lunar new year and diminishing returns


I went home on the weekend, to celebrate the greatest festival of the year. And today is Day Four, the return to business, so it’s time for some Lunar Festival navel gazing.

I’m Chinese, so I technically celebrate Chinese New Year. But the reality is, we never call it that. It’s Spring Festival, or New Year; 春节新春, when we say it; and it’s not just a Chinese New Year. It’s the Lunar New Year: it’s Tet, and Losar, and Seollal, and Tsagaan Sar.

We don’t call it ‘English New Year’, or ‘Western New Year’ on January 1 (Well, I do, but that’s because I’m being facetious wishing people a happy New Gregorian Year); why, then, is it so normalised to talk about a Chinese New Year celebrated by millions who aren’t Chinese?

It’s #ChineseNewYear that has a little twitter avatar, not, #lunarnewyear, and this article has been expressing some important things: It’s Lunar New Year, not Chinese New Year.

Liang Qi Chao (1873-1929), a Chinese political philosopher and prominent reformist, deplored the Chinese tendency of zizun wangda, literally translated as “self-conceited megalomaniac tendency,” such as claiming that China was the center of the world and that almost everything was invented or created by China. The use of such a misnomer as “Chinese New Year” would only encourage the cultural chauvinism and imperialism that was deplored by this Chinese reformist a century ago and would be detrimental to world peace in today’s globalized environment.

And also, hilariously, unsurprisingly, some outraged reactions by people I know of Chinese descent, who desperately want to always call it CNY.

i had to screengrab this because twitter emojis don’t show up on twitter embeds

It diminishes me not at all to call this festival the Lunar New Year. I can be specific when I’m talking about our specifics: the Ba Gua my mother replaced on Sunday afternoon; the care with which the Reunion Dinner menu was planned; the offerings to the Kitchen God to keep his mouth sticky-shut and sealed from dobbing on us to the Jade Emperor; the last banquet after the fifteen days that will have come before. But the Chinese tendency towards blanket statements (she says, making a blanket statement) diminishes us all, lends us a careless superiority we shouldn’t want, and a thoughtlessness to others that we shouldn’t have.

Encountered an exchange today, that I’ll keep anonymous but was basically: a Chinese person saying ‘Yay! Activity at CNY!’ and a Vietnamese person responding ‘ooh, we do that at Tet!’ ‘Chinese person: ‘Ooh, when’s Tet?’ Vietnamese person: ‘now, give or take an hour.’

We’re celebrating basically the same thing, but this linguistic privilege allows us (Chinese us) to not give any thought to it, to not even know about it if we’re not forced to.


Last week I told a colleague I was going home for CNY. “Why do you celebrate Chinese New Year?” he asked. It was a question I didn’t understand; I didn’t know what to say. I looked at him. “I don’t understand the question,” I said. He repeated it. “…Because I’m Chinese?” I ventured, suspicion coiling in my gut. Oh, he said. He didn’t know that. Holy shit, I didn’t say. I wear my Chineseness on my sleeve – literally, Chinese characters on my arms, Moon Festival iconography across my chest. That someone can look at me and not see that reinforces all my childhood fears about not being Chinese enough.

(I always know I’m Chinese enough now, as an adult.)

I want to teach my little white niblings about LNY, so this list is great: 8 Picture Books to Celebrate Lunar New Year. I’ve never had to navigate the invisibleness of my Chineseness so aggressively before. My little white niblings come from a very white family, but they’re my family, too, and they’ll celebrate Lunar New Year with me just like they celebrate Christmas and Easter and Invasion Day and every other random day that means nothing to me. They will receive red packets and follow the lions until the drumbeats of the lion dance echo in their hearts all year, like they do in mine.


Further Asian Business:

Chinese Poster collection at University of Westminster

This made me laugh and roll my eyes: Coles pulls Chinese New Year mishap from shelves

My mum is super into The Family Law, and you should be, too. You should definitely be reading Jenny Law’s advice column.

The excellent Lian Low at The Wheeler Centre: Family Ghost Story. THIS IS A GREAT PIECE.


5 thoughts on “lunar new year and diminishing returns

  1. I just want to point out that, on proofing this post, I saw the bit about China’s “self-conceited megalomaniac tendency” and did NOT make a comment pointing out the parallel with, you know, white people. So where’s my goddamn cookie?

    (Also, we are totally making Gregorian New Year a thing come December. My Orthodox friends will love it.)

  2. jennifergearing

    Just all of this basically. I’ve been struggling with how I celebrate LNY because it comes up against a lot of stuff re: family and abuse and navigating my Chineseness in that context has been tricky for a long time, and I’ve had that question a bunch of times and I totally understand that coiling suspicion.

    I remember seeing a lot of people move from CNY to LNY a few years ago and it just seems really obvious to me now, to the point where I’m kinda baffled (though I probably shouldn’t be) by the folks desperately clinging to CNY

  3. Vi

    Gregorian New Year ftw!

    P.S. You have got me watching The Family Law (I totally missed the fact that it had started airing).

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