History of the Chinese New Year

by Patty Ryan posted on 28 January 2014

As INC members prepare to celebrate Chinese New Year in Madrid,  Kristina Stehling gives an insight on the history behind Chinese New Year celebrations and how to determine if this is your year to celebrate.


In the Chinese New Year calendar, 2014 is the Year of the Horse

As we celebrate Chinese New Year on the 31st of January, a few facts about the reasons why the Chinese celebrate their new year differently.

First, it is important to note that the Chinese New Year is the longest and most important celebration in the Chinese calendar. The Chinese this year are celebrating their 4712nd year on January 31. You may ask why are they celebrating their 4712nd year and not like everyone else the 2014th year ? This is because the Chinese calendar is based on a lunar calendar, with each month beginning on the darkest day.

The Chinese lunisolar calendar is divided into 12 months of 29 or 30 days. The calendar is adjusted to the length of the solar year by the addition of extra months at regular intervals. The years are arranged in major cycles of 60 years. Each successive year is named after one of 12 animals. Each animal represents a 12-year cycle which are continuously repeated. The Chinese New Year is celebrated at the second new moon after the winter solstice and falls between January 21 and February 19 on the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, based on this calculation or way of counting the years, the year 2011 for example, translated to the Chinese year is 4707–4708. This year 2014 translates to the Chinese year 4712.

Chinese New Year celebrations traditionally start on the first day of the month and continue until the 15th day when the moon is believed to be the brightest. In China, because the population is so large, many Chinese businesses and establishments close for the month in order to allow people to return to their home provinces and to prepare for the big celebration on the day itself. The Beijing train station is considered the busiest transport hub in the world during Chinese New Year with over 200 million people travelling through the station during the new year. The Chinese government’s prediction this year is that 1.3 billion people travel across China during this period.

The legend behind Chinese New Year is fascinating and is at the forefront of Chinese beliefs on whether you are a lucky person or not in life. According to the legend, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve animals came and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animals personality. Those born this year, which is the year of the horse are cheerful, skillful with money, perceptive, witty, talented and good with their hands. Some of the most famous people born the year of the horse are the artist Rembrandt, singer Aretha Franklin, classical pianist Chopin, Actor Harrison Ford, U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor and a great American President Theodore Roosevelt. As you can surmise, these personalities possessed the traits of the horse –as Buddha predicted.

During Chinese New Year, people in China wear red clothes and give out red envelopes to children with “lucky money. If you should receive such a gift, you will also be fortunate in your goals for the year. In Chinese villages, red paper is strewn all over with poetic slogans of good wishes. Red symbolizes fire and according to the Chinese, fire drives away bad luck. Fireworks is very important during these celebrations because they are rooted in the similar ancient Chinese customs that crackling flames frighten away evil spirits. In the past when fireworks were not yet invented, the Chinese bamboo stalks which emit a very loud crackling noise when placed in fire.

You may not be born the year of the horse but that does not mean you will live a miserable life. Budhha believed that each animal is possessed with a good and a bad trait. The Chinese believe that it is up to the person to harness their best traits to prevent them from falling into misery and deprivation. Life is a struggle and in a country of over 2 billion people all celebrating the new year, some may be born luckier than others. What keeps the Chinese from not thinking about failure is their great belief in their culture, their superstitions and in following their signs, their horoscope. Many believe they are born the year of the Horse, or the Rat, or the Tiger for a reason. They learn to live with the traits of the animal they have been fated with.

If you would like to know what your sign  (or those of your present and future children) may be on the Chinese calendar, look at the chart below and look for the year you were born. Gong Xi Fa Cai ! Happy New Year !

Rat Ox Tiger Rabbit Dragon Snake Horse Sheep
Monkey Rooster Dog Pig
1900 1901 1902 1903 1904 1905 1906 1907 1908 1909 1910 1911
1912 1913 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918 1919 1920 1921 1922 1923
1924 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 1931 1932 1933 1934 1935
1936 1937 1938 1939 1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 1946 1947
1948 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959
1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971
1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983
1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995
1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019

Traits of the Animals

  • Rat: quick-witted, smart, charming, and persuasive
  • Ox: patient, kind, stubborn, and conservative
  • Tiger: authoritative, emotional, courageous, and intense
  • Rabbit: popular, compassionate, and sincere
  • Dragon: energetic, fearless, warm-hearted, and charismatic
  • Snake: charming, gregarious, introverted, generous, and smart
  • Horse: energetic, independent, impatient, and enjoy traveling
  • Sheep: mild-mannered, shy, kind, and peace-loving
  • Monkey: fun, energetic, and active
  • Rooster: independent, practical, hard-working, and observant
  • Dog: patient, diligent, generous, faithful, and kind
  • Pig: loving, tolerant, honest, and appreciative of luxury