Lessons from teaching in China: 6 observations about Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year Primary schools

新年快乐 Xin Nian Kuai Le! Or Happy New Year!

Perhaps a little premature, but I can’t help it - I’m just too excited! This week at West End in Schools we announced the launch of our latest dance workshop for 2019 - The Great Race: Chinese Zodiac Dance Workshop.

I didn’t learn my Chinese Zodiac animal until, whilst teaching in Shanghai, a four year old asked me what my animal was before promptly telling me theirs and their family’s. I’ve since discovered I’m a horse - generous, independent and energetic (or so my zodiac suggests!). Depending on your birth year you inherit the traits of that zodiac animal - the characteristics might really surprise you!

Chinese New Year is now celebrated across the globe, and there are so many different ways to participate. With lots of schools in the UK marking the celebration in their spring term, there’s an overwhelming amount of information about how to introduce the topic to your children.

Having been lucky enough to celebrate several Chinese New Years in Shanghai, I thought I would break down some of my favourite things about Chinese New Year (often also referred to as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival):

  1. Chinese Decorations

    Most of the decorations that start appearing around Spring Festival are red and gold, lucky colours. The most common decorations include the symbol Fu 福, meaning luck or fortune. It is often hung upside down on doors and windows to show that the household is ‘open’ to allow the luck to flow in. Other decorations include poetic couplets, black or gold characters written on red scrolls hung on the wall, and lanterns, which are especially prominent on the last day of the lunar celebrations, Lantern Festival.

  2. The evolution of Chinese New Year

    Traditions are very important in Chinese culture, but make no mistake - this a very forward thinking place. From Hongbao’s (red packets filled with a monetary gift) being sent digitally, to more and more people spending this holiday abroad - it’s not all about the parades and celebrations those of us here in London enjoy in Chinatown each year.

  3. Location. Location. Location.

    Celebrations and styles will vary depending on whereabouts in this vast nation you are celebrating. A Guangdong-style Lion dance, one that you may see in Hong Kong for example, will look pretty different to the northern kung-fu style Lion dances.

    On an even greater scale, Lunar New Year is celebrated across large parts of Asia. The 12 animals that represent the signs of the Zodiac can also vary depending on the country in Asia - you can be born in the Year of the Cat in Vietnam but not in China!

  4. It’s all about Family

    With billions of people travelling to their hometowns at the same time, it is the largest annual human migration in the world. During the Spring Festival most people travel back to their families, leaving big cities like Shanghai significantly quieter than any other time of the year.

  5. Food glorious food!

    Certain foods hold symbolic meaning, such as fish and dumplings bringing luck, or noodles representing longevity. But in essence the feasts during Chinese New Year are about joining together in celebration - something similar to turkey at Christmas or pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, a wonderful and delicious way to bring everyone together.

  6. The tales behind Chinese New Year

    Mythology, stories and superstitions surround the celebration. It was said that there was once a mythical creature who was destroying the harvest but he was afraid of the colour red so the red paper cuttings, lanterns and decorations came from this superstition. Fireworks and firecrackers, were also originally used to ward off this mythical creature with a loud bang.

One of the most popular stories retold in Chinese schools around this time of year is The Great Race, a myth that explains why the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac came into being.

This year we will be ushering in the year of the Pig and Chinese New Year will officially be celebrated on Tuesday 5th February 2019. However, it is in fact a 15 day festival - plenty of time for celebrations, feasts and dancing!