Based on a lunisolar calendar, the Chinese New Year differentiates from other Lunar New Years, as it takes into account both the Earth’s rotation around the Sun and the Moon’s phases. So, the Chinese New Year comes with the first New Moon after 1 January, which this year falls on 10 February, starting off the 15-day holiday, also named the Spring Festival.
1. The Chinese calendar
Each year is assigned an animal from a list of 12 and a “heavenly branch”, or a natural element, form a list of 5. In order, the animals are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. The heavenly branches are: Earth, Metal, Water, Wood and Fire. From 10 February this year until 28 January 2025, it will be the year of the wood Dragon.
According to legend, the Jade Emperor, a mythical representation of the First God, organised the “Great Race” to determine which animals would have the honour of being included in the calendar and in which order. Along the race, the animals had to cross a river. Because they couldn’t swim, the Rat and Cat jumped on the back of the Ox, but, in a sneaky move, the Rat pushed the Cat off the back of the Ox before reaching the shore, then jumped off ahead of the Ox and finished the race first.
The Ox came in second, followed by the Tiger and the Rabbit, then the Dragon only came in fifth. Surprised by how such a mighty creature, with far superior abilities compared to its competitors, didn’t finish sooner, the Jade Emperor asked what happened. The Dragon explained he detoured on the way to the finish line to put out a fire in a nearby village and then he also stopped to help the Rabbit, as he was struggling to reach the shore of the river. The Jade Emperor was astonished by the Dragon’s good nature and proudly named him as the fifth animal.
2. The Dragon
In Western cultures, dragons are thought of as mighty, but, more often than not, evil creatures, who terrorise villages or guard piles of Welsh Gold hidden deep within mountains. They usually need to be defeated by the hero of the story, symbolising not only physical battle, but also overcoming moral and ethical dilemmas.
In Chinese culture however, the dragon stands as a mighty emblem of imperial power, immortality, prosperity, good fortune and natural harmony. The word “loong” is used to differentiate the longer, thinner, wingless and bearded Chinese dragons from Western ones. Their shape takes characteristics from multiple animals – a snake body, pig head, goat beard, fish scales, deer antlers, bull ears and hawk claws, symbolising the coalescence of all the forces of nature in one creature.
The loong is portrayed as a benevolent creature that, opposed to its fire breathing cousins, brings rain and thus crop prosperity to the people. Due to its powerful significance, birthrates usually increase during years of the Dragon, as it is believed “Dragon babies” will be more fortunate in life.