Be brave like a tiger: Lunar New Year explained

Lunar New Year, also named the Spring Festival, is the most important celebration in the Chinese calendar and this year
31 Jan 2022

This year, we should all be reminded of the great qualities of the tiger and be confident we can get through the year—whether we were born into the Year of the Tiger or not.

"Everyone should be reminded to be brave like a tiger this year." That's the sage advice of a young China studies scholar at The Australian National University (ANU) Dr Kai Zhang ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations.

Lunar New Year, also named the Spring Festival, is the most important celebration in the Chinese calendar and many other Asian cultures, and takes place on the first day of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which falls on 1 February this year.

While the festival has been widely embraced and enjoyed across Australian society for years, many of us are curious to learn more. Here, ANU experts answer some common questions and explain what Lunar New Year means to them.

What can we expect in the year of the tiger?

According to Lunar New Year traditions, each year is represented by one of 12 zodiac animals and one of five elements in the Chinese lunisolar calendar. The 2022 Lunar New Year is the third in the zodiac, and this year is the Year of the Tiger, which Zhang says denotes bravery, courage and strength.

This year is also a water tiger year, which occurs every 60 years.

2021 was the Year of the Ox, an animal associated with prosperity, diligence, stability, honesty and also perseverance-very fitting for a year when the world was worn down by the ongoing pandemic.

"This year, we should all be reminded of the great qualities of the tiger and be confident we can get through the year-whether we were born into the Year of the Tiger or not," Zhang says.

Years of the Tiger include 2022, 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950 and 1938.

"Some Chinese fortune tellers will say that people born into different zodiac animals will be subject to different fortunes. The tiger is definitely seen as the king of the forest in Chinese culture, so people born this year should look forward to a strong life."

Why is the celebration called Lunar rather than Chinese New Year?

"Lunar New Year is not only a festival of tradition, but one of inclusion, as it is celebrated by many Asian cultures and those of Asian heritage in Australia and around the world," Jieh-Yung Lo, Director of the ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership, explains.

"For Asian-Australians, Lunar New Year celebrations are an opportunity to bring us all together and foster greater intercultural understanding."

Lo says his appreciation of Lunar New Year has helped break down cultural barriers and strengthen mutual trust and respect between Asian-Australians, international students and new migrants from Asia. 

"Lunar New Year celebrations have played an important part of Australia's migration history and success story-how the festival is embraced by not just Asian-Australians but non-Asian-Australians proves Australia is one of the world's most successful multicultural, diverse and cohesive societies."

Do people make Lunar New Year's resolutions?

Yes. Every Lunar New Year is a chance to embrace new opportunities and challenges.

"As an academic, I would like to have articles published," Zhang says. "I would also like to resume my German language learning."

Zhang is also keen to further develop the Chinese Culture and Society reading group at the ANU Centre on China in the World she co-convenes, which looks closely at the history, culture and religion of Chinese society, as well as policy analysis of the government.

Lo agrees that Lunar New Year is an opportunity for "reunions, reflecting, resetting and re-energising".

What traditions and foods are part of the celebrations?

"From red envelopes, indulging in food, watching lion dancing and learning about the prospects of each animal zodiac sign for the new year, I try my best to keep the Lunar New Year traditions alive because these traditions were passed on to me by my parents and family and it is now my responsibility to pass them on to my daughter and the next generation," Lo says.

Like many international students and staff at ANU, Zhang cannot be with her family, so she has set aside lots of time to video-chat with loved ones in her homeland.

Food is of course a very important way to bring people together, which is why she will be making lots of dumplings with friends here in Canberra on Lunar New Year's Eve.

"But the most important merit of the Lunar New Year is that it brings people of different background and cultures together through good food and fascinating activities," Zhang says.

How is ANU celebrating Lunar New Year?

ANU is hosting an in-person celebration on campus in Canberra and an online webinar.

On 26 February, ANU will host a free event at Kambri from 4-8pm, featuring traditional Chinese instrumental bands and performances, Chinese calligraphy, origami and paper-cutting demonstrations, customary games such as Mahjong and Chinese chess, martial arts, a movie screening, and cultural food stalls. Learn more here.

On 22 February, the ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership will co-host a free webinar with the US Embassy Canberra from 12-1:30pm. The discussion will explore how Asian-Australians and Asian-Americans celebrate Lunar New Year, the shared diaspora experiences, and how these celebrations are changing in both societies. Register here.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to make it clear the year of the tiger is part of the Chinese zodiac and lunisolar calendar.