Every year, sometime between January and February, you will notice that (most) of your Chinese teachers on italki will be unavailable. Don’t worry, nothing bad is happening! They are simply on vacation to celebrate one of the biggest Chinese festivals - the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival.


Granted, by now when you are reading this article on italki, this year’s Chinese New Year has already passed, but I was literally writing this article while in the throes of celebrating Chinese New Year with my nearest and dearest. So before you shrug this off since the festivities has already passed, read on and get excited for next year’s festivities!



When is it?


The exact date of Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, so the Gregorian date differs every year. For example, the first day of the Chinese New Year for 2017 was on January 28th -- which hailed the start of the year of the Rooster. Celebrations for the Chinese New Year generally starts at the evening before the first day to the 15th day of the first lunar calendar month. The evening before the first day of celebration is usually coined as 大年夜 (think of it like the Christmas eve). On the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, that day is also known as the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebration.




chūn jié

Chinese New Year, Spring Festival


yuán xiāo jié

Lantern Festival




You can’t begin a celebration the day it arrives. Just like you don’t do your homework five minutes before your tutoring session (I know you don’t do that because you are a good student). Preparation begins days before the first day of the Chinese New Year. If you are as bad as me with the lunar calendar, an easy way to tell that Chinese New Year is coming is when the shops start to put up Chinese New Year celebration items such as couplets, red envelopes, or various Chinese New Year gift baskets and items.



春联 (Couplets)


春联 is a couplet that is written on a red stripe of paper with black or gold characters and hung on each side of the door frame. The couplets often try to convey good luck and prosperity. It is one of the first decorations you will notice when Chinese New Year approaches.




chūn lián

Spring Festival couplets


For example:


  • 喜鹊登枝迎新岁 | xĭ que dēng zhī yíng xīn suì | (Magpies fly onto the branches to welcome the new year)
  • 金鸡起舞报福音 | jīn jī qĭ wŭ bào fú yīn | (Golden chickens dance to spread the blessings)


Please note that the translations above are literal and do not do these couplets any justice. The Spring Festival couplets are beautifully written. Often it is difficult to understand and appreciate the depth and beauty of the words with translations alone.


福到了 (“Fu” has arrived)


In addition to couplets, another common decoration is a diamond shaped red paper with the character (fú, blessing). Ever wanted to “write” a character upside down? Today is the day! When we put (fú, blessing) on the wall or the door, we put it upside down because “” (dǎo, upside side; inverted) sounds like “” (dào, to arrive). “福倒了” becomes “福到了”. “Fu is upside down” becomes “Fu has arrived”.





to arrive


upside side; inverted


fú dǎo le

Fu is upside down


fú dào liăo

Fu has arrived



Aren’t characters just awesome?! I have written several articles on characters. If you like 福 (fú, blessing), you might also enjoy my article on character placement and how it affects the meaning.



红包 (Red Envelopes)


If you have younglings at home, then you need to (generally) prepare some pocket money and buy some red envelopes. It is tradition to put the money in red envelopes and give to kids in the family after they say their Chinese New Year greetings. Keep in mind that "4" is an unlucky number because it sounds eerily similar to 死 (death), so we do not give any monetary value worth 4 in it. The act of giving kids red envelopes symbolizes good luck.




hóng bāo

Red Envelopes


die; death



新年礼物 (Chinese New Year Gifts)


Besides the red envelopes, you can give gifts as well, usually to relatives and friends. Some common gifts include Chinese New Year sweets (usually for kids), alcohol, tea sets, clothes, or other gift ideas.




xīn nián

New Year


lĭ wù



xīn nián lĭ wù

New Year's gifts



扫尘 (House Cleaning)


Ok, now we are set with our exterior decoration and gift preparation, time to work on our interior decoration. One of the biggest activities is to clean the house, which is known as 扫尘. It symbolizes sweeping away bad luck and getting the house ready to welcome new blessings. If you missed the entire year to clean up your house, now is the perfect time to clean up your house. You might just have a few extra pounds of dust to clean up. Trust me, I know. Just don’t ask how I know. Remember the couplets from earlier? It is time to put those up once your house is ready for a festival makeover.




to sweep




săo chén

House cleaning



Activities - Family Reunions & Visiting Friends


As we get older and learn to become an adult, we start to explore different cities for more opportunities. A lot of times we end up working somewhere far from our family. Chinese New Year is the one occasion that brings family members together. We will also visit extended families and give them our greetings.


团圆 (tuán yuan, family reunion) - The entire family will gather and enjoy a big meal together, we call this activity 吃团圆饭(chī tuán yuán fàn, to have a reunion dinner). While also, 拜年 (bài nián) is the act of visiting friends and relatives to give them our Chinese New Year greetings.




tuán yuán



tuán yuán fàn

reunion dinner


chī tuán yuán fàn

to have a reunion dinner


bài nián

to give Chinese New Year greetings





Oh don’t get it twisted, this is not just a “hi” and “bye” type of conversation. When we visit our relatives and friends, we use auspicious greetings that often comprise of four characters, such as the following:




xīn nián kuài lè

Happy New Year


gōng xĭ fā cái

Congratulations and wish you prosperity


wàn shì rú yì

Smooth sailing



For children and teens, they will often receive red envelopes from their elders after they say the greetings. If you want to spice up your lucky greetings a bit, you can always use the following greeting phrase at your own risk:


  • 恭喜发财, 红包拿来 | gōng xĭ fā cái, hóng bāo ná lái (Congratulations and wish you prosperity, now hand over my red envelope).


This is a phrase that children and teens say for fun, sometimes. I used it when I was a kid, and I got my red envelopes (I think). Use this phrase with caution; results may vary.



Let’s Eat!


You can’t the turn of a calendar year festivities without food. This is the time where you can let go and eat all that delicious food that you have been craving for all year long. Enjoy it as much as you can since you are going to regret it after you see the weight gain. You can always stand and walk while you are taking an online class with your teacher. There are a lot of Chinese New Year dishes; and we will be here until the next Chinese New Year if I was to list them all out. But some common Chinese New Year dishes include meat, fish, and noodles.


  • Meat - Meat dishes such as chicken, pork, duck, and so on.
  • Fish - Fish is prepared but not eaten fully (sometimes not even eaten at all). The remainder of the fish is to be stored overnight to represent “surpluses” every year because of the saying 年年有余 (nián nián yŏu yú, to have surpluses every year). (yú, fish) and (yú, surpluses) are homophones.
  • Noodles - Uncut noodles represent longevity. It is also good to know that noodles are served on birthdays as well.



Fireworks and Firecrackers


You are either going to love or hate this. I love fireworks, just don’t ask me to light them. Nothing says a beautiful Chinese New Year celebration than those sparkling lights in the starry night. Due to fire hazard issues as well as concerns over pollution, most major cities in China do not allow the lighting of fireworks now.




yān huā



biān pào



fàng yān huā

To light fireworks


fàng biān pào

To light firecrackers



The Lantern Festival marks the last day


The 15th day of Chinese New Year is known as the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of Chinese New Year celebration. On this day, Northerners usually eat 元宵 (yuán xiāo), and Southerners usually eat 汤圆 (tāng yuan). Families would walk on the street carrying lighted lanterns as a custom to guide spirits home.




yuán xiāo jié

Lantern Festival


yuán xiāo

Sweet glutinous rice balls


tāng yuán

Sweet glutinous rice balls boiled in soup



Different areas might celebrate Chinese New Year differently. For example, in my hometown, we would have a parade for deities, and luckily, the parade will have fireworks. Talk to your italki teacher and see how he or she celebrates Chinese New Year and share your findings with the community in the comment section!




Hero image by David Wei Wong (CC BY 2.0)