Chinese Lunar New Year in Shanghai

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Chinese Lunar New Year

Like many Westerners, Lunar New Year’s are typically spent watching a colorful parade in Chinatown. After that, a delectable meal is likely to follow. Marked of a new Lunar cycle, this is one of the most important holidays in Asia – rich in symbolism, tradition and folklore. In Chinese culture, no matter where one is, they are expected to return home to be with their families.

Similarly, it’s often referred to as the Spring Festival and begins on the first new moon of the year and lasts for fifteen days. On the fifteenth day, the lantern festival is held. One year I found myself celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year in Shanghai during this very time.

Chinese Lunar New Year in Shanghai. Shanghai's Yuyuan Lantern Festival
Shanghai’s Yu Garden Lantern Festival

During Lunar New Year, I was walking through the Old City of Shanghai. Specifically, we were at the Yu Garden, which is an extensive Chinese garden located near the City God Temple. All around us, the buildings were ablaze in lights. Red and crimson was everywhere, as far as the eye can see. Strings of lanterns brilliantly aglow dangle overhead, as we navigate the crowded corridors.

What’s all the red about during Chinese Lunar New Year in Shanghai?

Modern day Chinese New Year customs can be traced back to the folklore story of a beast named Nian. As the legend goes, Nian lived in the mountains. However, towards the end of winter, if it ran out of food, it would come down the mountain to invade the towns. In addition, it would feast on their villagers, livestock, and, its favorite of all…their children.

The villagers discovered a caveat; Nian fears two things! The color red and loud noises. Therefore, red lanterns were strewn everywhere. Loud noises and fireworks were set off. Eventually, a monk allegedly captured Nian. But the tradition must carry on to commemorate its capture. Red is considered good luck and gold is to invite wealth. Above all, this must be celebrated with an abundance of food with all your loved ones and family.

Shanghai’s Yuyuan Lantern Festival

If you find yourself celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year in Shanghai, you must check out Yuyuan’s Lantern Festival. The garden draws millions of visitors a year to experience the visual delights of their lantern display. You will find brilliant lanterns in the shape of fish to welcome wealth and prosperity and dragons for good luck. The focal installation will likely be a towering display of the Chinese Zodiac for that New Year.

There are vendors and booths lining the streets of the festival, peddling their crafts, food, services and art. This was actually a delightful experience to peruse the different artist’s offerings. Make sure you bring cash with you, in case you wish to make any purchases.

Chinese Lunar New Year in Shanghai
Local artist at the Yuyuan Garden Lantern Festival creates paper art of Brady & I

Prepare for a Massive Crowd

Anticipate a colossal crowd. Various parts of the garden become densely packed, congested with wall to wall visitors. There are some places where you will have to squeeze through the crowd to move, hands in the air, like exiting a mosh pit (minus the violent dancing and thrashing). This is not the case for the entire garden or festival, but something to keep in mind. After reveling in the excitement of these festivities, it may be great to relax and unwind with a day trip to a serene Ancient Water Village, right outside of Shanghai.

What’s to eat?

Millions of dumplings are consumed across mainland China during Lunar New Year, as they are thought to bring good fortune. Therefore, if you’re spending Lunar New Year in Shanghai, you can count on going on a dumpling spree. Did you really need an excuse?

During Chinese Lunar New Year’s Eve, families will gather for a reunion dinner of sorts. For many, this is the most important meal of the year they enjoy together. After that, you may see red envelopes filled with various amounts of money being handed out to children and the unmarried. This is called Hongbao and it’s common for employers to give them to their employees as well.

Eating Chinese Donuts at the Yu Garden Lantern Festival

If you meander away from the thick of the crowds in the Yu Garden Lantern festival, there is an 8 story building you can dine in. Every single floor is a different Chinese buffet and each is filled with wall to wall eateries and food vendors. Selecting where to eat is going to be a mix of surveying the pictures on the menu, peeking at what food you can visibly see and a little intuition.

Gong Hei Fat Choy

If you plan to spend Lunar New Year in Shanghai and there is only one phrase you learn beforehand, let it be ‘Gong Hei Fat Choy’, which is “Wishing you great happiness and prosperity” in Cantonese. Immersing oneself fully into the Chinese customs and folklore that make Lunar New Year so special is certainly a unique experience. Whether you are superstitious or believe in folklore not, a little good luck never hurt anyone!

Have any questions about spending lunar new year in Shanghai? Drop them in the comments!

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