Wei Zhang teaches Mandarin at Odell Elementary School in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Read along as Wei describes the history and traditions of Chinese New Year as well as ways to incorporate the holiday into your own classroom.
xīn nián hǎo 新年好! Happy New Year, everyone! My name is Wei Zhang, and I am a Chinese ambassador in my fourth year with Participate Learning. Chinese New Year is an important holiday in my culture and is a celebration of the coming year.
Also called Spring Festival, Chinese New Year falls on a different day each year, but it is always between January and February because the holiday is based on the Chinese lunar calendar. This year, Chinese New Year is on January 25, and it will be a grand celebration for Chinese people living in China and those living abroad.
The History of Chinese New Year
According to legend, there was once a big, nasty beast, Nián, whose name means “year.” He had sharp teeth, giant claws, and a really mean growl. While most of the time he lived in the wilderness, on the darkest night of the year, when the new moon was in the sky, he would sneak into the village and scare everyone.
One year, a wise man in the village led other villagers to fight back with loud noises, fire, and red color. Nián ran away and never came back. Every year, Chinese people celebrate driving Nián away by drumming loudly, lighting firecrackers, and wearing red clothes from head to toe during Spring Festival to commemorate their heroic actions.
Each lunar new year is represented by one of twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac, which were originally chosen by the Jade Emperor of China many centuries ago. According to legend, the Jade Emperor held a great race. The first twelve animals to reach his palace would be the winners, and they would each get a year named after them in their honor.
During the race, the ox was winning until he had to cross a rushing river. The rat, right behind him in second place, could not swim very well. In an act of kindness, the ox let the rat ride on his back. As soon as they got to the other side, the rat jumped off and scurried to the finish line to win the race making it the first animal in the Chinese zodiac calendar.
Eleven other animals reached the palace to create the twelve-year cycle of Chinese zodiac. It is said the animal your birth year is named after can shape your personality and destiny. Legend has it that when your animal takes its turn in the Chinese zodiac cycle, your year will be full of surprises. Many people in China are excited to honor these ancient traditions. People who were born in 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, and 2020, for instance, were born in the Year of the Rat and are considered very industrious, thrifty, diligent, and positive.
Chinese New Year Traditions
Spring Festival, “chūnjié” 春节, is the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar. When chūnjié is approaching, people are busy purchasing goods, cleaning the house, cooking traditional food, putting up couplets and lanterns, and hanging festival pictures. The eve of chūnjié is called “chúxī” 除夕, and a common tradition is to have a family dinner that night. Dumplings are essential to chúxī dinner. They represent reunion and goodwill. The whole family gathers to enjoy quality family time.
During chūnjié, people visit each other in new clothes and give red envelopes, “hóngbāo” 红包, to kids to send them good wishes. Many kinds of celebrations are held, including temple fairs, dragon dances, acrobatics shows, and lantern exhibitions. The celebrations last for fifteen magical days, full of family togetherness, delicious food, and good fortune.
No matter where they are in the world, most Chinese people will consider returning to China for chúxī. The number of passenger journeys during Spring Festival in China is almost three billion, on average, each year. It is considered the largest annual human migration in the world.
How to Bring Chinese New Year into the Classroom
I am looking forward to celebrating the Chinese New Year of 2020 with the students at my school. In years past, I made a Chinese zodiac wheel for my students to learn the names of the twelve animals and to teach them how to say their birthday. They also got a chance to knead dough and make their own dumplings one year.
To celebrate Spring Festival, the older students at my school wrote Chinese couplets as decor for their classroom doors while students in the lower grades made lanterns. Each year, we host a dragon parade in the hallway and send dumplings to teachers so students can show their appreciation. Our school chorus also sang a traditional Chinese New Year song at the winter showcase.
This January, my students will make paper cutouts to decorate the classroom windows, and I will teach them how to cook dumplings. On the first day of the new year, I’m planning to lead my students in our dragon parade tradition, which includes sending paper cutouts, cooking dumplings, and making Chinese knots and hanging them door-to-door. We will all dress in the traditional red color for the celebration. My students are always very excited to experience Chinese culture in a way that makes learning both engaging and fun.
To learn more about how Participate Learning can help to incorporate cultural experiences and traditions in your lessons, check out our global learning resources page or contact us for more information.