This February 12 marks the start of Lunar New Year, a festival celebrated in many countries that begins with the first new moon of the lunar calendar. In Vietnam, Lunar New Year is known as Tết; in Korea it’s known as Seollal. In the U.S., it is most commonly associated with what’s often called Chinese New Year, the American version of China’s 15-day-long festivities.
This year marks the Year of the Ox, one of twelve zodiacs in the cycle. Below, scholars from the UC Irvine School of Humanities explain the holiday’s origin and its many celebrations.
What is the origin of Lunar New Year and what does the Year of the Ox mean?
“The 12-animal zodiac is important to people of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Mongolia, Tibet, and other East Asian cultures, although its origin is somewhat obscure, possibly beginning in animal worship of northern nomadic tribes. By about the first century AD, the 12 zodiac animals became matched to the more ancient calendar of 60-year cycle used by the central states of China.
A Buddhist legend tells of the animals rushing to bid farewell to the dying Buddha. This the Chinese folklore changed to a competition among the animals when the Jade Emperor was choosing palace guards. In either version, the ox was to be the first to arrive, but the rat cheated by riding on the ox’s back and made a last-minute dash to the finish line.
Those born in the Year of the Ox are diligent, persistent and honest. The Year of the Ox is believed to be a time when difficulties can be overcome by steady and patient work (may it be so!).”
– Hu Ying, professor of East Asian studies
How is Lunar New Year celebrated around the world?
“I immigrated at the age of six and grew up in Spokane, Washington, which was home to a small Chinese American community. My family socialized with other small business owners and their families as well as international students and faculty. But it was a far cry from the large concentrations in Seattle and Vancouver, where we visited once a year to stock up on Chinese groceries and to eat dim sum. Since our family ran a restaurant, initially, and then a convenience store, we rarely had time for extended holiday celebrations. So, even though I was aware of Lunar New Year (eating lucky foods like dumplings and fish, receiving red envelopes from elders in exchange for happy new year salutations and wishes of good fortune, or knowing my zodiac year — I am a monkey), it never felt like the important holiday that it was supposed to be.
Ironically, my first publication on the Miss Chinatown Beauty Pageant explored how Chinese New Year’s celebrations, specifically those in San Francisco Chinatown, served multiple functions. While the pageant represented an opportunity for young Chinese American women to connect with members of their community and to learn about Chinese culture, it also drew in tourists to patronize businesses. This served as an economic lifeline for a community that originated from racial segregation in the 19th century and continued into the 20th century as one of the most underserved urban communities in the country. During the Cold War, as the U.S. engaged in conflicts with the People’s Republic of China, Chinatown residents reassured tourists that they were allied with the pro-U.S. Republic of China, celebrating Lunar New Year, not the socialist incarnation of spring festival.
So, when I think of Lunar New Year, I reflect on how cultural practices shift over time and place. Even as Chinese people in the U.S., and around the world, celebrate ‘tradition,’ they also invent new meanings and practices that reflect the diasporic context of their lives.”
– Judy Wu, professor of Asian American studies and faculty director of the UC Irvine Humanities Center
“Lunar New Year is an important holiday in South Korea, and the Seollal is the same date as the Chinese Lunar New Year. Most Korean Americans (many of them Christians) do not celebrate it because many of them immigrated when the holiday itself was suppressed and Seollal is often associated with ancestral rites, which Christianity does not observe for it is a Confucian ceremony. TTeokguk is ubiquitously eaten for the rice cake is a symbol of prosperity. And saebae (bowing to the elder) is a tradition that is commonly seen in most families — even the ones who are not particularly Confucian to offer blessings for the new year.
Since the Japanese do not observe the Lunar New Year, and because Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945, the celebration was suppressed during this period and was muted also during the subsequent period of military dictatorship in the South. It was only revived officially as a holiday in 1989 because so many families, even after close to 100 years of its erasure, continued to observe it. Now, it is a bigger holiday than the Western New Year on January 1st.”
– Kyung Hyun Kim, professor of East Asian studies
“In Vietnam, the Lunar New Year is popularly known as ‘Tết,’ a term derived from the Sino-Vietnamese ‘Tiết,’ which came from the Chinese noun 節, meaning ‘weather’ or ‘festival.’ Since Vietnamese people also celebrate New Year on January 1st, they distinguish between their own ‘Tết ta’ (‘Our New Year’) and ‘Tết tây’ (‘the Western New Year’).
In Vietnam, people enjoy a long week off to ring in the New Year, filled with events and activities such as spring markets, family visits, New Year’s foods and traditional card and chess games. In the overseas Vietnamese communities, especially in Little Saigon, Westminster, Tết is still an important holiday, when the Vietnamese expats celebrate this traditional occasion as authentically as they have the means to, including the merry firecracker burning practice that starts at ‘Giao Thừa,’ or midnight of New Year’s Eve.”
– Tri C. Tran, lecturer of Vietnamese
What foods are eaten for Lunar New Year?
“A time-honored holiday, the Lunar New Year remained something that I looked forward to as a child even under the anti-traditionalism of the radical Cultural Revolution because of the yummy and festive foods. In the diaspora, Chinese people have continued to use traditional foods to celebrate this holiday, reconnecting with cultural traditions, family and community. One such food is fish, symbolizing prosperity, because its pronunciation in Chinese is the same as that for the word ‘surplus.’ It conveys a wish for prosperity, a prominent theme in numerous foods. Another universally significant theme is togetherness, embodied in foods like sticky rice ball soup (tang yuan) and glutinous rice cakes (New Year’s cake). This theme is all more important during the pandemic when many people are forced into isolated existence. For my family and others in south China, making dumplings was a special occasion that invited the participation and collaboration from everyone.”
– Yong Chen, professor of history and author of ;“Chop Suey, U.S.A.: The Story of Chinese Food in America”
Where should I get involved at UC Irvine?
Within the UC Irvine School of Humanities, there are a number of ways to engage with Asian scholarship, events and initiatives. We are home to the Department of East Asian Studies where you can major or minor in Chinese studies, East Asian studies, Japanese language and literature, and Korean literature and culture, and minor in Asian studies and Japanese studies, and the Department of Asian American Studies, where you can major or minor in Asian American studies. Our Center for Critical Korean Studies is a hub for research and programming around the study of Korean subjects across disciplinary boundaries.