As many are busy ordering dim sums to go or making that big family dinner reservation to celebrate the Tiger’s arrival, the translation community again finds itself in the debate of a familiar question: should we use Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year? And are there even any differences between the two?
Chinese New Year vs. Lunar New Year — Know the Differences
Simply put, Chinese New Year and Lunar New Year are not the same, although they are very much connected. In a casual conversation, both terms can be used interchangeably as synonyms. However, in a more strict cultural environment, it is necessary to understand the differences between the two.
About Chinese New Year
Chinese culture, Chinese New Year, and Lunar New Year have the same meaning, although the former is still the preferred term. That is because Chinese New Year goes beyond the commonly-known animal zodiac system and incorporates other cultural and religious elements from ancient Chinese culture.
For example, Chinese New Year marks not only the change of the zodiac but the change of the heavenly stems (“天干”) and earthly branches (“地支”) — a unique way of using specific characters to mark a calendar year.
The Chinese New Year also entails specific rituals. Such as giving red envelopes holding money to children, setting off firecrackers to scare off Nian (“年”), hanging upside down Fu posters for good fortune, and dragon and lion dances.
About Lunar New Year
While Lunar New Year is usually celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, it does fall on a different day for some countries. For example, many cultures celebrate on the first instead of the second new moon after the winter solstice.
Moreover, although many other Asian countries celebrate Lunar New Year, these countries do not endorse the Chinese cultural elements but honor each nation’s customs and history.
Below are how some countries celebrate Lunar New Year differently:
- Korea: individuals dress in traditional garments. Children bow to the elders and receive money for next year’s health and wisdom. Korean dumplings, rice cakes, and glass noodles are often found on the dinner table.
- Vietnam: besides dressing up in traditional garments, many families pray at temples for good fortune. Featured dishes include pickled scallions and candied fruits.
- Philippines: wear polka dots on Lunar New Year because the round shape stands for prosperity and good fortune! For similar reasons, you’d find tons of round fruits on the dining table too.
Controversies Around “Chinese New Year”
Using a Culture-specific term for a festival celebrated by various cultures is naturally problematic. Whether in a translation scenario or not, you don’t want to come off as insensitive or even ethnocentric.
And that is why you should be cautious when using the term Chinese New Year. If you are using that term generally, make sure it is accepted by everyone in the conversation.
Meanwhile, using Lunar New Year could also trigger uncomfortable feelings, such as when you’re speaking to an actual Chinese person. After all, Lunar New Year isn’t necessarily a politically correct term.
Know When to Use Which
In the end, it’s about knowing your audience and choosing the proper term.
Generally, it is okay to use Lunar New Year to refer to Chinese New Year when speaking to a Chinese person or someone from a culture that doesn’t traditionally celebrate Chinese New Year. However, it is best to use Lunar New Year when speaking to individuals with other Asian heritage.
If you want to show you know the culture, use Spring Festival (“春节”) when talking about the actual Chinese New Year, as that is the official term used in China. That also allows you to freely use Lunar New Year for all the other celebrations without any confusion.