In multi-ethnic Southeast Asia, the term “Lunar New Year” is more befitting than “Chinese New Year”. The traditional celebration has always transcended ethnicity and national identity.
The Chinese in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and the ethnic Chinese outside China are celebrating the Lunar New Year this week. Different countries, however, use different names for the festival, this reflecting the complexities underlying the position of ethnic Chinese across the region amid an ascendant China.
In China itself, the festive celebration was originally called Nongli Xinnian（农历新年）which means “Lunar New Year”, but it is more popularly known in Mandarin as Chunjie （春节）which means the “Spring Festival”. The festival does not have an ethnic or national connotation. In fact, in the past, people of many East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam celebrated the Lunar New Year. Of course, they did not call it “Chinese New Year,” let alone “China’s New Year”.
Through the centuries, different countries have found it necessary to change the nomenclature associated with celebrating the festival. During the Meiji Restoration, Japan abandoned the practice of celebrating Lunar New Year and adopted the Solar (Western) New Year. With the rise of nationalism in Asia, South Korea and Vietnam also celebrate the Solar New Year (often called Western New Year), but at the same time many Koreans and Vietnamese also celebrate the Lunar New Year. Since 1999, the South Koreans have re-adopted the Lunar New Year as a Korean traditional festival, known as Seollal, which means “Lunar New Year”. In Vietnam, the term for Lunar New Year is Tet or năm mới âm lịch (the Vietnamese New Year).
In Indonesia, Chinese Indonesians call the Lunar New Year Tahun Baru Imlek. The term Imlek came from the Hokkien pronunciation of Yinli (阴历), which means Lunar Calendar. It was first popularised by the Peranakan Chinese (local-born Chinese Indonesians who speak Bahasa Indonesia as their home language) and later became the official Indonesian term for the Lunar New Year in Indonesia. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono used the term to refer to the Lunar New Year – and so does current President Joko Widodo. Occasionally non-Chinese Indonesians called it Tahun Baru Cina, or Chinese New Year. Given that the term “Cina” can also mean China, politically conscious Chinese Indonesians purposely avoid the term to refer to the festival. This is owing to two factors: the term “Cina” is derogatory and many indigenous Indonesians are suspicious of the People’s Republic of China.
In Malaysia and Singapore, ethnic Chinese refer to the Lunar New Year as Nongli Xinnian, or most frequently, Chunjie. This mirrors the practice in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The term, however, becomes problematic when it is translated into English as there is an issue of a literal translation that reflects ethnicity. Increasingly the English translation that reflects the ethnic Chinese perspective prevails. From my personal observations, in recent years, the English term “Chinese New Year”, abbreviated as CNY, has become enjoyed more popular usage than “Lunar New Year”. I notice that in Singapore, “Chinese New Year” is often used on English-language television programmes as well as the English-language newspapers. The ethnicisation of Lunar New Year has become the fashion of the day.
Apart from an ethnic label, Lunar New Year has now been given a national label by Chinese nationals as well. This is most unfortunate. Three years ago, a reporter from Xinhua News in Indonesia translated Joko Widodo’s Lunar New Year message “Selamat Tahun Baru Imlek”as “China’s New Year” (中国新年). It is impossible that an Indonesian president wished his citizens of Chinese descent a happy “China’s New Year”. In fact, it should be a “Happy Lunar New Year” (恭祝农历新年). The translation error by Xinhua News reflected a trend in the thinking of some Chinese nationals about their position in the world. In 2018, Liu Wen, a well-known mainland Chinese model used English to wish people a “Happy Lunar New Year” via Instagram. She was criticised by Chinese netizens for not being patriotic. They added that she had forgotten that she is still a Chinese national （中国人). She was eventually forced to apologise and change the greeting to “Happy Chinese New Year”.
In China itself, the festive celebration was originally called Nongli Xinnian（农历新年）which means “Lunar New Year” … The festival does not have an ethnic or national connotation.
In Chinese social media, one can read a lot of comments and messages which discuss the “proper term” that should be used by all and sundry, whether they be foreigners or the Chinese people. Many Chinese netizens are of the view that “China” or “Chinese” should be used in their greetings. In their view, the Lunar New Year belongs to China’s civilization. These netizens even argue that since China has now risen, mainland Chinese should have “self-confidence”. If this is not done, the netizens argue, there will be an unwelcome process of “de-sinicization”（去中国化).
However, there are netizens who disagree with the use of “Chinese New Year” or “China’s New Year” as this festival is not celebrated by the Chinese alone. In Sydney’s Chinatown, there has always been a Lunar New Year celebration called the “Chinese New Year” festival, but in 2019 this was changed to the “Lunar New Year Festival” because of objections from the city’s non-Chinese communities. However, some Chinese nationals still feel that it should not be changed.
It is quite apparent that “Lunar New Year” is the original term used to refer to the Spring Festival. However, with the rise of identity politics, the term “Chinese New Year” and Zhongguo Xinnian (“China’s New Year”) have become more popular. I don’t think this is a correct trend to follow as Lunar New Year is not the monopoly of China or Chinese. In addition, the Chinese in Southeast Asia see their future as belonging to the country of their citizenship. The debate over “Chinese New Year” or “Lunar New Year” comes at a time when China’s rise poses a challenge to nation-building in countries across the region. Let us return to the original term – Lunar New Year – rather than the terms which stress ethnicity or the national identity of any country.
Leo Suryadinata is Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Professor (Adj.) at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NTU. He was formerly Director of the Chinese Heritage Centre, NTU.