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Happy Lunar New Year!

The following is a guest post by Laney Zhang, our Chinese law specialist at the Law Library of Congress.  Laney has previously written posts for In Custodia Legis about pandas, trains and corruption, and Chinese supreme court clothing.  Earlier this week she wrote Crouching Tiger, Hidden Author.

My favorite traditional Chinese holiday is coming next week! Yes, it’s the Chinese New Year, also known as the “Lunar New Year” or “Spring Festival.”  The holiday is based on the Chinese lunar calendar.  Therefore, the New Year’s Day falls on a different day each year.  The coming Year of the Snake starts on Sunday, February 10.

Celebration of this major traditional holiday starts on New Year’s Eve, called Chu Xi, or even earlier in the last month of the old lunar calendar year.  Chinese families gather on Chu Xi for the most important annual family reunion dinner.  It is a day of feast, fireworks, dumplings, money in red envelops (ya sui qian, given to children who may put them under their pillows at night), and more.  On the following days people pay visits to relatives and friends to greet each other (known as bai nian).

The celebration officially ends on the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar, called the Yuanxiao Festival, “Shangyuan Festival,” or “Lantern Festival,” which is the first full moon day of a lunar calendar year.  This is when Chinese eat sweet tang yuan (a round-shaped rice dumpling) to celebrate (similar to eating round moon cakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival, another full moon day in the eighth month of the lunar calendar).

“Beast Nian is Here!” One of the illustrations in Zhongguo Tonghua [Chinese Fairy Tales] (Hansheng, Taipei, 1982).

Sadly, we busy modern people living in an industrialized society cannot afford to spend half a month with families to celebrate the beginning of a fresh new year.  In China, where the Chinese New Year is observed as a national public holiday, people get three days off work—one of the longest periods for a public holiday— but actually they will be off for an entire week. This is because of an interesting feature of Chinese public holidays: weekends before or after the holidays are usually swapped with the weekdays next to the actual holiday to create a long holiday week.  The State Council formulates and declares the actual non-working days for observance of public holidays each year.  This year, the Chinese New Year holiday week will be February 9-15; the following Saturday and Sunday, February 16-17, are working days, creating seven consecutive working days after the festival.

I did a little further research on how Chinese public holidays evolved, and found that the Spring Festival is the only traditional Chinese festival that has been observed as a public holiday throughout the history of the People’s Republic of China!  On December 23, 1949, two months after the official establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the Government Administration Council (zheng wu yuan, predecessor of the State Council) published the first decree on the observance of public holidays.  According to the 1949 Decree, the following holidays would be observed by all Chinese nationwide:

  • New Year’s Day (January 1);
  • Spring Festival (first three days of the lunar calendar year);
  • Labor Day (May 1);
  • National Day (October 1-2).

Fifty years later, the State Council made a new decree on public holidays in 1999.  The 1999 Decree kept the types of holidays that are observed unchanged, but added two days to the Labor Day holiday and one day to the National Day holiday:

  • New Year’s Day (January 1);
  • Spring Festival (first three days of the lunar calendar year);
  • Labor Day (May 1-3);
  • National Day (October 1-3).

Two new long holiday weeks were therefore created: the Labor Day week and the National Day week, which became “golden weeks” for travel and tourism, especially considering that annual leave in China is limited (5 days for 1-10 years employment; 10 days for 10-20 years; 25 days for 20 years onwards, according to a 2007 State Council Regulation).  Under the 1999 Decree, the Chinese New Year remained the only traditional holiday to be observed as a public holiday.

Nine years after the issuance of the 1999 Decree, on January 1, 2008, a new State Council decree on the observance of public holidays took effect, removing the Labor Day long holiday week by eliminating two days.  It also added three new one-day public holidays based on the traditional festivals: the Qingming Festival, Dragon Boat Festival (duan wu jie), and Mid-Autumn Festival (zhong qiu jie).

In the 2008 Decree, the observance of the New Year’s Day and National Day remained unchanged.  The Chinese New Year holiday is still three days, but starts from Chu Xi to the second day of the lunar New Year:

  • New Year’s Day (January 1);
  • Spring Festival (Chu Xi and the first and second days of the lunar calendar);
  • Qingming Festival (the beginning day of the fifth solar term in the Chinese lunar calendar) ;
  • Labor Day (May 1);
  • Dragon Boat Festival (the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar);
  • Mid-Autumn Festival (the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunar calendar) ; and
  • National Day (October 1, 2 and 3).

Guangzhou Railway Station during Spring Festival (by Junyu Wang)

In addition to the public holidays observed by all, special groups get time off to celebrate their own holidays: women workers get half a day off on Women’s Day (March 8); youth over the age of 14 get a half day off on Youth Day (May 4); children under age 14 get a whole day off on Children’s Day (June 1); and soldiers get one day off on August 1 in celebration of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

A tip: refrain from calling your friends or clients in China from February 9 to 15 this year.  They will be off celebrating the Chinese New Year until the following weekend when they all come back to work.  It is very difficult to pick up your phone when fighting your way home like those in this picture of the Spring Festival travel season (chunyun).

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