Chinese New Year Animals & Meanings

Instructor: Carol Cook

Carol has taught high school Government and middle school U.S. History and Global Studies and has a master's degree in teaching secondary social studies.

Each Chinese New Year is celebrated with symbolic animals. Mythical dancing dragons, Nian and lions represent new beginnings. Every year is designated by an animal in the Chinese zodiac.

Happy New Year!

In America, the New Year is celebrated by saying goodbye to the old and welcoming the new. Similarly, the Chinese New Year focuses on starting the year fresh and clean. Commonly called the Spring Festival, this name keeps the holiday distinct from Western celebrations on December 31. The Chinese New Year is based on a lunar calendar and begins on the darkest day of the first month of the lunar cycle, or the first new moon after January 20.

The celebration dates are tied to beliefs in the Chinese zodiac and change each year. Regardless of the starting date, though, the festivities last 15 days, or until the first full moon of the year. The traditions ensure a successful year. While in America, the coming of the New Year is symbolized by the ball drop in Times Square, in China, animals play important symbolic roles in the transition from one year to the next.

Fireworks and Fiends

According to legend, the celebration of the Chinese New Year began as a religious ceremony thousands of years ago after villagers defeated a mythical beast called the Nian. When the Nian woke on the night before the New Year, villagers confronted the monster with loud noises, fire and red banners that scared it away. Because of this, the New Year is celebrated with red decorations and loud fireworks to keep the Nian at bay. In Mandarin, the word Nian means year and fireworks welcome a year of good luck.

New Year's Parade

Loud noises also accompany the mythical dancing dragon, a centerpiece of the traditional New Year's parade. Unlike the threatening creatures in Western tradition, Chinese dragons are helpful, credited for the harmony of the seasons, rain, and healthy crops. During the parade firecrackers are thrown to wake the dragon from hibernation at the advent of spring. The dragon costume is carried on long poles over the heads of a long team of dancers. As they weave along the parade route, the dragon displays its dignity as poles are raised and lowered.

Parade Dragon rears its head

The dragon is followed by lion dancers that look very different from their real-life counterparts. Lions are not indigenous to China, so early representations were based on stories told by travelers. It is oversized, and represents happiness by mimicking traditional New Year's festivities such as eating special foods. Chinese parade lions are portrayed by two costumed performers who use martial arts to demonstrate the character's power as it moves along the parade route.

Lion Dancers celebrate during a New York Chinese New Year Parade

The Great Race of the Zodiac Animals

Each New Year is named for one of twelve creatures. There are many adaptations of how the years were named, but nearly all revolve around a race. One tale recounts how the supreme heavenly Jade Emperor decided to designate each year with the name of an animal. To determine the order of the animals, he called for the animals to race across a river. Twelve animals completed the race, and each competitor's actions during the race revealed an important aspect of their personality.

The Jade Emperor is credited with naming the Lunar Years for Animals
Jade Emperor

The clever rat convinced the powerful and deliberate ox to let it ride on its back, knowing that the ox would arrive first. Upon reaching the far shore, the rat leapt from the ox's head and landed ahead of it. After the ox, came the showy tiger, who was a powerful swimmer.

The lithe and strategic rabbit hopped across on rocks, but was caught on a log. The dragon back on the starting shore puffed a great gust of wind to blow the rabbit across to the other side. Although easily as powerful as the other animals, and capable of flight, the dragon landed in fifth place because it stayed behind to provide rain for crops.

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