Chinese New Year symbol -- What is the origin of Chinese New Year?

Did you know you can tell the origin of Chinese New Year by looking at the Chinese New Year symbol, nian2 年 which means “year”?

This is one of the wonderful things about the Chinese language.

Chinese characters reveal a lot about Chinese culture.

Celebrating Chinese New Year or Spring festival is called “guo4 nian2” 过年 in Chinese.

Nian2 means “year” so guo4 nian2 means “passing the year”


Nian2 is closely related to agriculture.

In ancient writing, the Chinese New Year symbol is written with禾 on top and 人 below.

(look at the oracle bone writing on the left and bronze vessel writing in the middle)

禾 means “standing grain” like rice. And 人 is the character for a man.

It’s starting to look obvious isn’t it?

The original Chinese New Year symbol for nian2 is a man strapped with a bundle of grain!

This means there is a good harvest.

So nian2 means “When the grain is ripe, it is time for harvest”.

In the earliest times, there was one harvest per year, so nian2 年 was also called 岁 , the unit for age in Chinese, as in “1-year old”.

This origin of “year” means that China was already an agricultural society 3,600 years ago.

But what about “passing the year”? The celebration of Chinese New Year?

How did that come about?

At the end of each year (the 12th month in the Chinese lunar Calendar), the farmers prayed to the Gods of the Heavens and Earth, as well as their ancestors.

They thanked the Gods for a good harvest in the year past.

And send their wishes for a good harvest in the coming year.

In Beijing, at the Temple of Heaven, past Emperors prayed to the Heavens for a good year without disaster and a good harvest ahead.

Go here for more Chinese New Year symbols, activities, and stories.

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