C is for China Celebrates Chinese New Year!

Wei-wei! And welcome to the first post on our exploration of China! I’m so excited to share with you some of the symbols, folklore and traditions surrounding Chinese holidays!

I’ve mentioned before that I teach for a Chinese-based company called VIPKID, which connects students in China to native English speakers. In my almost two years with VIPKID, I have taught well over 800 students in over 100 different cities, and enlisted their answers and interests to compile some things to share about China.

There are so many things that I have learned about China while teaching these students and interacting with their families, such as:

  • They do not use their hands/fingers to count to 10 the same way we do in America!
  • Many schools require uniforms sporting a red sash.
  • The five stars on their flag represent the four social classes of their country under communism.
  • They are very well aware of other countries and symbols around the world. Young students can match flags to their respective countries and locate them on maps, and spend time learning about what they might see or do when traveling to many countries.
  • They also tend to call their parents “mama” and ”papa”.

But these are just a few random things that came to mind first. My absolute favorite thing to discuss with Chinese students is their holidays, because each one is so meaningful and full of symbols and tradition. Whether it is the biggest week of the year – Chinese New Year, or the Dragon Boat and Mid-autumn Festivals, these celebrators can really go all out. Since holiday traditions teach us a ton about a people’s culture, that’s what I’ll focus on this month!

And don’t forget to look for my free printables in the secret folder if you’ve already signed up for my newsletter, or you can join at the bottom of the page!

Chinese New Year.

Before we get too far, there is a small note I’d like to make for a discussion idea with your elementary, or probably middle school kids. While most the rest of the world celebrates holidays on a “solar calendar”, or a calendar that counts our Earth’s rotations around the sun, China traditionally follows a “lunar calendar”, or a calendar that follows the moon’s rotations around our Earth. If you check your calendar to see when Chinese New Year is, you might instead find it marked as “Lunar New Year”, or in other sources the week of celebration is called “Spring Festival”. We will talk about a couple of other major Chinese and lunar holidays later this month.

To go into more detail about lunar calendars would take a whole unit, but this means that, by sticking to tradition, Chinese New Year is not January 1st. Instead, it comes in February.

AND THIS MONTH IS FEBRUARY! Soooo HAPPY CHINESE NEW YEAR on February 5, 2019!!! Let’s talk about it.


Some of my students, typically the boys, still insist that red just symbolizes blood and war. However, when it comes down to tradition and Chinese New Year, the red color seen everywhere acts as a symbol of good luck, wealth and happiness. Things you might see in red include, well, everything. Lanterns, clothes, envelopes, candles, and other decorations.

Lions and dragons are also a powerful symbol in China. They represent power, good fortune, and strength to ward off evil.

Traditions and Folklore.

Fireworks and Nian.

Fireworks are said to have originally been used to ward off an evil monster called Nian. There are so many variations of this story, but the gist is always that loud noises and fire scared the monster away. So, every New Year fireworks are shot into the sky to remind the monster to stay away. In this cute clip I found on Youtube, the story also adds that Nian was afraid of the color red.

The Lion Dance.

Another symbol they use for chasing away evil and inviting good luck to their lives is the amazing lion dance! You may recognize the costumes that are occasionally mistaken for dragons. At least, I used to think they were dragon costumes. I’m not the only one, right?

This dance is not reserved only for Chinese New Year though. The lion dance represents good luck, power, fortune, and the lion chases away evil in the dance, so it is performed at all kinds of events! Weddings, store openings, and many other events marking the beginning of something celebrate with a lion dance.

Funny enough, I asked a student just this morning if he enjoys watching the Lion Dance, and he said, “No, it is just so boring. The lion just dances and dances (while showing me with his hand how the “lion” moves in a circle) and I don’t do anything. And the music is so loud.” Maybe for someone who sees it every year, and multiple times a year even, it may be uninteresting, but the one time I saw it performed in Korea, it was amazing! I would highly recommend going if you ever have a chance to witness a lion dance.

Hong Bao.

Hong Bao are those awesome red envelopes that people give each other with money in them on Chinese New Year. The red envelopes also act as symbols of wealth, prosperity and good fortune for the upcoming year. I’d feel pretty fortunate starting the new year off with an envelope of money too though, wouldn’t you? Generally these envelopes are given from parents/grandparents to children, and is a very highly anticipated part of the season.

They are so highly anticipated that I decided to make one for my Chinese students to give them some silly rewards and surprises, and will put a little surprise in one for my son on Chinese New Year too! Check out all my free Chinese New Year printables by filling out the email form at the bottom of this page!


The main religion of China is Buddhism. In fact, China has the largest population of Buddhists in the World! Which makes sense because, well, China is huge. This means that on a holiday as big as Chinese New Year, the temples and pagodas are bound to be packed. The holiday itself is more of an ethnic holiday than a religious event, but many people still take the time to go to the temple as another ritualistic layer of inviting good luck and fortune for the upcoming year.

Now, the extent of my Chinese adventures have been a layover in an airport in Shanghai, but based on all the Buddhist temples I explored in South Korea with my husband, I am determined to visit more. So what is my really big plan this year to celebrate Chinese New Year?? Go to the Buddhist Temple down the road, of course!! I can’t even tell you how much I am looking forward to it. I’ve been planning it ever since my friend showed me a photo of her visit there last year and I’m finally going! Check around online and you may find a Buddhist temple open to visitors to come reverently visit and you can see the fun Chinese New Year decor and activities for yourself!

Zodiac Signs: The Year of the Pig!

Now, you can’t make it through an entire blog about Chinese New Year without mentioning the Zodiac Signs! So to start, a few things I learned about where they originated, and what they mean:

  • “Zodiac” has multiple translations that I found. If you really want to read some detailed and interesting stuff about zodiac signs, check out this webpage. I’m no expert able to validate everything on this page, but what I will share did check out with other sources. For someone not usually interested in horoscopes, it had me hooked and sharing “Did you know…”s with my husband! But that’s off track. My favorite definition of “zodiac” was “circle of animals”, which just makes sense because that’s how its always represented – a pie with each slice containing an image of an animal. Another, more detailed, definition says that the zodiac “is the term used to describe the circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude that are centred upon the ecliptic – the path of the sun.”
  • There are different zodiac traditions older than the Chinese.
  • The Chinese zodiac is significant because it is based on a 12 year cycle, with each year being represented by one of these animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
  • This year celebrates The Year of the Pig!

If you know someone born in 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, or 2019, then you know someone born in a year of the pig! Here’s where the zodiac horoscopes get complicated though. Not all Chinese zodiac pig years have the same horoscope! What? I know. The 12 year cycles also go through a cycle of elements (fire, water, earth, etc..). For more information on your Chinese zodiac horoscopes, you can start by checking out this website.

The Chinese also have a fun legend for children about the origin of the zodiac. It goes something like this:

The Great Jade Emperor wanted to find a way to help people track the years better, and decided to name each year after an animal. He invited many animals to come to the palace for the opportunity to become a zodiac symbol. The rat and cat were great friends, but the rat was also very ambitious and cunning, and was able to sneak away, leaving his friend asleep to miss the race. When the animals arrived at the palace, they were told that they would have a great race across a river. Again, using his cunning, the rat secured a ride across the river with the powerful ox. Before the ox could climb up the river bank though, the rat jumped from the ox’s head, racing forward and finishing first! Because of this, the rat was rewarded to become the first zodiac sign, and the ox became the second, and so forth.

You can find printouts of this story all over the internet, or buy it in many different forms at just about any bookseller.

Th-th-th-th-that’s All, Folks!

Get it? Porky the Pig? And it’s the year of the pig… 🙂

Are you so excited to celebrate Chinese New Year now?! If you need some stuff to do it, sign up with your email below (if you haven’t yet) to get access to my newsletter and free printables that will include all things Chinese New Year (hong bao, banners, pig masks, and a cute card/picture)!

Also, tell me: what are some traditions you and your children enjoy? What stories do you tell on different holidays, and why are the stories so special to you?

The folder will contain: cute card/picture, 2 hong bao envelopes, pig mask, AND a Chinese New Year banner! (Plus other printables found in “A Lesson on Respect..” and “Where in the World Do I Live?” and more!)

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What is Culture?

I work for VIPKID, teaching English online to children ages 4-15 from China. When we discuss the question of “What is culture?” with them, the curriculum’s answer is: “Culture is art, food, music, sports, celebrations and language.” This is a very simplified definition of a somewhat complex thing. Once we can list off those basic answers, then we have to ask ourselves things like, “But why are those (art, culture, music, food) so deeply ingrained in us – a nation, neighborhood, family, or religion? What is it about our traditions that makes them so hard to let go of? How is it that others, who don’t know us, can come to define us by our culture?” It’s a lot to process, I know. Usually we even find ourselves mingling in a small variety of cultures as we go throughout our daily or weekly responsibilities making this whole concept all the more confusing. While I clearly don’t have all the answers, hopefully I can shed a little light on the subject, and would love your input as well in this learning journey!

Have you ever found yourself in a group situation where everyone but you seemed to know how to act? For me, that’s about once a month, at least. You’re in good company. When you feel that way, it is probably because you have stepped into a new culture. It may be the Target Dollar Spot shopper culture, a religious culture, a class culture, or a family culture. Just recently I took my son to his first “Music Makers” class for toddlers offered at my husband’s grad school. All the little kids that had been going already seemed to know the songs, how to beat the sticks to the beat, when to dance and spin with the rattles, but Trey just clung to me, looking for some sort of sense and rules in all the chaos. This was a culture he was not familiar or comfortable with. All these rules and behaviors weren’t something that had been explained or practiced before, so he looked and felt out of place. Likewise, when I had my first Christmas with my husband’s family, I kept ruining the fun by forgetting to guess what was in my gifts before opening them. But, with time, practice, and observing others’ examples we all begin to find ways to fit or break the mold of our respective cultures.

According to The Hartman Group in Forbes Magazine, a wonderful read I enjoyed recently, “Through an ethnographic lens, it’s possible to observe how consumers craft unique identities through consumption. This has led us to observe that foods and beverages are bought for reasons far beyond just simple sustenance. Viewed culturally, food and beverage purchases can signal:

  • Who we are
  • Who we want to be
  • How we want others to see us
  • How we see the world”

I seriously love that they studied foodies and the food culture and how we all make food decisions. Sign me up to work for them! Or to be their study subject. The point is, there can even be cultures created entirely based around food! It doesn’t matter what the focus of the culture is, so long as the thing encourages us to consider or express the four points above: who we are, who we want to be, how we want others to see us, and how we see the world. If you don’t think that food can do that for you, then join me in binge-watching “The Final Table” on Netflix. Food is life for those chefs.

Couldn’t the Hartman Group’s same conclusions be said about many other types of culture? Our unique cultures shape our views of, well, everything! Ourselves, others, the entire world! This is in line with Miriam Websters definition of culture – “the beliefs, customs, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.” More deeply ingrained in culture than just what we do is how we think. Of course, the two are inseparable, because how we act and what we believe tend to be displays of inner thoughts and feelings.

Let’s take a minute to think about how our ideas and views have been affected, based on the four bullet points above. Remember, the following statements may or may not be fully true or accomplished about me, but it’s what I want to believe or achieve based on different influences of my upbringing. As an American, I believe I am independent to the core; and I want to be someone who changes the world; and for others to see me as someone who chases my dreams; and I have a tendency when traveling to feel untouchable and interesting based on my country of origin alone. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I believe we all have a certain relationship with God; and I want to be better; and I want others to feel like I will show up when they need help; and though I often feel warned of the terrors of the world, I see tremendous hope everywhere! Lastly, as a Hancock/Smith turned Boyack now, being perseverant (or hard-headed, more accurately) is in my blood; and I want to be someone who puts family first; and for others to be able to depend on me; and I see the world as a place that, given enough attention to detail, can be beautiful.

Think about your cultures for a minute. How are they influencing you? Do you feel a little choked up with pride at the groups you’ve been born into, or chosen to associate yourself with? Do they encourage you to be a version of you that you find attractive? None of my cultural influencers are without their flaws, but you can probably find some good things like I did to dwell on.

So, why study cultures outside of our own? Why even study our own? As we talk throughout this blog, we have to recognize that we do not just belong to one cul de sac, city or even state. Each of us should also be expected to act as world citizens. As we expand our knowledge of others’ ideas and perspectives of the way the world works and believes, we can make more accurate, educated, and confident decisions on a larger scale. We, and our children, will be able to hold more conversations on the sufferings and successes of people at a world-scale. We will learn to better appreciate literature, to understand the feelings and motives behind art and media, and even to want to look more closely at the people and events that lead to scientific and mathematical breakthroughs. At least, this has been my experience. Hopefully, as you participate in fun activities built to enhance your children’s creativity and academic standing – all while looking at countries and people they may have not heard of – you and your children will feel the same!

Now, as a last point. Culture has a third description that I found enlightening. Or rather, the evolution of its meaning is interesting. Look at what Google had to say about where our word “culture” comes from:

That little paragraph teaches us that “culture” and “cultivating” hold the same root. I mean, this makes sense in science terms, of course. But in our ideas, beliefs, arts and experiences with people should we not also being trying to cultivate new things? To cultivate our “mind, faculties, or manners” as Google says, is just as important as understanding what used to be or is culturally accepted now. We should take the ideas and practices of the past and change them for the better, not just stick blindly to them forever.

So tell me – what has influenced the way you feel about yourself and others around you? How can you/we/anyone create or improve upon existing culture?