Has Chinese New Year been through a cultural revolution?

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1. Travel rush

Chinese New Year falls on the first day of the first month of the ancient Chinese lunar calendar – sometime between 21 January and 20 February. It's celebrated by Chinese communities across the world with colourful ceremonies and spectacular fireworks.

This festival is rooted in cultural and religious elements dating back thousands of years. But its very existence was threatened by the historical events of 20th-Century China, until it made a real comeback in recent times.

Today, hundreds of millions of people take to the country’s transport networks to reunite with their families, in a frenzied journey home known as the Spring Festival Travel Rush. It's believed to be one of the largest single movements of human beings for one event in the world.

2. A taste of home

When spending Chinese New Year with family is not possible, traditional objects can bring a taste of home to faraway lands.

Kaki, Christy and Leona are three students from Hong Kong who are spending Chinese New Year in the UK for the first time. They explain the meaning of traditional objects like lanterns and couplets.

The beliefs and rituals for Chinese New Year are rooted in traditional Chinese folk religion and cosmology, at the heart of which is the concept of Yin and Yang.

3. Layers of culture

Yin and Yang refers to opposite but complementary forces in nature which work together to allow the cycle of life to continue, for example female and male, dark and light, earth and heaven.

Chinese New Year falls at the point when the seasons move from Yin (winter) to Yang (spring).

Kitchen God

Daoism evolved in China over 2,000 years ago and embraced the concept of Yin and Yang. The influence of Daoism on Chinese New Year can be seen in certain practices, like honouring the Kitchen God. A paper image of the Kitchen God hangs above the stove, and once a year the image is burnt and he returns to heaven to give an account of the family to the Jade Emperor. Before he's burnt, he's given alcohol and smeared with honey to sweeten his words.

Honour thy elders

The Chinese philosopher Confucius lived in the 5th Century BC and laid down an ethical code that still shapes Chinese attitudes today, including respect for elders. At Chinese New Year it's important to honour your ancestors and consider whether or not they would be proud of you.

Although the ways of celebrating Chinese New Year have their roots in these religions, as well as Buddhism and other local customs, faith plays only a marginal role in its celebration today.

4. Cultural revolution

Under the government of Chairman Mao, all religious practices were suppressed and replaced by ceremonies glorifying communism. Chinese New Year very nearly disappeared for good.

Revival of traditions

Since Mao's death and the 'open door' policy of 1978, it is once again enthusiastically celebrated, and many of its traditions have been revived. Red lanterns, red couplets, and red envelopes reappeared, firecrackers were heard on the streets, and celebrations were once again focused on individual success and prosperity.

Mass celebrations

With the recent modernisation and opening up of China, there's been a huge surge in popularity of Chinese New Year. The government has encouraged people to celebrate it as a way to show pride in Chinese culture.

One state sponsored event, which has become a cultural phenomenon, is Chinese Central Television’s Spring Festival Gala, which claims to be the most watched television event in the world, with an audience of over one billion people.

Some traditions associated with Chinese New year are now well known all over the world, such as the idea that each year corresponds to an animal.

5. The Chinese zodiac

Chinese New Year is the point in the year when the Chinese zodiac transitions from one animal year to the next. Click on the animals to see which one corresponds to your year of birth.

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According to Chinese culture, a person's character and fate are determined by the horoscope in their animal year. However, it is believed destiny can be changed through either acts of kindness or acts of cruelty and thoughtlessness. Belief in astrology is still widespread in China.

6. Written in the stars

The ancient Chinese observed that time was divided into twelves: each day had two 12-hour time periods, each year had 12 full moons.

They ordered the years into cycles of 12 too, with five of these 12-year cycles making up a complete lunar cycle of 60 years.

Animal race

Each year of a 12-year cycle was allocated to an animal. One of the most popular stories that explains the order of the animals of the zodiac is that the Jade Emperor (first god) summoned all the animals of the Universe to a race.

At first the kindly ox was in the lead, but he stopped in order to help the smaller rat to cross a river. When they were almost at the other side, the canny rat jumped ashore, winning the race by a whisker, and became the first animal of the zodiac.

7. When does the year start for other cultures?

There are many other new years with fascinating origins and traditions.

Inca New Year

Descendants of the Incas celebrate New Year, or Inti Raymi, at Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, which is 24 June in the Southern Hemisphere.

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Inti Raymi

At New Year Incas worshipped the Sun God Inti, asking him to return for spring. It was banned by the Spanish in the 16th Century but revived in the 1940s.

Berber New Year

The Berbers of North Africa celebrate their New Year, known as Yennayer, on 13 January.

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Yennayer

Berbers are the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. The precise origin of their calendar is unknown but it's related to the cycle of an agrarian society.

Maori New Year

Maori New Year begins when the star cluster known as the Pleiades appears just before dawn in late May or early June.

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Matariki

The Pleiades is known as Matariki in the Maori language. In New Zealand today Maori New Year is celebrated with the new moon following the rising of Matariki.