Chinese New Year, known as Spring Festival in China, is the most important holiday for the most populous country on Earth, sometimes described as China's equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined. The celebration, which began today, lasts for weeks following the start of the lunar new year, a period of time suffused with symbolic foods and performances. Here are 11 things you need to know about Chinese New Year:
1) It's the Year of the Monkey
There are five elements associated with the Chinese New Year: gold, water, wood, fire, and earth. Each year is assigned not only an animal but also an element. 2016 is a Fire Monkey Year. The last time this happened was in 1956, so those who are born this year or turn 60 this year are said to share the personality traits of being ambitious but irritable.
The year that just ended was the Year of the Sheep. Next is the chicken.
2) This is the biggest transportation clusterf*ck on Earth
Spring Festival is typically spent visiting family members — most workers take a full week off — so it's a taxing time for China's transportation systems.
For many migrant workers living in China's cities, the Spring Festival travel period, called chunyun, is one the few opportunities to visit the families they left behind in more rural provinces. As of 2014, China has 269 million rural migrant workers, a nearly ninefold increase since 1989.
3) Chinese New Year extends far beyond China
Chinese New Year celebrations are happening all over the world. This map shows the countries that have more than half a million residents of Chinese descent, with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the US topping the list.
4) A dancing lion for good fortune
Performed for thousands of years, the lion dance is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity. During the New Year it's often seen at office buildings and housing complexes, and throughout the year at weddings, shop openings, and other special events.
It takes two fairly athletic people to perform the dance — one to control the head and another to animate the rear. Usually, the performers are kung fu students. The fellow in the pink mask is a character called Big Headed Buddha whose role is to tease and tame the lion with his fan. Traditionally the lion is fed a head of Chinese cabbage, which it chews up and spits out, symbolizing the spread of good fortune.
5) Not to be confused with the dancing dragon
The dragon dance requires more performers than a lion dance, with a person for each joint in the dragon. The performers follow someone holding a scepter, who leads the dragon into nifty swirling and waving motions. The dragon was originally a symbol for the emperor of China, but nowadays it more generally represents benevolent power and good luck.
6) Food isn't just food
During Spring Festival, foods are symbols. Long noodles, or "longevity noodles," represent good health and long life. (They're also customary for birthday celebrations.) Cutting these noodles with a knife or severing them with chopsticks is basically a death wish. Embrace the slurp.
Dumplings, pictured above, are also a New Year's staple, because they resemble yuanbao, a boat-shaped gold or silver coin used as currency in China before 1900 — a symbol of prosperity.
7) Homophones are a big part of the celebration
The menu for Spring Festival is in large part determined by wordplay. Tangerines are given as gifts because the Chinese word for "tangerine" sounds like the word for "luck."
Likewise, the word for fish, "yu," sounds like the word for "abundance," and "nian gao," a gooey rice cake, is a homophone for "higher year." Many will paste the character "fu" (good fortune) on their doors upside down because the term for "upside down" is similar to "arrive," so the decor symbolizes the arrival of good luck.
8) People decorate with poetry
The short poems pasted in doorways during Chinese New Year are called Spring Couplets. Welcoming the spring season and expressing well wishes, these poems adhere to specific rules, a bit like a haiku. For instance, the two lines should have the same number of characters, with inverse tones. Writing couplets has traditionally been a test of wit.
9) All red everything
The color red is associated with joy and good fortune in Chinese culture, and is the dominant color of Spring Festival. In Chinese legend, a mythical beast called Nian, which terrorized a village every New Year, was repelled by firecrackers and the color red; thus were born red decorations around the New Year. (Fireworks are traditionally a huge part of Spring Festival as well, but they're terrible for air quality.)
One of the best red things may be small envelopes used to gift new, crisp cash to younger, unmarried members of the family or to provide bonuses to employees. It is polite to receive the gift with both hands and not open it right away. The amount of money is typically an even, round number, avoiding the number four, which sounds similar in Chinese to the word for "death."
10) State TV broadcasts a four-hour variety show on New Year's Eve
The New Year's Gala attracts seven times more viewers than the Super Bowl.
By many accounts, the show is a gaudy, nationalistic mess, but Rachel Lu at Foreign Policy writes that nevertheless, "For millions of Chinese, watching the Gala is inseparably entwined with fond memories of going home, seeing family, and being in the festival spirit."
11) The celebration ends with the Lantern Festival
On the 15th day of the New Year, red lanterns of all sizes and shapes light up the night. Revelers eat "tangyuan," a sticky rice dumpling with various fillings. And then a billion people get back on the train.