History of Chinese New Year – Where did Chinese New Year come from?

The history of Chinese new year is wrapped in legends and traditions.

On the eve of Chinese New Year, every family gathers together and enjoys a reunion dinner slowly till late into the night, and past midnight.

Then family members stay up late into the wee hours of the first day of Chinese New Year. They watch TV, chat and play cards.

This tradition is known as ao2 nian2 熬年 , “staying up late into the new year”. Ao2 means “staying up late” and nian2 means “year”.

On the eve of Chinese New Year and on the first day, every family sets off firecrackers and puts up red spring couplets on both sides of their doors to usher in a happy new year.

(Of course, nowadays many cities in China like Beijing and other countries like Singapore ban firecrackers.)

How did this tradition come about?

Legend has it that long ago there was a ferocious creature in the deep forests called Nian2. (This is the same sound as nian2 meaning year)

This creature ate every living animal in sight. It even ate humans.

People were terrified of Nian. But they also noticed that Nian only came out to attack humans once every 365 days.

Shortly after twelve months had passed, Nian came out of the forests. It came to a nearby village and age everyone in sight.

But a family who hung red spring couplets on their door and stayed indoors with their home brightly lit was unharmed.

Gathering together, the people discussed how to deal with this vicious beast. Someone suggested that Nian was afraid of the red color, light and noise.

So everyone stuck red couplets on their gates, burned bamboo sticks to make crackling sounds (like firecrackers) and beat gongs and drums.

Night fell and every house was brightly lit.

Seeing the lights, the red couplets and hearing the noise, the demon Nian trembled with fear. It fled into the mountains and didn’t dare to come out.

Nian was thus defeated and the tradition of celebrating Chinese New year in this way to keep Nian away was passed down from then on.

That’s why celebrating Chinese New Year is called guo4 nian4 过年 “passing the year”. (safe and unharmed!)

Return to Chinese New Year activities