Old stamps of Vietnam for the 1975 Tết (manhhai/Flickr)
On January 20, a screenshot of an online post from the British Museum ignited a powder keg after it was shared on Chinese social media by an online blogger. The content of the controversy was a tweet by the British Museum advertising a performance by a traditional Korean dance parade - “Join in us in celebrating Korean Lunar New Year with magical performances by the Shilla Ensemble”. The reference to "Korean New Year" sparked a wave of protests from Chinese netizens, who accused the Museum of “misappropriating culture”. At the same time, a slew of allegations was aimed at South Korea as well, claiming the country to be at the forefront of a global effort to eliminate Chinese cultural elements, identity, and consciousness - the evidence for this being that the event was sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The controversy was so intense that the British Museum eventually deleted its tweet, although it has yet to explain the action.
Such debates over the identity of a festival celebrated across East Asia seem to flare up each time that Lunar New Year comes around. These are primarily focused on the translation of the term into English. One of the points that many people notice here is that, in fact, the term “Chinese New Year” (zhongguo xinnian) is only a recent addition to the Chinese language and has no historical basis in Chinese culture. Rather, it has always been referred to as Spring Festival (chunjie). Nonetheless, when Chinese supermodel Liu Wen posted a photo in 2018 on her official Instagram with the caption "Happy Lunar New Year!", it immediately caused a stir in Chinese social media. To them, a "Chinese citizen" like Liu Wen should have called the festival that welcomes the new year according to the lunar calendar the term “Chinese New Year.” Facing online protests and accusations of neglecting her own heritage, Liu Wen eventually had to correct the caption for the photo to "Happy Chinese New Year!" A similar story has repeated itself with many Sinosphere personalities in 2022.
Is Chinese nationalism going too far?
Vintage souvenir photo postcard published circa 1935 depicting the vibrant Bay Area neighbourhood of Chinatown in San Francisco, California. Here, Chinese-American dancers celebrate Chunjie by dancing with paper dragons (Nextrecord Archives/Getty Images)
The airing of these views is representative of a bullish strain of nationalism that has been surging in China in recent years. This is amplified by the online space, with Chinese nationalists taking it upon themselves to correct what they view as incorrect usage in online posts. At root, this quibbling over terms represents an anachronistic application of national sovereignty to a festival that arose well before the advent of nation-states. It is true that as a centre of civilization, China brought an array of cultural influences to tributary states and neighbouring ethnicities - but this was not a one-way relationship; Chinese civilization itself was also influenced by other cultures’ elements in governance, philosophy, science, and the arts. Furthermore, culture is dynamic. All cultures in this world are inherently moving and changing, and Chinese civilization is no exception. It also means, through thousands of years of interaction, Chinese culture has developed through the process of crossing borders and mixing with other cultures.
Examples of this case of intercultural nuances of difference are not uncommon around the world. While it’s undeniable that the timing of new year in East Asia is influenced by the Chinese calendar, it is no different to how the Gregorian calendar - originally adopted in ancient Rome - influenced all Greco-Roman cultures and later the modern world. Yet one will not find billions worldwide celebrating the new season by cheering out “Happy Roman New Year”.
Since 1999, South Koreans have re-adopted this festival as a Korean traditional festival, known as Seollal (설날, lit. ‘New Year’). In Vietnam, the term for Lunar New Year is Tết Nguyên Đán (節元旦 in Hán tự form, lit. ‘The first morning’s festival’).
Why, then, is the term "Chinese New Year" still so prevalent in Western world? This phrase comes from a time when Chinese migrated abroad and still celebrated their traditional spring festival. As the largest and most recognizable diaspora community, the annual festival become naturally associated with them. It was only later realised that monopolising a festival with an exclusive Chinese brand name and ousting other Asian communities from linguistic context of this festival could act as an effective soft power weapon. Furthermore, such practices have received a measure of official approval, reflected in China's state-run Xinhua News Agency’s 2018 translation of the Indonesian President's New Year message “Happy Lunar New Year” (lit. Selamat Tahun Baru Imlek in Bahasa Indonesian) into Chinese as “Chinese New Year”. Commercial branding in the west has largely followed this trend, as western businesses and institutions use the festival as an opportunity to organise activities and exchanges targeted solely at Chinese communities, overshadowing the significance of the festival for other East Asian countries.
Yet in Chinese social media spaces, many are still of the view that “Chinese New Year '' should be the only “proper term” used by all, whether they be foreigners or Chinese. In their eyes, this festival has its roots in Chinese civilization. With China regaining its former central position of human civilization which they once held before "century of humiliation" (bainian guochi), China nationals everywhere should have more self-confidence. If this is not done, it would be an insult to their nation (guoti), and entail danger of a global wave of de-Sinicization.
South Korean lion dancers participate in a Seollal event at Cheongwadae, or “Blue House” - the former South Korean presidential palace, in Seoul, on January 22, 2023 (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
So, "Chinese New Year" or "Lunar New Year"?
Since all spring festivals in the Sinosphere take place according to the lunar calendar, the term “Lunar New Year” is more inclusive and smacks less of domination by a majority ethnic group in East and Southeast Asia. Yet the term is not without its problems. There are many types of lunar calendar that exist both today and historically. Regarding purely lunar calendars, there are Hebrew, Islamic, and ancient Egyptian calendars. There is also the lunisolar calendar - whose lunar months are brought into alignment with solar year through a process of intercalation - used among others by Hindus, Khmers and Mongolians. The Han Chinese traditional calendar is actually not entirely lunar but lunisolar, since even the original term of it - Nongli - has been majorly associated with the lunar calendar. Therefore, not only is the term not strictly accurate for describing the nature of all the festivals celebrated in East Asian cultures on that day, but it also ignores the existence of lunar calendars still observed by other cultures.
Like many other cultural phenomena, this traditional celebration has always transcended ethnicity and nationality.
Applying correct culture-specific or local terms is perhaps the best option. Since 1999, South Koreans have re-adopted this festival as a Korean traditional festival, known as Seollal (설날, lit. ‘New Year’). In Vietnam, the term for Lunar New Year is Tết Nguyên Đán (節元旦 in Hán tự form, lit. ‘The first morning’s festival’). As in British Museum’s case, rather than backing down, deleting the Tweet, upsetting other Asian followers and missing a chance to be an influencer instead of an adapter due to fear of losing their Chinese audience, they could use the Korean name Seollal to refer to the event in Korean scenarios, while using Chunjie in the context of Chinese New Year.
With identity politics on the rise and at a time when China’s rise poses a challenge to cultures in countries across the region, this is a path that prevents a regional festival from being monopolised by a single culture or nation. Like many other cultural phenomena, this traditional celebration has always transcended ethnicity and nationality. Let’s not insist on using one term which stresses the ethnicity or national identity of any country, and bring this festival back to its original identity as a celebration of unity.