The Lunar “Chinese” New Year: A New Beginning

When I was a kid, I celebrated the “Chinese New Year” in Malaysia with my family.

When we moved back to Australia seven years after living in Asia, to my confusion I learnt that the “Lunar New Year” is often used to refer to the “Chinese New Year” in Melbourne. Both phrases are used interchangeably literally everywhere here – on posters, flyers and billboards to name a few – time and time again.

Call it the Lunar or Chinese New Year, the start of the lunar calendar is a new beginning | Weekly Photo Challenge: Beginning. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Call it the Lunar or Chinese New Year, the start of the lunar calendar is a new beginning | Weekly Photo Challenge: Beginning. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Do the two phrases mean the same thing? Do people confuse the two terms?

Both phrases arguably have slightly nuanced differences. Many Asian cultures follow the lunar calendar, the dates of which are determined by the ever-changing cycles of the moon orbiting the earth, as opposed to the Gregorian or Western calendar. According to Wikipedia, the “Lunar New Year” refers to:

(T)he beginning of the year in several calendars. It is based on a lunar calendar or a lunisolar calendar.

When the lunar calendar begins in some Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and China, it is usually the Chinese who celebrate this event. Naturally, it makes sense for the terms “Chinese New Year” or “Spring Festival” to be generally thrown around in these places instead of the “Lunar New Year” – this is a celebration mainly for their culture, their race, an occasion not exactly relevant to the other ethnicities around them.

Likewise at the same time of the year in other Asian countries, the Vietnamese or the majority race celebrate what is normally called the “Vietnamese New Year” (Tết) in Vietnam while the Koreans the “Korean New Year” (Sŏllal) in Korea. Cambodians call the festival the “Cambodian New Year” (Chaul Chnam Thmey) and Thais “Thai New Year” (Songkran), albeit celebrating at different times of the year as both follow contrasting lunar calendars.

Each Asian group celebrates and ushers in the new lunar calendar in various ways. The phrase “Lunar New Year” is in a sense an umbrella term not only used to refer to the start of the new lunar calendar but also to all celebrations by all races that deem this time of the year significant. People of different Asian ethnicities make up minority Asian communities in Western countries, so it is debatably fitting to hear this term more here than the “Chinese New Year”.

I’ve always wondered what Westerners think when either phrase is mentioned. Do Westerners think only the Chinese celebrate the start of the Asian calendar? Do they think of the celebrations as over-the-top noisy and annoying? I’m inclined to guess some Australians think otherwise given that there are a multitude of Asian communities in their faces that put in a lot of effort into organising prominent New Year festivities in different suburbs each year.

Fireworks, firecrackers, lion dances, feasting and “Happy New Year” greetings in Chinese and English are all part and parcel of welcoming the new lunar calendar. At the end of the day, the “Lunar New Year” and “Chinese New Year” are synonymous terms that signify the start of something new.

A new year. A new beginning.

What comes to mind when you hear the term Lunar New Year/Chinese New Year?

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25 thoughts on “The Lunar “Chinese” New Year: A New Beginning

  1. In Thailand, people who have Chinese ancesters still perform the traditional celebration for Chinese new year. Chinese and Thais are mixed together well so we will aware of this new year celebration every year.

    My grandad was also from China mainland. However, my dad hasn’t been taught about the method of celebration because my grandad has passed away early and my grandma doesn’t continue the ceremony in our family. So that’s why I haven’t celebrated any Chinese new year even though I have around 30% Chinese mixed with Thai from my mother’s family. Still, I can experience this traditional celebration from my friends and colleagues whose family are related to Chinese culture especially all the food and sweets that they would share with us after the celebration.

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    • That’s very interesting to hear that you have Chinese and Thai heritage, and call it the Chinese New Year. It is always fun to join in festivities with friends and colleagues. Most of the time, they are more than happy to explain the foods and sweets that they make or the significance of the cultural dances they perform. It is sort of like Christmas – no matter what race or religion you are, you are welcome to join in the celebrations and you might receive surprise presents from your friends/colleagues 🙂

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  2. My only complaint about ‘Chinese’ new year, as I’ve always thought of it, is getting to be such a big event that is to crowded to actually see the parade. I think it’s an exciting time of year.

    I hadn’t heard the term ‘lunar’ new year very much until recently but I think your suggestion that it’s a more appropriate term makes a lot of sense, especially in Australia where the Asian population is so diverse.

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    • It is a big event. When the lion dances start in Melbourne’s Chinatown, there will always be big crowds and if you aren’t in front you can’t see much. Some people even gather and crowd around one hour before the show starts. These parades get uncomfortable especially if the temperatures are 30 degrees or up. But yes, it is an exciting time of the year as the shows, dances and parades are always different to some extent 😀

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  3. I used both terms before and didn’t really thought much about it until recently. Couple of years ago I saw some internet campaign aimed at calling it “lunar new year” and not “Chinese new year” anymore and so forth. I can’t really say much anymore about that campaign as I only remember what I have mentioned about it already 😉
    These days I say Chinese new year when around Chinese people and lunar new year when around other people”.
    Btw. I love to watch on Chinese TV she traditional New Year show. Table full of snacks and just enjoying the day :=)

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    • Come to think of it, I say Chinese New Year when I’m around Chinese people too and Lunar New Year when I’m around non-Asians. Around non-Chinese Asians, they usually refer to it as the Lunar New Year anyway. The Chinese like me are just so accustomed to calling it Chinese New Year! I have never heard my Chinese Malaysian parents or grandparents refer to it as the Lunar New Year.

      There are tons of Chinese New Year TV shows when the new lunar calendar comes round 🙂 A lot of them are usually singing-dancing shows. I remember in Malaysia when I visited my relatives’ house during this time of the year, they never failed to put these shows on TV. If not, they put on some CNY karaoke DVD – the songs tend to be very fast and as I don’t know Mandarin or Cantonese it was hard to sing along!

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  4. Pingback: Beginning… | Words 'n Pics...

  5. Having spent a lot of time around non-Chinese Asians I see it more as Lunar new year. My wife wants to celebrate it and I’d like to as well but I find it is hard to do so when we aren’t in a community celebrating it. Meanwhile, we can’t not celebrate Christmas even though we perhaps would like not to celebrate it.

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    • I would imagine it would be challenging to celebrate the LNY in a community of people that generally don’t celebrate it. Shops there wouldn’t be selling red packets, firecrackers, traditional Chinese/Asian food, and there wouldn’t be lion dances there. The LNY is generally a boisterous celebration and those who don’t celebrate it might think it’s a racket.

      A very interesting point there with Christmas. It seems a sin not to celebrate it. I’ve never been one to celebrate Christmas apart from a few years as a kid my parents insisted we wrap presents and give them to one another. These days in Australia whenever Christmas rolls around, we’re expected to attend social and work Christmas parties – no escape. However, in Malaysia and Singapore I get the impression people see Christmas a shopping day – retail is in full swing on this “public holiday” and people hit the shops like there’s no tomorrow. A very different spirit of Christmas.

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  6. Great post… I still link together Spring Festival/Chinese New Year to Lunar New Year (in the States it pretty much means the same), but the terms use to really confuse me. Even today, though, Lunar New Year can be confusing because of what you mention above (Thailand, Myanmar, etc…) celebrating their Lunar New Year at different times of the year versus Chinese New Year.

    It always a pretty exciting time, no matter when it falls ~ a new beginning can always excite the soul. Wish you well and happy holidays (I really like this time of year…from the USA holiday Thanksgiving to the “Chinese New Year”, such a nice/happy time).

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    • Thanks, Dalo. Like you, I still think the terms are confusing today. There’s definitely more to meets the eye to the two terms in a sense, but they do refer to the same occasion(s). I’ve often wondered if the Chinese ever think it funny some of us call it the Lunar New Year. I’ve never heard my Chinese Malaysian parents, relatives or grandparents call it the Lunar New Year. They always proudly proclaim it as the Chinese New Year, claiming the festival as theirs.

      Celebrations and the start of anything is always exciting: hope, new possibilities and the chance to start afresh. Thanks for the well wishes. I hope you had a great one over Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, and next – the Lunar/Chinese New Year!

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  7. Off topic. I’ve bought the Kodaline album and all songs are truly great. I really love all of them. Thank you for your advice as I firstly thought that I might not have liked other songs apart from ‘All I want’.
    Just wanna let you know 🙂

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    • Thanks for sharing, Completely Disappear. My favourite song off the Kodaline album is “Big Bad World”. You can always preview songs in iTunes before you buy. If you are keen, you can also check out the bands Woodlock and Amistat – they are similar to Kodaline 🙂 Happy New Year!

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  8. Mabel, I have a really embarrassing confession to make… Before I went to Taiwan, I knew nothing at all about the Lunar New Year. When I arrived in Taiwan in December of 2009, it was almost upon me… Chinese New Year is what all of my American coworkers called it, but as I spent more time in Asia, I came to realize what you said: that Lunar New Year is really a much better term for it, as it most certainly isn’t only celebrated in China. I love the Lunar New Year, with all of its crazy traditions and fireworks and excitement. I hope that yours is wonderful this year. We don’t really notice it much here in the States.

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    • Nothing is really embarrassing… Okay, at first it might seem embarrassing to admit that we’re different but everyone is unique in their own way with their own skills and knowledge. When I was growing up in Malaysia, I naively thought that only Chinese people celebrated the Lunar New Year, and I kept on thinking this for almost ten years. To be honest, I still feel funny calling the occasion the Lunar New Year – there is some Chineseness or Chinese sentiment attached to the festival for me that I can’t shake off, I suppose.

      I wish that the Lunar New Year was celebrated more in the States! I can imagine your awe-struck and happy face seeing the crazy celebrations and fireworks!

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      • Yes, well it *is* celebrated here in Asian communities. I just wasn’t exposed to them growing up… I lived in a very white community, unfortunately. Thank goodness I had the chance to go abroad! I DO love the crazy celebrations around the Lunar New Year!

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  9. I’ve always heard the term “Chinese New Year”, but your distinction re “Lunar New Year” now makes sense. I’m never sure how to wish people for this occasion, and, of course, it depends where they come from, and what language they speak! The celebrations are always a lot if fun to witness.

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    • Yes, the celebrations are a lot fun to watch. In Melbourne’s Chinatown, every year people crowd around in different laneways, hoping the lions (dancers) will appear down the lane where they’re standing. I too don’t know how to wish people for this particular occasion. “Happy Lunar New Year” – that’s something you rarely hear actually. “Happy Chinese New Year” to me sounds a bit weird in English – and also not something you hear too much. Maybe we should just wish one another “Happy New Year”. Everyone gets that 🙂

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  10. Ok, I cheat because I’ve lived in Australia and Asia (Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Papua New Guinea – this last country doesn’t count for the Chinese New Year, lol) and I always understood that yes Chinese New Year is the Lunar year, but the Lunar year is also celebrated in many different countries and cultures. I love celebrating the Chinese New Year. This next year will be my year, snake, so I guess I’ll have to do something nice for it 😉 Great post Mabel! xx

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    • Isn’t the next year year of the horse? I may be wrong, there are so many zodiac animals! These days the world is so globalised, so I suppose there is bound to be a group of people celebrating the Lunar/Chinese New Year in each part of the world every year. Maybe some countries have quieter celebrations than others, especially the Western countries that tend to only last a day or two, or even half a day. But the important thing at the end of the day is that we enjoy the festivities 🙂

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  11. Pingback: Mabel Kwong on Chinese and Lunar New Year | Where Are You From?

  12. I think sometimes people use the term “Chinese” as a generic term for “Asian” and don’t recognise the different cultures. But saying Chinese New Year, most people know what means, so there’s no problem.

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    • So true. Sometimes some people assume all Asians are Chinese. But with the popularity of sushi and K-pop, this mentality seems to be dwindling, at least a little. It’s good that many people recognise what Chinese New Year is – it’s a celebration celebrated by the Chinese.

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