A whiff of spent gunpowder permeates the air. You wake up to a morning that seems to have undergone explosive detonations for 22 of the last 24 hours. Outside lies Beijing (or Shanghai, or Shenzhen, or Chongqing, or somewhere else, pick one that applies to your situation), the massive metropolis which is in your experience in a constant state of congestion. But not today. The streets outside are visibly emptier. You can almost see ten meters ahead of you, void of people!
Or if you are not located in China, by now you should be seeing a whole lot of red around the local Chinatown.
It’s beginning to smell a lot like… the Lunar New Year, aka the Chinese New Year, aka the Spring Festival.
Within 48 hours from today, first-tier cities in China will be pretty much evacuated. On the other hand hundreds of thousands of smaller Chinese towns will see massive hikes in population. You don’t just sweep millions of people under the carpet. All of them leaving big cities, they’ve got to go somewhere.
Where they go is home, since this is the time of family reunion. Much like Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa in other parts of the world, China’s Spring Festival is the time to return home to visit your parents (and in many cases, spouse and kids), even if it means being slowly and cheerfully crushed by ten thousand other humans on an train.
February 16, 2018 (Beijing time) marks the official start of the lunar Year of the Dog, although the celebration really starts on the previous day.
The Dog is the second-to-last of the “Chinese zodiac signs”, which actually have nothing to do with astrology or astronomy. The English misnomer is only because there are twelve animals in total. Each year is assigned to an animal sign, twelve years a rotation. Those born in 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, and 2018 are born in the Year of the Dog, and those people are said to have acquired certain dog-like personality traits
What are those Dog traits? Typically Dog people are said to be faithful, energetic, honest, although sometimes can be stubborn or aggressive.
Dogs are among the first animals to be domesticated by the ancient Chinese people. In fact, they have been among the ranks of the “Six Domestic Animals” since as early as 1000 BCE, the other five being horses, cattle, sheep/goats, chicken, and pigs. All six are Chinese zodiac signs.
But that is not the point of this blog post. What we want to share here is a few friendly tips to guide you through the Lunar New Year season of 2018, especially if you are in China.
The Lunar New Year starts on February 16, 2018, and celebrations begin the day before. So what? Well, force your mind off Chinese traditions for a second and rewind one more day:Valentine’s Day! If you’ve forgotten about it in the anticipation leading up to the New Year’s Eve, by the time you’re reading this, it’s probably too late already… But worry not! Mark July 7 on your calendar. As a result of globalization, both traditional Chinese and popular western holidays (Thanksgiving, even) are celebrated with all seriousness in China these days. The seventh day of July is the traditional equivalent of Valentine’s Day, meaning pretty much the same thing (sameness also extending to consequences for being forgetful), only named differently. For the partnered of China, forgetting this date once is reasonable but forget twice at your peril!
Lunar New Year’s Eve
This applies to all New Year’s Eves, not just that of 2018. Depending on which part of China you’re located in, during this particular night pet owners will be universally consoling their cat or dog given the incredible cacophony of fireworks noise. People will set off fireworks en masse, the giant kind that most Americans only get to see at on TV. The onslaught usually starts from 8:00 PM, first a few pops, then a full-on warzone at its pinnacle around 0:00 AM. First-tier cities, due to their hyperscaled population density, have much stricter regulations on when and where people are allowed to explode their ordinance. But in small cities and townships where people adhere more to the ways of old, the worst-case scenario is that people in the same room can’t hear one another for the explosions.
Evaluate your situation, consult neighbors, and take precautions if this is your first Lunar New Year experience in China.
Day One of the New Year
February 16, 2018 is (technically) the first day of the Year of the Dog. This is the time for people to visit family and friends, to give new year’s greetings in person. As a visitor, please be aware that if the visited happens to have children in their home. You are supposed to gift each child with a red envelope (in Mandarin, “hong bao”) loaded with cash. The envelope, for its namesake, must be red. Around the holiday season, there should be plenty of them in supermarkets or convenience stores near you, often with intricate dog decorations (as is the case this year). Swing by and get some if necessary. Bear in mind that simplicity and a famous brand may not be automatically desirable. For example, this is what the Dior luxury brand designed for 2018’s Lunar New Year:
One single character “dog” printed in that particular position means “this is for the dog”. This is quite culturally offensive: you are risking calling the children of your manager “dogs”. “The dog” and “of the dog”, is a big difference in Chinese.
As to how much cash is needed for each envelope, it varies geographically. In the more developed southern parts of China, traditions are based on symbolism, so, 100 Chinese yuan (about US$16) would be sufficient. In the northern parts of CHina, where kids traditionally expect a small fortune, the social norm would be somewhere around 300 to 500 yuan. When in doubt, consult locals.
This is the last day of the public holiday, so family reunions have come to an end for the year. People return to the cities of their employment. If you’ve spent the new year in delightfully deserted Beijing or Shanghai, prepared to call your just-returning friends out for a dinner or party. They could use a beer to help with post-holiday depression.
Day Seven through Fifteen
These are odd days, because the holiday is over, but its spirit lives on. As traditions go, the celebration is supposed to taper off gently, all the way to the fifteenth day of the new year, while the public holiday of a modern society might suggest otherwise. People are hauled back to work against their will, so don’t expect to have much business to be done during this period. Don’t worry though. Life gets back on track quickly from the sixteenth day on. This year, March 2 is the final day of celebrations, which is known as the Lantern Festival.
By then, you are officially and technically into 2018, the Year of Dog. May all our readers thrive and prosper!