The New Year Is Coming

The New Year’s Day recently celebrated by most of the world is a national holiday in China but is otherwise a celebratory non-event here in the Middle Kingdom.  While it’s a day off from work I’ve yet to see any confetti, blowouts, or noisemakers put to use.

I believe at least part of the reason it is a minor holiday here is due to the fact that all important Chinese holidays revolve around the family and New Year’s Eve, as it’s celebrated in the West anyway, is more of an adult affair.

And it falls just before the holiday to end all holidays, Chinese New Year.  Think every religious and traditional holiday celebrated in your country combined and you have some idea of the significance of Chinese New Year, both culturally and economically, to the Chinese.  The government and the economy, outside of the service sector, literally shut down for anywhere from one week to one month depending on the industry and locale.

I can’t possibly do the holiday justice in just one or two blogs so I will come back to the topic again in the weeks ahead.  For now, however, I’ll start where every good story starts, in the beginning.  And the beginning, in this case, is the Chinese calendar.

The Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar and thus marks the seasons.
The Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar and thus marks the seasons.

The official calendar of virtually all Western countries is the Gregorian calendar created in 1582 by a slight modification to the Julian calendar in order to bring the date for the celebration of Christian Easter in line with the date chosen by the First Council of Nicaea in 325.  The Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar, meaning it aligns with the Earth’s rotation around the sun and the seasonal solstices and equinoxes that are its byproduct.

The Gregorian calendar was brought immediately upon its adoption to China by Jesuit missionaries but was not adopted as the official calendar here until 1912.  Until that time China used the Chinese calendar, which, more accurately, is the Han calendar, named after the ethnic group that makes up 92% of the Chinese population.  (There are another 55 officially recognized minority ethnic groups in China today.)

Contrary to popular belief the Chinese, or Han, calendar is not a lunar calendar.  It is a lunisolar calendar, marking both the lunar phases and the solar seasons.
Contrary to popular belief the Chinese, or Han, calendar is not a lunar calendar. It is a lunisolar calendar, marking both the lunar phases and the solar seasons.

The Chinese calendar is not a solar calendar.  It is not, however, contrary to popular myth, a lunar calendar either.  It is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons.

The reason the world turned to the Gregorian calendar, despite the fact that many cultures and religions put great stock in the phases of the moon, is that the lunar cycles (i.e. lunations) and the solar cycles (i.e. the seasons) are not consecutively aligned.

There are more than 12 lunar (i.e. synodic) months in a solar year.  And to make matters even more complicated those lunar months vary in duration.  The lunar year (354.37 days), as a result, is substantially out of cycle with the solar year (365.25 days), requiring the insertion of additional months, called intercalary months, into the lunar calendar to synchronize it with the natural seasons.

The Chinese calendar is cyclical, not continuous, and was historically reset by the emperor.
The Chinese calendar is cyclical, not continuous, and was historically reset by the emperor.

In China’s past, not surprisingly, each emperor decided when to reset the calendar, an authority in keeping with his near-deity status.  This, in part, however, has led to some debate as to which Gregorian year the Chinese calendar actually begins in.  Depending on which explanation you accept, the year 2013 was either the year 4650, 4710, or 4711 by the Chinese calendar.

But whenever you start counting the years, the Chinese New Year always begins on the second new moon (On rare occasions, the third.) following the winter solstice.  This means that the first day of the new year falls somewhere between January 21 and February 19 each year.  This year it falls on January 31, 2014.

2014 is the Year of the Yang Wood Horse
2014 is the Year of the Yang Wood Horse

As most Westerners know, each year of the Chinese calendar is associated with one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig, in that order.  We are currently in the Year of the Snake and next year, beginning January 31, 2014, will be the Year of the Horse.

But it’s actually a little more complicated than that.  The Chinese calendar, in fact, works on a 60-year sexagenary cycle.  Each year is assigned two component designations.  The first is the Celestial or Heavenly Stem, which are consecutive yin and yang versions of the 5 elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, water – and the second is the Terrestial or Earthly Branch corresponding to the 12 animals of the zodiac.  Taken together these provide 10-year and 12-year cycles that run concurrently, resulting in a net 60-year cycle.  (Sixty is the first number to be evenly divisible by both 10 and 12.)

Technically, therefore, the year we are currently in, despite the passage of the Gregorian New Year, is the Year of the Female (yin) Water Snake, while the year beginning on January 31, 2014 is the Year of the Male  (yang) Wood Horse, which is occurring for the first time since 1954 – 60 years ago.

It is this sexagenary cycle which is why the 60th birthday is considered a monumental birthday in Chinese culture.  (The 1st and 10th birthdays are also considered important but 60 is the Big Kahuna.)  If you were born in 1954, as I was, you will have completed one life cycle in this Year of the Horse.  (Technically, you would have to be born between February 3, 1954 and January 23, 1955 to qualify, since that was the Chinese year.)

Chinese New Year is now officially known as Spring Festival, the term used by most Chinese.
Chinese New Year is now officially known as Spring Festival, the term used by most Chinese.

Interestingly, when Mao Zedong and the communists came to power in 1949 the celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year was downplayed but the tradition came back into vogue in the mid-90’s and was ultimately one of three national Golden Week holidays designed to promote tourism and internal consumption and to give workers a period of rest.  (The other two Golden Weeks coincided with the National Day holiday on October 1 and the May Day holiday on May 1, but the latter was reduced to a one-day holiday in 2007 when three new holidays were added.)

Both Golden Week holidays remain highly active travel periods but the travel surrounding Chinese New Year, now officially known as Spring Festival, is believed to be the largest human migration on the planet, thanks in large part to the massive migrant worker population which traditionally returns home during the period.

As a result of the incredible urbanization that has accompanied the economic reforms of the post-Deng period it is estimated that there are 250 million migrant workers in China today and 160 million of those work outside of their home province.

China is on the move during Spring Festival.  Everyplace you go is teeming with people.
China is on the move during Spring Festival. Everyplace you go is teeming with people.

Many are poor, working as manual laborers or on the lowest rungs of the service industry ladder.  For many, therefore, the Spring Festival holiday is literally the only time during the year that they see their spouse and child left behind in their hometown.  (Frequently the mother and father both work elsewhere, leaving the child to be raised by the grandmother or other relative.)

This puts a tremendous strain on the transportation infrastructure of China and it is strongly advised that if you visit China during this period you get to your destination and stay put.  If you consider that during the official 10-day Spring Festival travel period in 2013 more than 220 million people traveled by train alone you get some sense of the crowding that takes place at airports, train stations, and bus depots across the country.

Officially, the holiday is only 3 days long but the government swaps workdays in order to create a continuous seven-day break – hence the name Golden Week.  This year, for example, Chinese New Year falls on a Friday.  Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, therefore, are the 3 official holidays.  In this case, however, Monday is swapped with the prior Sunday, January 26, which now becomes a workday, Tuesday is swapped with Saturday, Wednesday is swapped with Sunday, and Thursday is swapped with the following Saturday, February 8, which also becomes a workday, to create a 7-day period (Friday – Thursday) in which people are off from work.  They do, however, have to work two additional weekend days that they would normally have off.

China's travel infrastructure is put to the test by what may be the biggest human migration on the planet.
China’s travel infrastructure is put to the test by what may be the biggest human migration on the planet.

Service companies, of course, do not follow this holiday work schedule.  For restaurants, airlines, and the railroads it’s all hands on deck.  And private companies have the option of following the government schedule or not, although anyone who is required to work during the three official holidays must be paid triple wages for those days.  (Few Chinese will grumble, therefore, if you ask them to work over Spring Festival.  As important as the holiday is, triple pay is hard to pass up.)

An economy built on exports comes to a halt when the Customs bureau quite literally shuts down.
An economy built on exports comes to a halt when the Customs Bureau quite literally shuts down.

Most companies, however, do follow the government schedule both because their employees have spouses who are probably off on those days and because it is almost impossible to operate any business in China when the government is not open.  The banks are closed, so you can’t conduct any financial transactions.  China Customs is closed, so you can’t import or export anything.  And virtually all of your suppliers and customers will be closed anyway.  In short, the economy quite literally comes to a standstill, which is one of the reasons why there is a growing debate about doing away with the Golden Weeks all together in favor of more personal vacation that can be scheduled at the employee’s discretion.  (Employees also don’t like the fact that they sometimes have to work 7 or 8 days straight in order to satisfy the ‘swapped’ days.)

It seems unlikely, however, that any dramatic changes will be made to the Spring Festival work schedule any time soon, both because of its relevance to the urbanization process and because the holiday itself is a lengthy one involving several days of traditional activities and milestones of cultural significance.

While most families and communities start preparing for Spring Festival weeks in advance it really begins with the reunion dinner, called Nian Ye Fan, on New Year’s Eve, and ends with the Lantern Festival held on the 15th day of the first month.  Food, family, and, of course, fireworks, all work into the mix in between.

Stay tuned as I try to sort it all out for you.

Spring Festival is quite literally a feast for all of the senses.
Spring Festival is quite literally a feast for all of the senses.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.