The Lunar New Year festival is soon upon us, with the year of the rabbit beginning on February 3rd, 2011. The Allegravita team thought it might be interesting to get a few notes down to help our clients, partners and visitors to understand this important cultural phenomenon better.  And, for those who are developing their businesses or reputations in China, our three most important tips for foreign enterprises during the Lunar New Year appears at the end of this article.

Chinese New Year, Chun Jie, Spring Festival, Lunar New Year… oh my!

Chinese lanterns for the Lunar New Year

Chinese lunar new year lanterns shot by Simon in Beijing’s Sanlitun

The Lunar New Year is actually known by several different terms in China.  In different circles, the festival is named Chinese New Year, Chun Jie, Spring Festival and Lunar New Year.  So what’s the deal?

Chinese middle school textbooks prefer the term “Spring Festival”, although those same textbooks also point out that this phrase was invented relatively recently in China. Since the introduction of these textbooks (naturally, after 1949 when Chairman Mao’s forces were victorious), hundreds of millions of kids have grown up with the term, and the Chinese New Year is widely known as Spring Festival. The direct translation from the Chinese “Chun Jie” to “Spring Festival” is now pretty well accepted by foreigners living, working and studying in China as well.

It’s also quite frequently called the “Chinese New Year”, as opposed to the “un-Chinese New Year” that happens regularly on the first day of every January. To many of China’s contemporary thought leaders, the term “Chinese New Year” is somewhat undesirable, mostly for lack of imagination. Putting a “Chinese” before a widely known noun to indicate its Chinese counterpart has been rather a cliché, like calling our 肉夹馍 “Chinese hamburger” and 土家烧饼 “Chinese pizza” (both inaccurate, and in the case of “Chinese New Year, similarly inaccurate as a “Chinese version” of the pretty much universal [solar] new year).

The term than these thought leaders tend to prefer is “Lunar New Year”, which is really quite accurate, directly pointing out what the festival is about. First it’s celebrated as a sort of New Year’s Day, and “Lunar”links the idea to the lunar calendar.

For the majority of China’s 5,000 years of recorded history, the great country has been agrarian (that is to say, agriculturally based, both in economics and in culture). The  lunar calendar has always been the dominating force in daily life because people need it to figure out what time to sow a new year’s crops. China isn’t the only country that had been using this kind of calendar, so we think that calling the festival the “Lunar New Year” avoids the cultural misunderstandings that it is a Chinese-only thing (after all, Japan, Vietnam, Korea and other countries and expatriates also mark the festival).  On this point, many Asian communities thanked President Obama for renaming it the “Asian New Year” in his first Lunar New Year address.

The Allegravita team is all about cultural diversity, so we’re sticking with Lunar New Year, but we’re not going to get upset if our friends and relatives have a different idea!

So whats the festival all about?

Chinese lunar new year decorations

Chinese lunar new year decorations, shot by Simon at Beijing’s toy market

That depends on which version of the story you being told. We Allegravita folks love a good story, so we’ll relate the more interesting version:

A very, very long time ago, there was a terrible monster by the name of 年 (Nián, which means “year”) which was greatly troubling ancient China. On the last day of each year the monster Nian would go from village to village, hunting down and often eating people. The monster Nian was almost invincible, thus the proud and stout Chinese people had no choice but to hide at home and shiver. Later, by chance somebody found out that the monster Nian wasn’t all-powerful after all. It was discovered that Nian fears very loud sounds, and that it absolutely hates the colour red.

By the end of that ancient year, the Chinese people had worked as one and stocked up lots of fireworks (to produce the loud sounds), and had put up countless red banners (the display the fearful colour).  Every year henceforth (and especially so in contemporary times), great volumes of cacophony are produced for the entire Lunar New Year holiday week, with every horizontal surface bedecked in red.  And you know what?  The monster hasn’t rampaged or eaten a single person since that ancient discovery… so it must be true!

Okay, so what about the less superstitious story?

Glad you asked! A plainer version of the Lunar New Year story goes like this:

In the old times when the Chinese economy was entirely driven by agriculture, landlords would collect land rental from their tenants on the last day of each year. If someone was unfortunate to have had an ill harvest, or simply had a particularly cruel landlord, it would mean that his new year (and maybe years to come as well) would be thoroughly doomed.

This day had been regarded as a particularly significant obstacle by the vast bulk of ancient Chinese people. Surviving The Big Day was definitely something well worth celebrating! Also, like in many cultures, after a whole year among the crops and livestock, people sure could use some recreation. That’s why fireworks were set off and grand feasts laid out before getting down to a new round of struggle to beat the next year’s deadline.

May you get past the year and survive again!

Whichever version of the story you favour, the activity of celebrating the Lunar New Year in China is called “过年” (guò nián), meaning “to get past the year”, or “to survive the year”.

In Chinese life, the Lunar New Year bears an importance as great as, if not greater than, Christmas in Christian countries. The celebration happens on the last night of a lunar year, and then the celebration stretches across the following 6 or 7 days.

What do Chinese people like to do during the festival?

Temple fair hair

The ghosts have no chance with Chinese lunar new year temple fair hair! Shot by Simon in Beijing.

Life in today’s China is pretty codified.  Customs are adhered to, and familial piety is an unavoidable fact of daily life.  The main activities enjoyed to celebrate getting past the year (and beating off that old monster Nian!) are:

  • Travelling to one’s hometown, regardless of the massive crush of a billion people all travelling on the same day of the year (Lunar New Year is the largest migration of humanity on the planet).
  • Wearing one’s very best clothes.
  • Visit all the grandpas & grandmas, clean their houses and prepare grand feasts of the new year.
  • Set off lots and lots and lots of unfeasibly large and loud fireworks (pretty much from dawn to dawn for more than a week).
  • Enjoy many family get-togethers, and enjoy great food and alcohol. Chinese dumplings (or gyoza, or ravioli, etc) are a must-have.
  • Play mahjong (not all, but most families play) through the first night, accompanied by CCTV’s “Spring Festival Gala” on almost a billion television sets.
  • Revisit the grandpas & grandmas’ on the first day of the new year, and clean up all the mess (if not cleaned the previous night).
  • Visit all one’s relatives in town, delivering greetings and gifts of fruit, candy, food and alcohol. This program of visits, as well planned as a military incursion, will occupy at least several days of one’s holiday plans if his bloodline runs long and wide.
  • Meet old friends and classmates who are scattered across the country but coming back to the hometown for the celebration.
  • Go to temple fairs and enjoy the outdoor entertainment, novelties, sense of community and delicious snacks.

As a foreigner in China, what would I find most obvious during the Lunar New Year?

  • Your Chinese town gets very, VERY noisy with crackers exploding, when individual blasts can no longer be discerned, for hours on end.
  • Big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen will be like ghost towns, with very few people in the street at day time. It’s because the majority of China’s job opportunities are in these places, and people from all over the countries rush into them for a better future. During the Lunar New Year, they must go to their hometowns.
  • For this reason, for a month or so before the Lunar New Year, highway, railway and air traffic of China will be running at top capacity (read: exploding-with-people). It will be awfully hard to get a train/flight ticket, and even if you get one, the ride won’t be pleasant. It will be wise to avoid travelling around. Try to delay travel until the second or third day of the new year festival instead.
  • Friends will try to greet you on street. It’s also advisable to greet your friends if you happen to meet them. The universal greeting word is “过年好!” (guò nián hǎo, “happy getting past the old year!”). Another frequently used greeting is “恭喜发财” (gōng xǐ fā cái, which means “I hope you get big money!”, but don’t say this to government officials, police or military or public servants.  For those official folks, tell them you hope they get promoted in the new year “步步高升” (bù bù gāo shēng, “rise to higher places step by steady step”).

Australian gold coin celebrating the 1999 year of the rabbitAnd this is the year of the… rabbit? Right?

Right.  Each lunar year of China has been assigned to an animal, 生肖 (shēng xiāo), sometimes called the “Chinese Zodiac”.  This coming year, beginning on February 3rd, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit.

There 12 totem animals in all, just like zodiac signs. In fixed sequence they are: the mouse, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the swine. The year 2010, a year of the tiger, draws its last breath on February 2nd of 2011 (Gregorian calendar), followed by a year of the rabbit.  Then, after 12 years, the cycle begins again.

Each totem animal is said to bring distinctive characteristics to people born in that year.  Rabbit people (those who were born in 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999 and 2011) are said by experts in Chinese geomancy to have good financial luck, be articulate and have an even temper.

So what are the three most important things a company should do in China for the Lunar New Year?

For a company, the Lunar New Year is a great time to impress your Chinese clients and partners. For almost a decade, Allegravita has been advising and helping clients to deepen guanxi relationships and improve commercial prospects in China by behaving well during the Lunar New Year. From all the dozens of special Lunar New Year campaigns we’ve designed and implemented, here are our three most important things any foreign company or enterprise should do:

Number 1

Plan your greetings

It’s important to plan your schedule of greetings or gifts to clients (a must-have) and business partners and government stakeholders (a nice-to-have) about one month prior to the Lunar New Year night. Their team-members will start leaving for their hometowns maybe as early as half a month in prior (the more senior the personnel, the earlier they can take off). So get started with a list of all of your clients, and any prospective clients that you’ve been working hard to develop this last year.  Remember to greet or gift the most senior people in the organization — and pay special attention to avoid embarrassment by gifting someone “lower” in the hierarchy better than her or his boss.  Both parties will be embarrassed, and it could cause a loss of momentum in your relationship.

Number 2Deliver your greetings

You should send a greeting card, hand written, at minimum, or better still to send a small gift. Good gifts are quality brand foodstuffs or alcohol.  Whatever they are, they *must* be in red color, or wrapped in red if they are not. Suggested greetings include “过年好” (as aforementioned), “恭贺新春” (gōng hè xīn chūn, “sincere congratulations on the new spring”), or more generic “新年快乐” (xīn nián kuài lè, your typical “Happy New Year”). Avoid 恭喜发财 here. Although it’s quite common between friends, relatives and colleagues, it’s more polite not to approach a business in such personal fashion. Some rabbit-themed gifts would be a very good idea.

If you don’t currently have a China-based office, have a trusted local partner (such as this fine PR agency) to buy your Lunar New Year cards and send them to you for signing, before you send back for your partner to organize delivery. EMS or “kuai di” delivery is much, much better than China Post (home of the supermassive black hole at the centre of the People’s Republic of China) and these delivery services cost only a handful of Yuan per delivery.

Number 3Consider hosting a party

Lunar New Year parties are a wonderful opportunity to quickly and solidly advance your guanxi with your customers, staff, partners and stakeholders, and to sharply increase the regard they have for you and your enterprise. A decent sized party for 25 to 35 guests in a nice hotel, with a buffet, toasts (many, many toasts), entertainment, lucky-draw and take-home gifts for everyone can be surprisingly affordable, and represents a brilliant return on investment.  Allegravita is highly experienced in running every aspect of Lunar New Year parties — and by engaging Allegravita, you’ll be receiving multi-national western quality and accountability for only a small premium over often dodgy and disappointing suppliers that really don’t grasp your objectives or methods.

Article by Kane Gao, Allegravita’s head of research

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