Chinese NEW YEAR - The INDIAN Connection

  • Article tells u about the origins of Chinese New Year, gives information on Hindu and Chinese calendars. Fascinating read.

Coming of a new year is a matter of joy all over the world. It is celebrated in different ways in different countries. Some follow their traditional ways along with the western popular style that begins on the first January. The Chinese New Year falls sometime in January-February.


There are two important factors to discuss- one is the calendar and the other is the way of celebrating it with lanterns. Its date is not fixed on the Gregorian calendar because it follows the traditional calendars like India. Both are based on lunar and solar calculations.


The lunar calendar is governed by waxing and waning of moon while the solar calendar follows the movement of stars and constellations around the sun. Chinese have faith in no moon and full moon days. No moon day is called shuo in China and the full moon day wang. A Chinese month begins from the day when moon disappears means Amavasya.


Another way, the Chinese calculate a year is based on solar system- one tropical year spans from one ‘Spring Vernal Equinox’ to the next. It is the day when Sun stands directly over equator. And there is a shift from the southern hemisphere to the northern. In India it is known as sun’s entry into uttarayana- northern hemisphere, from dakshinayana- the southern. This year it is falling on 20th March. According to the lunar calculations the Hindu New Year is on 25th March- the first navaratra of Chaitra month. 


This year the Chinese New Year celebrations are going to start on 25th January 2020 and will continue up to 8th February.


25th January is Amavasya - no moon day and 8-9th February is Purnima- full moon day in the month of Magha according to the traditional Hindu calendar. On this day the first full moon of the year is celebrated as Lantern Festival- the New Year. Chinese state that their calendar began during 60th year of the reign of Yellow Emperor in 2637 BC with new year celebrations.


Till date it includes cleaning homes, family get togethers, reunion dinners on the last day, elder people give money in red envelops to the younger, children stay awake till mid night, people enjoy opera, martial arts, lion and dragon dances etc.  


The Lantern Festival is actually Divali, celebrated as New Year but today the earthen lamps are replaced by beautifully decorated lanterns. Beautifully decorated lanterns in huge numbers are the main attraction on a New Year. In ancient times lanterns used to be simple, only the emperors and noblemen had large ones.

Thais celebrate with Lanterns on day celebrated as Kartik Purnima in India.


Lanterns symbolize wish for a bright future and love. They are often made in red and golden colors. Red means happiness and gold is a symbol of wealth. In India gold coins are a symbolize wealth. According to the Chinese history of ‘Lantern Festival’ goes back to Western Han dynasty (206-25 BC).  In ancient times Divali, the Festival of lamps was called Denglung in Chinese.


The Chinese day of celebrating Lantern Festivals concurs Indian celebration as full moon day of the eleventh month of Magha called ‘Maghi Purnima’, an auspicious day. It is a celebration of a seasonal change also from dull winter to warm summer. It is deeply rooted in the minds of the people that a morning bath should be taken before stars and moon disappear so that energy can be absorbed better. This needs to be studied scientifically.  


May be the sky is clearer in comparison to other days. Puranas talk a lot about it. Donating warm clothes, and food that is good for health in that weather, is common among people.


Buddhists in Thailand celebrate Maghi Purnima like Divali. It is a major festival connected with the life of the Buddha with a faith that he announced about his impending death on that day. So, lamps are lit to overcome sorrow and get inner strength to bear it.


There are historical records and beliefs about the origin of the festival. It is linked to the Emperor Ming of Han when Buddhism reached China. Emperor Ming was a devotee of Buddhism, when he noticed Buddhist monks lighting lamps in temples, he was so impressed that he ordered that all the households, temples and imperial palaces should light lanterns on that day. From thence onwards it began as a custom.


The Chinese believe that darkness of winter begins to decline on that day.  According to a legend it was a time to worship Taiyi, the god of Heaven who controls destiny of the people. In India people go for dips in holy rivers, with a faith that taking a dip in cold water in holy rivers paves a way to heaven. The holy river Ganga is compared to ksheer Sagar where Lord Vishnu resides.


Beginning with Qingshi Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, all the emperor ordered for splendid ceremony each year praying for favorable weather, good health. Emperor Wudi of Han dynasty proclaimed in 104 BC this to be the most important ceremony that would last throughout the night. Festival of lamps. Historians accept that the Han Emperor Ming believed in effulgence of Buddhism and ordered to lit lamps in big numbers, which continued for centuries.


In the ‘Brief History of Buddhist Monks’ compiled during Sung period it is mentioned that an Indian monk called Shatoa (Sadhu) or Putuo in 713, during T’ang dynasty, had suggested to lit a hundred thousand lamps in the capital of the Emperor Ruizong. Rev. Zanning mentions an edict from 749 AD by the same T’ang emperor which gives a description of celebrating the lamp festival in the Imperial capital.

Festival of Lights celebrations in Thailand, started during Sukhothai period.


It continued as a grand festival for three days celebrated with maximum gusto in the Imperial Palace. The history tells that there used to be gorgeous decorations called wheels of lamps, Deepavali with a brilliantly lit gigantic structure of 200 hundred feet high.


The poets who wrote rhymes on celebrating the festivity often alluded to the ‘King of Lamp’ called dengwang, meaning deepa chakra, which is one of the nicknames of the Buddha. During this two week-long New Year festival shops in China are full of decorations. Some people do not like haircut on a certain day; one day they do not broom their houses; another day daughters come with their families to meet their parents.

Thus, celebration of a New Year demonstrates how deeply Indian knowledge and customs are rooted in the social life of the people. It began with fascination of the Chinese for the Indian science of astronomy, calendrical knowhow and mathematics by seventh-eighth centuries.

Sanskrit texts written on such subjects were known as “P’o-lo-men” or “Brahmin books”. Polo-men became a generic title for the texts on these sciences. Indian astronomers served on the Chinese Imperial Board during the T’ang dynasty.

In the seventh century three Indian astronomical schools were known in China - Gautama, Kasyapa and Kumara. The official history of the Sui dynasty, completed in AD 610, contains a catalogue of Sanskrit texts on astronomy, mathematics, calendrical methods and pharmaceuticals. There is a lot to be discovered in such texts translated into Chinese from Sanskrit.


Author, Prof. Dr. Shashibala, is Dean, Centre of Indology, BHARATIYA VIDYA BHAVAN, New Delhi. Pictures 1 and 2 courtesy Thai Tourism. 


To read all articles by author


Also read

1. Indology in China

2. India and China – The Beyond and the Within by RKM

3. How Indian Masters controlled Epidemics in China earlier

4. Festival of Lights Thailand

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