On Sunday, we celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year, and I expected this blog to be about the words and customs and foods related to it. Only, when I started to write a quick paragraph about how New Year’s is calculated, I realized I had no idea. And it turns out to be pretty interesting.
The traditional Chinese calendar is a lunisolar hybrid, which combines observations of both the sun and moon. The ancient Chinese divided the heavens into 24 equal parts called 节气 (Trad. 節氣) jiéqì, usually translated in English as “terms”. The top part of 節’s traditional form is 竹—two bamboo shoots. Bamboo’s jointed canes suggest the meaning of “sections”. The second character is the oft-used 气 (Trad. 氣), whose Chinese (qì) and Japanese (chi) pronunciations have both been adopted by the Western New Age community as a vague sort of “life force”, but here just refers to the atmosphere or sky. So jiéqì refers to an arc of the sky. The solstices and equinoxes were the four cornerstones of this system of 24 jiéqì, and spaces between them were divided into 6 equal parts, all with evocative names like 惊蛰 (驚蟄) “waking of insects”, 大暑 “great heat”, and 白露 “white dew”. If you’re interested, a free publication titled “When is Chinese New Year?” by Helmer Aslaksen of the National University of Singapore’s math department spells this system out in excellent detail.
Adopted elsewhere in Asia, jiéqì is pronounced jeolgi in Korea (written phonetically 절기 in hangul), sekki in Japan (written 節気 with a tweak to the second character), and tiết khí in Vietnam.
The connection between this strictly solar calendar and “lunar New Year” is that the traditional new year was defined as the new moon closest to the jiéqì that marks the symbolic start of spring: 立春 (Chinese lìchūn, Korean 입춘 ipchun, Japanese risshun, and Vietnamese lập xuân). 立春 usually falls on February 4 (as it did this year), and this Sunday marks the new moon, so this Sunday is New Year’s Day.
Just one complication. In 1913, China adopted the Gregorian calendar and moved New Year’s Day to January 1. Strictly speaking, what we now celebrate on Sunday is not New Year’s, but the “Spring Festival” 春节 (Trad.春節) , chūnjié. It is, however, still considered by astrologers as New Year’s, and the title of this blog 新年快乐 (新年快樂) xīn nián kuài lè is still a typical wish for the day and its first two characters mean “new year”. This year is the Year of the Snake. 巳 (jǐ) is the character associated with this year, but the character for “snake” is 蛇, both of whose radicals, 虫 and它, are said to be pictograms of a cobra-like hooded serpent.
In neighboring Korea, both 立春 (as 입춘 or ipchun) and the lunar New Year are celebrated. The latter is called 설날, spelled seol-nal in hangul but pronounced seollal. Even Korean etymologists don’t agree on where the word “seollal” comes from, but on its own 날 nal means “day”. According to the National Folk Museum of Korea, 立春 is an occasion for agricultural rituals. The weather on 立春 was said to presage the coming season: a clear and windless day was auspicious for farming and the health. Snow and rain suggested bad luck. In this, Korea’s 立春 isn’t too different from an observance of our own on nearly the same day: Groundhog’s Day.
In modern Japan, the main remnant of Chinese New Year’s is one of my personal favorite Japanese customs, setsubun (節分). Setsubun is the day before 立春 (risshun), and on that day you purify your home for the beginning of the year. The way you do this is through the act of mamemaki (豆撒き). Mame is “beans” and maki is “scatter”, and tossing beans is the tried-and-true method for demon removal. This maki is from the verb maku (撒く), which means “distribute” or “scatter”. It sounds like but is different from the maki found on sushi menus. That maki comes from maku (巻く) or “roll”.
In mamemaki, you clean your house and then toss soybeans around while shouting “鬼は そと!” (Oni wa soto!, which is “Demons out!”). Customs vary from place to place. My neighbors in Tokyo insisted that the beans MUST be roasted in a frying pan. They also cautioned me to give the corners special attention; demons lurk in corners. The mother of one of my best Japanese friends was the very last word in elegance and gentility. But on Setsubun, true to her earthy Osaka roots, she’d scandalize the neighbors in their upscale high-rise condominium with bloodcurdling demon-chasing.
For the New Year, I’m raffling off one of the best-selling books in Asian languages, our Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters. A perennial favorite, this introduction includes the 800 characters included in Level A of the HSK Chinese-language proficiency exam. For each entry, the book gives the characters in Simplified and Traditional form, its radicals, stroke order, and stroke count, pinyin pronunciation, example words and combinations, suggested mnemonic tips for memorization, and an example sentence. If you’d like to win the book, click here to email me just put Characters in the subject line.