Chinese New Year: How royal Imperial traditions inspired modern celebrations

From shaman ceremonies to honouring ancestors, the Forbidden City palace complex was home to many interesting practices

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Spring Festival, also known as Chinese New Year, is here. Most families spend the holiday together as homes are adorned with lanterns and banners, and lavish feasts are laid out.

Elders often hand over red envelopes filled with money to children and modern-day celebrations also include lighting fireworks.

At midnight, phones buzz non-stop with well wishes, celebratory voicemails and digital New Year cards with animated dancing babies in zodiac costumes.

Grace, consideration and sensitivity are some traits of the rabbit, according to the Chinese zodiac. Illustration: Catiah Li

While I am looking forward to these festivities, this year, I decided to dig a little deeper into my Chinese Manchu roots, and rediscover the lavish rites and rituals that dominated Spring Festival celebrations in the Forbidden City palace complex, which was the beating heart of the Imperial City of Beijing from the Ming to Qing dynasties.

My hometown, Liaoning province, is the birthplace of many members of the Manchu tribes, who held empirical rule over China during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), known as the last unified dynasty of mainland China and the Mongolian Plateau before modernisation.

Much of China’s culture and art originated during this time, as did Mandarin, the language spoken across the land. Many of the unique Manchu traditions are still alive and upheld.

Many interesting festival practices came from the Imperial Palace. These traditions lasted for centuries and continue to find their way into annual celebrations. Here are a few I find most intriguing.

Honouring of ancestors: The emperor would have a separate hall for a feast filled with the favourite dishes of deceased ancestors. This was accompanied by shamanic rituals to send the food to the afterlife. Living family members would also pray on bent knees to thank their ancestors and ask for blessings for the coming year.

Manifestation ceremonies: The emperor would call family members and top-level ministers into the great ceremonial hall to witness him writing an auspicious message to invoke blessings for the country. This message, however long or short, would be sealed in a golden box, never intended to be opened. The royal golden box of manifestation was then carried away for safe storage serenaded by an 18-piece musical band.

Recreational events: The Forbidden City palace complex was populated with royal family members, ministers, servants and educators from various Manchu tribes, many of whose children lined up to become prince and princesses. Each Chinese New Year, young people from the tribes would also put on acrobatic performances and show off their horse riding, ice skating, swordsmanship and wrestling skills, for the emperor and elders to watch. Inside the palace, women would put on fashion shows and stage scenes wearing imported fantastical costumes for an annual theatrical opera show (Beijing Opera had its roots in its practice). Many concubines hoped their children would catch the eye of the emperor and empress to win favours and titles down the line, so everyone was keen on putting on their opulent best.

Performers and entertainers have been a mainstay of the festival since at least the Qing dynasty. Photo: Catiah Li

Religious ceremonies: Tangse, a religious ritual of Guan Yu, honored the Shakyamuni Buddha, as well as the palace shamans, who were believed to be mediums capable of communicating with spirits. After the ceremony, a piglet would be sacrificed and eaten bland without salt or spices.

Wine and verse in the celebration of women: During the Chinese New Year period, the Forbidden City would be decorated in palatial porticos, longevity lanterns and heavenly lanterns. Each corner was adorned with beautiful paintings, while doors bore poetic couplets invoking prosperity and peace for the coming year.

Vibrant lanterns are a signature decor element from ancient to modern times. Photo: Catiah Li

The Manchus believed women had special manifestation powers, and to keep them in high spirits meant a prosperous and abundant reign. An annual honouring of the palace’s women was a show of protection, respect and love. Princes were ordered to pour wine for female guests, and famous poets were hired for the event. The lavish feast often had as many as 80 courses of hot and cold dishes.

It’s said that one’s family is like a miniature version of the Imperial Palace. Modern-day celebrations negate the more complex royal ceremonies, but traces remain. For example, some families pay respect to their ancestors by visiting their graves during Chinese New Year, and make offerings such as foods and hobby accessories enjoyed by the deceased during their lifetime.

Families also often come together to cook, share stories and enjoy a big feast. Traditional foods include dumplings, spring rolls, glutinous rice cakes and fish, all of which are believed to bring good luck and prosperity for the new year.

Annual dumpling-making is the centrepiece in almost every home across China, including mine. No feast is complete without this dish, and all hands are expected to help make dumplings. It is akin to an art form that includes many parts.

Making dumplings is a traditional activity for all members of the family during Chinese New Year. Photo: Catiah Li

Every member oversees a particular step. Someone will bring the ingredients, another will prepare the dough, a third will mix the filling.

When all preparations are complete, everyone in the family is expected to make the dumplings. The younger generation is taught how to shape the filling into the dough, and every family has their own recipe.

Spring Festival at the Imperial Palace was graced with grand ceremonies and banquets, and the Chinese New Year holiday continues to be punctuated by family festivities, connection and reunions, to mark new beginnings. With 2023 being the Year of the Rabbit, believed to bring peace and prosperity, it is an especially auspicious year to celebrate.

Catiah Li is a Chinese-American educator, Eastern philosophy writer, multimedia artist, and author of the Hello, Wang Yang Ming I & II books

Updated: January 21, 2023, 4:00 AM