The first day of Spring Festival — called danian chuyi (大年初一) in Chinese — this year falls on January 31. At midnight the year of the snake will come to a close and the year of the horse will begin, no doubt with a bang. If you do not understand what exactly is going on during all the festivities you are not alone.
The Chinese zodiac is a slippery and convoluted beast. Throw in numerology and thousands of years of tradition and things get even more complicated. Below is a quick primer on what motivates people to do what they do during Spring Festival and what you should expect if this is your birth year. It is a basic overview and not intended to be an exhaustive catalogue.
Spring Festival basics
At precisely midnight huge metropolises and tiny country villages alike will explode with the sounds and lights of millions of fireworks. Traditionally fireworks were used for scaring away bad spirits from the previous year and keeping those lurking in the new one at bay. More generally, a new year is seen as a new beginning and fireworks help to clear the way of bad luck and misfortune.
This tradition has its roots in Chinese mythology. Setting off firecrackers was a way to intimidate the marauding monster Nian (年兽). Legend has it the monster repeatedly attacked a village during the new year and had a predilection for carrying off small children. Villagers eventually found the Nian could be frightened away by loud noises and the color red. The Nian story is reenacted during cacophonous new year's lion dance performances and accompanied by firecrackers and traditional Chinese instruments.
Also at midnight, under a canopy of fireworks, Buddhist and Daoist temples across the Middle Kingdom will be inundated with people. Temple-goers will pray and light incense and candles to gain merit. It is considered especially auspicious to release fish or turtles into temple ponds at the stroke of midnight. Less common, but still considered propitious, is to release birds.
In Chinese releasing any of these animals is referred to as fangsheng (放生), which loosely translates to 'letting a life go.' In a Western sense this is akin to doing good deeds to cleanse oneself of sins. It is considered auspicious to burn incense as close to midnight as possible, which is called touzhuxiang (头柱香). It is best to do this in a temple but can also be done at an altar located in the home.
Holidays are always a time for family in China and Spring Festival — or Chunjie (春节) — is no exception. No matter how far from one another they live, families will get together to blow things up, shower children with gifts and red envelopes stuffed with cash and most certainly eat and drink.
New Year's Eve dinner — or nianyefan (年夜饭) — is especially important and in preparation families will clean their houses from top to bottom. It is conventional for people to dress in new clothes for the meal, further marking a fresh start. The feast marks the beginning of more than two weeks of celebration — each day with its own specific traditions — which come to a close during Lantern Festival (上元节) on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
Many rural families, especially in Yunnan, raise at least one pig and hold it aside for slaughter on the new year. Every part of the pig is used to make several different dishes which an extended family will then share signifying togetherness. The pig can be replaced with a goat or donkey as well, depending on what is hanging around the barnyard.
The meal is called shazhufan (杀猪饭) which translates as 'kill the pig meal.' Dishes made for this feast are often consumed over several days as leftovers depending on the size of the family and of the pig. Having leftovers around is significant because for many people the first day of Spring Festival is a time to do as close to nothing as possible — with the notable exceptions of eating, drinking and spending time with family.
It is also auspicious to hang red-backed poems outside of one's home and to mount the character fu (福), symbolically marking the arrival of good fortune, upside down on a door. Often people paste hand-painted or woodblock prints of Yu Lei (郁垒) and Shen Tu (神荼) on their doors as well. These two door gods — or menshen (门神) — ward off evil spirits and prevent them from entering homes. Pictures of the gods can be put up at any time of the year but are often pasted up just before new year to replace old ones weathered by sun and rain.
Entrances to homes can thus become quite cluttered as families hang inverted sugar cane stalks outside of their front doors to accompany the couplets and other totems. This comes from the saying cong tou tian dao wei (从头甜到尾) which means 'a sweet year from beginning to end.'
Year of the Horse
The traditional Chinese calendar is of course a lunar one and Spring Festival jumps between January and February depending on the year. This new year is the year of the horse, represented in the Chinese zodiac by the character ma (马). Customarily horses are associated with strength, power and determination as well as honesty and sincerity.
Chinese mythology is full of stories about horses, perhaps the best known of which is entitled The Great Race (伟大比赛). This folktale explains why animals are used in the Chinese zodiac and why they are ordered as they are today. The Jade Emperor, so the story goes, once called a meeting of animals, who were required to race across a river.
The top twelve animal finishers would each from then on represent a year according to how they placed in the competition. The horse managed to finish seventh, beat out by several smaller, more clever animals. As the horse was nearing the finish line, the snake uncurled itself from its hiding place on the horse's hoof, startling the stallion and allowing the serpent to slither ahead into sixth position.
Possibly more numerous than folktales regarding horses are everyday idioms in Chinese. These seem almost innumerable. Popular expressions such as these are often in the form of parallel structure idioms called yanyu (谚语). One of the most well-known of these utilizing horse imagery says: 'A long distance-journey on a horse allows you to know its true strength' (路遥知马力, 日久见人心). This is often used as an exclamation meaning someone has finally come to realize another person's true nature, good or bad.
If your benmingnian (本命年) — or birth year — is that of the horse, there are certain traditional guidelines to follow over the coming 12 months. These are true for anyone celebrating their birth year and are not specific to horses. They may seem a bit strange, but failure to adhere to these rules is thought by many to result in catastrophe.
Benmingnian are considered to be difficult or trying times. At the start of one's birth year people are often given gifts of red underwear or jewelry. They must be worn every day and are considered talismans against ill fortune. Not wearing these amulets, even for a single day, can spell disaster. People generally avoid eating their birth year animal during their benmingnian as well, which only seems rational. While this may be a simple practice for those born in the year of the dragon, one can imagine it may be trying for people born under the sign of the pig or ox.
It is believed that major life-changing decisions should not be made during one's birth year. Weddings, childbirth, changing jobs or moving are all out. According to Chinese tradition, things are much more likely to go wrong during a person's birth year and for this reason talismans, such as red underwear, have come into fashion.
Regardless of your birth year, the color of your underwear or the number of talismans plastered across your front door, GoKunming would like to extend heartfelt best wishes to all of our readers in the year of the horse. 大家,马年马到成功!
Editor's note: Special thanks to longtime friend Fanfan, without whose help this article would not have been possible.