Lunar New Year in 2023 will mark the start of the Year of the Rabbit and Year of the Cat. ANU experts explain the significance of the celebration.

Lunar New Year is the most important celebration in the Chinese calendar and for many other Asian cultures. This year, it falls on 22 January, marking the start of the Year of the Rabbit, or Year of the Cat in the Vietnamese zodiac. 

But what’s special about Lunar New Year? And why are the years named after animals?  

Let’s hop to it and find out.  

Legend says that Buddha invited all the world’s animals to meet him on New Year’s Day and named a year after each of the 12 animals that attended. That’s how the animals of the Chinese calendar came into being. The sequence of the animals was decided by the order in which they arrived. 

As well as being represented by one of 12 zodiac animals, each year in the Chinese lunisolar calendar is associated with one of five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The 2023 Lunar New Year is the fourth in the zodiac and the Year of the Water Rabbit. 

This year is Year of the Rabbit in the Chinese zodiac. Photo: xiaoliangge/stock.adobe.com

What does the Year of the Rabbit symbolise? 

“The rabbit is a creature that denotes peace, calm and elegance, but also ingenuity, wit, vigilance, agility, adaptability and clear-sightedness— qualities we should remember and emulate in 2023,” Associate Professor Shengyu Fan, from the ANU School of Culture, History and Language, says.  

“Based on Chinese legend, the rabbit was the pet of moon goddess Chang’e.”   

Years of the Rabbit include 2023, 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939 and 1927. 

“In the Chinese zodiac and culturally speaking, the Rabbit is closely related to human (productive) life and hope,” ANU Chinese Studies expert Dr Fengyuan Ji says.   

“Rabbits are regarded as being smart and good at protecting themselves, therefore they often play witty roles in ancient Chinese folk stories. Overall, rabbits symbolise wit, prudence and skill.” 

Why is it the Year of the Cat in Vietnam? 

Tết Nguyên Đán, or Tết in short, is Vietnam’s Lunar New Year, celebrated on the same day as the Lunar New Year in Chinese culture.  

Lunar New Year in Vietnam is marked with the Tet Festival.Photo: Tatiana/stock.adobe.com

In Vietnam, 2023 is the Year of the Cat. While the animal signs of the Vietnamese and Chinese zodiac are largely the same, the fourth sign differs. The Vietnamese zodiac features the cat instead of the rabbit, possibly because the Mandarin pronunciation for the Chinese zodiac sign of Rabbit is ‘mao 卯’, which is very similar to the Vietnamese word for cat (meo).

Fortunately, the rabbit and the cat share the quality of agility. 

What traditions are integral to Lunar Year celebrations? 

While Lunar New Year, sometimes called the Spring Festival in Chinese culture, has been widely embraced across Australian society for years, many of us are curious to learn more about how it is celebrated. 

Many people do a thorough spring clean of the entire house, which symbolises getting rid of the old and welcoming the new, Ji explains. They also paste the Chinese character “Fu” (prosperity 福) on doors, hoping the New Year will bring good luck. 

Shopping and preparing food in the lead up to the New Year’s Day is a significant task. Most people have a big family feast on New Year’s Eve (年夜饭), including making and eating dumplings, and then those who are able to, stay up to usher in the New Year (Shou sui 守岁).  

“The Chinese typically have a strong culture of food and gift giving,” Ji says. “People often celebrate the New Year by getting together with family and friends at dinner tables. In the past, they would cook at home, but now most people would eat out.” 

During the entire two-week New Year period, which ends with the Lantern Festival, most good restaurants would be booked out.  

“Among numerous lavish dishes there is often a whole fish dish, which symbolises everyone’s future prosperity,” Ji says.  

“While in recent years the Chinese Government banned fireworks in big cities on grounds of pollution, this year many cities have allowed the practice again. From fire to finery, people also put on their new or best clothes to bring in the New Year.” 

For thousands of years, one of the most important traditions has been to visit (bainian 拜年) relatives, close friends, good neighbours and old associates (including favourite school teachers), often with gifts in hand.  

The New Year greeting in Chinese is ‘xin nian kuai le’, which literally means Happy New Year, but in Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking regions, ‘gong hei fat choy’ (or ‘gong xi fa cai’ (恭喜发财) in Mandarin) is more common—this translates to ‘congratulations on the fortune’!  

This is the most social period in China.  However, in a digital era, many people have substituted physical visits with greeting messages online, usually via WeChat.   

Children often receive a Red Packet (hongbao 红包) from their parents, grandparents and close relatives that contains cash, from just a few to thousands of dollars depending on the child’s age and the family’s financial circumstances.  

Top image: Mariia Korneeva/stock.abobe.com

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