in some parts of the country is that in the very old times people believed each year represented a dangerous animal and shooting off firecrackers was a way to celebrate passing from the old to the new without being harmed by the beast. That belief has long since faded. But the association between the Chinese calendar year and an animal remains in the form of the Zodiac. Archeological evidence indicates that this ancient classification scheme, where each year is assigned an animal that has specific attributes, dates to at least the first century A.D during the Eastern Han Dynasty. Today it is more popular around the world than ever before.

Weiguo Cao.
Weiguo Cao

“This year, 2024, is the year of the dragon, which is a big deal because the dragon has a significant place in Chinese culture,” said Weiguo Cao, an associate professor of Chinese in the WSU School of Languages, Culture, and Race. “The Chinese claim they are the descendants of dragons, and the beast is the only mythical creature of all the animals in the zodiac.”

The most popular origin story for the Chinese zodiac today is that of the Great Race. In the story, the Jade Emperor organized a race between animals as a way to measure time. The first 12 to make it across a river would earn a spot on the zodiac calendar. The dragon, which symbolizes character traits such as dominance, ambition, authority, and dignity, came in fifth. The story goes that the proud dragon could have flown directly across the river to secure an easier victory but decided to stop and help some creatures she had encountered on the way.  

More traditions and celebrations today

In addition to launching off fireworks, another way that both Wang and Cao said they grew up celebrating the Lunar New Year in China was with traditional Chinese calligraphy.

“You would get somebody to write these auspicious-sounding couplets on bright red paper and then glue the sheets onto your doorframe, kind of like how people here decorate their homes for Christmas,” Wang said. “You’d walk around and see all this red, everywhere and on everything. It was very striking.”

Chinese lantern festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Chinese lantern festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma (photo by Rod Ramsell on Unsplash).

Fast forward to today, and Lunar New Year’s celebrations in China are much as they were when Wang and Cao were growing up, although both said the fireworks are now often fake due to fire concerns, and the traffic is far worse.

“It is a little bit like American Thanksgiving,” Cao said. “It is very important if at all possible that you come home and spend time feasting and catching up with your family.”

Since coming to the U.S., both Wang and Cao have noticed a growing interest in Lunar New Year celebrations, especially in areas with larger Chinese populations.

“When I first came to the U.S. in 1991, I initially found it challenging to celebrate Lunar New Year due to the lack of a Chinese community,” Wang said. “Communication was really limited to letters and expensive international phone calls. Over the years though, I’ve noticed growing interest in Lunar New Year celebrations in the U.S., which is great. It’s a wonderful way to share an important part of Chinese culture.”

The annual 15-day spring festival celebration starts this Saturday, Feb. 10, and runs till Saturday, Feb. 24.

By Will Fergusen, WSU Insider