Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese New Year
On 25 January, several cultures will be celebrating the first day of the Year of the Rat, based on calendars derived long ago from the Chinese lunisolar calendar. Koreans, Vietnamese, and of course, Chinese will be celebrating the New Year on the same day. Historically, Japan also used to celebrate the new year on the same day as the others. Japan adopted the Gregorian Calendar and started celebrating New Year on 1 January with the rest of the world since 1873. In mainland China, it is also known as the Spring Festival; in Korea, it is known as Seollal; in Vietnam, it is called Tết Nguyên Đán, or Tết for short.
So, among the Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese, what are some of the similarities, and what are some of the differences in their celebrations?
We’ll start off by observing the similarities among all three. What is immediately apparent is that all three share a similar focus on the family. The Chinese and Vietnamese will have a family reunion dinner on their respective New Year’s Eve, and it is treated as the most important meal of the year. Koreans will be visiting their families and performing ancestral rites during the three days before, during, as well as the day after Korean New Year.
New Year Money
During the visit to relatives, elders would customarily present money in envelopes to the younger generation. Chinese and Vietnamese use red envelopes, but South Koreans use silk bags in addition to envelopes which are usually white but could come in any colour or design. More recently, digital red envelopes have become popular in China, where people can send virtual red envelopes via mobile platforms.
Both Korea and Vietnam borrowed from the Chinese zodiac when they adopted the Chinese lunisolar calendar for their own, so it is little wonder that all three share a similar zodiac for the 12-year cycle, with one key difference in each culture: while the Chinese and Vietnamese zodiacs have the Goat zodiac, the Korean zodiac has the Sheep zodiac instead; while the Chinese and Korean zodiacs have the Rabbit zodiac, the Vietnamese zodiac has the Cat zodiac in its place. There are several theories as to why the Vietnamese have a cat instead of a rabbit like the rest of the countries that adopted the Chinese zodiac, with the most common explanation being that the ancient Chinese word for rabbit (mao) sounds like the Vietnamese word for cat (mèo).
Chinese New Year is traditionally celebrated for 11 days, as each of the days hold significance according to Chinese mythology and Daoism. Today, much of the mythical elements have been disregarded. Globally, official Chinese New Year holidays last anywhere between one (Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand) and four days (Taiwan), with China having three days officially but seven days in practice in Beijing, and different regions in China would celebrate it for up to 15 days. Seollal is celebrated for three days: the day before, during, and the day after Seollal. In Vietnam, public holidays for Tết can last anywhere between six to nine days, including the three days leading up to Tết.
For Chinese New Year, there is only one colour featured very prominently: red. Red symbolises good fortune and joy in Chinese and Vietnamese culture. Vietnamese also feature red during Tết, but yellow, which symbolises wealth and prosperity in Vietnamese culture, enjoys equal prominence alongside red. Meanwhile for Koreans, red symbolises passion, and because of the Korean War, red has also come to symbolise communism, which is quite unfavourable to South Koreans. Hence, during Seollal celebrations, there is no one colour that stands out among the rest.
Where should we go to celebrate them?
Chinese New Year—Beijing, China
For the biggest Chinese New Year celebration, there is none other than Beijing, the capital of China. There, temple fairs are one of the most important celebrations of Chinese New Year, especially for the two most recommended temple fairs in Beijing: Ditan Park Temple Fair and Dongyue Temple Fair. The biggest and most popular is Ditan Park Temple Fair, while the oldest one dating all the way back to the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th century is Dongyue Temple Fair. Each of these temple fairs feature entertainments such as martial arts and acrobatic performances, activities, and traditional snacks sold by the stalls.
Seollal is treated no differently in the capital of South Korea, Seoul. Various places in Seoul itself would be having special performances for Seollal, such as the Namsangol Hanok Village and the Korean Folk Village. Namsangol Hanok Village is a collection of five traditional Korean houses from the late 14th to 19th century Joseon Dynasty. They have been restored and preserved, and are now open for visits every day except Tuesdays. Korean Folk Village also similarly features houses from the Joseon Dynasty, the only difference being that the houses were originally from elsewhere and relocated there. In both places, performances such as traditional percussions, folk songs, horseback martial arts and tightrope walking are featured during Seollal. Theme parks in Seoul such as Seoul Land, Everland and Lotte World also have Seollal-themed events.
Tết—Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
If you are more active during the night, then head over to Ho Chi Minh City. Despite Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City remains the largest city by population, and is even known as the city that never sleeps. Ho Chi Minh City is well-known for its nightlife, and especially during Tết, the locals would stay up all night to celebrate with parties and elegant dinners, joined by foreign visitors in what is one of the most important celebrations for Vietnamese. More than that, there are also folk music and traditional competitions like Chinese chess.
So, what do you think? Are they more similar or different than you expected? Maybe the next time you happen to visit these countries during the Lunar New Year you wouldn’t be so surprised by their celebrations.
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