Shakespeare once wrote, “My kingdom for a horse,” but the 2014 Chinese New Year may just bring you a stableful of prosperity
anuary 31, 2014, marks the beginning of celebrations as the Year of the Horse—one of the 12 years in the Chinese astrological cycle, in which each lunar year is designated by an animal and certain attributes—gallops onto the Chinese calendar. And it is no wonder that in Chinese folklore the horse symbolizes prosperity and success: If you were a villager during the Ming dynasty, what could have been more valuable than a mode of personal transportation?
Chinese New Year (or the Spring Festival, as it’s now more commonly known there) is the most important holiday in China and a major part of its cultural identity that the Communist government allows to be celebrated rather than trying to suppress it. The 15-day celebration is thought to have originated as a religious ceremony during the Shang dynasty, and elements of it have changed over time. Nian, the way the Chinese character for the word year is represented using the Pinyin spelling system, has evolved over the millennia, as well. “There’s one interpretation that this character evolved from the word for crop,” says Jeff Wang, director of education and Chinese language initiatives for New York’s Asia Society, “an indication that the New Year very much suggests harvest, prosperity and a better future.”
Fireworks illuminate Victoria Harbour during a Chinese New Year celebration in Hong Kong
Today, Chinese New Year is a time of family reunions, feasts and wishes for future prosperity. Dumplings, one of the foods most commonly associated with the celebration, are shaped like the silver ingots that were once used as Chinese currency, allowing for symbols of affluence to be ingested literally. And while reuniting with loved ones is still considered to be the focus of the holiday, some families will book vacation packages and not spend the time at home.
In China, the government allows for seven work- and school-free days so that everyone can celebrate. “It remains a very important part of the national identity and has never been diminished,” says Wang. “CCTV, the national television station, puts on an incredible variety show extravaganza called the New Year’s Gala that airs each evening for six hours, showcasing all kinds of art forms, traditional and modern, from acrobats and dancers to stand-up comedy.”
In the United States, many cities host parades and festivals in recognition of the New Year and in celebration of Chinese culture. San Francisco boasts the largest Chinese New Year parade outside of Asia. During the festivities, a team of 100 male and female martial artists carries a 268-foot golden dragon through the winding streets. Two other large-scale American celebrations take place in New York City and Los Angeles.
But while the New Year brings hope for bounty, it also carries a dark threat in Chinese folklore—namely, a bad crop, the constant worry of every agricultural society. “Evil spirits are believed to haunt the celebration of New Year; come to destroy crops, houses and families; and foretell a terrible coming year of harvest,” explains Wang. “So it was very important to expel these evil spirits through loud noise and fire, and that’s where the practice of [setting off] firecrackers and fireworks comes from.”
A rainbow-hued dragon is a showstopper at the China Light Festival B.V. in Rotterdam, Netherlands, one of the many cities around the globe that celebrates Chinese New Year
The desire to ensure bounty and affluence for the family also shows itself in another way. Belief in the zodiac is so strong in China that some parents will take measures to bear a child in an auspicious year, occasionally causing chaos in local hospitals. According to Wang, parents-to-be will plan to have children in years that correspond to zodiac signs that hold special meaning to them. This practice is more common during years that are widely recognized as being prosperous, such as the Year of the Dragon. As for 2014, children born during the Year of the Horse are thought to be strong, energetic and outgoing, according to ChineseZodiac.com. They also “thrive when they’re the center of attention.”
China’s growing prosperity has brought a more economic element to New Year celebrations in recent years. Traditionally, family elders would give younger people gifts of money in red envelopes, because red is the color of good luck and also believed to frighten off evil spirits. These days, the ante has been upped. “Young people in well-to-do families can expect to get thousands of dollars,” Wang says. “The rise of the middle class has slightly changed the holiday into something more commercial.”
Christian Chensvold is coauthor of Ivy Style: Radical Conformists (Yale University Press). He lives in New York City.