People in China probably started to celebrate the New Year – the beginning of farming in the spring – around the same time they started farming, about 3000 BC. People in West Asia were already celebrating the New Year in early spring by that time, and Chinese people may have gotten the idea from West Asians. Certainly people were celebrating the New Year in China by the time of the Han Dynasty, around 200 BC. Chinese New Year is always the second new moon after the winter solstice (like Passover is the first full moon after the spring equinox). People did their spring cleaning and got ready to plant rice.
The New Year is a liminal time – a time when you’re moving between the old year and the new year. Ancient Chinese people thought this liminality gave demons a chance to get through the cracks and attack you. People said the Year Monster, which looked like a lion mixed with an ox, came out of the sea (or out of the mountains) to get you. Chinese people used to bang drums and plates and pots, and they put dry bamboo sticks on the fire to make loud, sharp, cracking noises to scare the demons away. People also hung red paper lanterns outside their doors, the way Americans use carved pumpkins at Halloween.
By around the time of the T’ang Dynasty, about 700 AD, people had found something that would make even more noise: firecrackers! People began to shoot off fireworks on New Year’s Day to scare away the demons so they would have a lucky year. The Spring Festival lasted for fifteen days. People dressed up as lions and danced in long parades in the streets.
There never were any lions in China, so why were Chinese people so afraid of lion-demons? Probably people in China heard about lions from Central Asian traders as the Silk Road got started, and their fear of lions is also a fear of foreigners, outsiders, and invaders.
Medieval Chinese religion – Buddhism comes to China
Learn by doing: go to a Chinese New Year celebration in your city
One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship, by Mary Pope Osborne (1996). .
The Gods and Goddesses of Ancient China, by Leonard Everett Fisher (2003). . One page for each god, with lots of pictures and some historical context.
Five Heavenly Emperors: Chinese Myths of Creation, by Song Nan Zhang (1994). Stories .
Chinese Mythology A to Z, by Jeremy Roberts (2004).
Dragons and Demons : Myths of China, by Stewart Ross (1998). A few Chinese stories, retold .
Dragons, Gods and Spirits from Chinese Mythology, by Tao Sanders (1983). More of a child’s encyclopedia.