One of the biggest holidays is fast approaching: Chinese New Year! With a population of 1.3 billion people, Chinese culture is spreading around the world as fast as the products that it manufactures. Chinese New Year or Spring Festival is considered the most important holiday in China with long celebrations to bring good fortune. It begins on the first day of the first lunar month (usually one month later than the Gregorian calendar), which is why it is known as the lunar New Year. (Notably, the early Egyptians also used the lunar calendar.)
Why is this important to African Americans? What is the connection between African American and Chinese people?
There are several connections and they might be surprising.
Africans and, more recently African Americans, have a long history in China.
African people have been living in China since the Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907 AD. During this time, the African peoples were known as Kunlun (dark-skinned persons), who came to live primarily in China’s capital at Kaifeng. Many were servants, but others were traders, profiting from an open and free exchange of goods. The trading triumvirate of East Africa, the Middle East, and China was a burgeoning zone for trading herbs and other precious goods. In fact, Chinese traditional herbs have been traced back to herbs used in African traditional medicine, particularly from Ethiopia and Somalia.
And the relationship continued. In fact, it grew stronger during the Second World War. African American soldiers were the majority of soldiers who worked on the important Burma Road. This strategically vital road connected China to India. The African American soldiers eventually transported important supplies from Kunming in the Yunnan province. At first, General Chiang Kai-Shek did not allow African American soldiers into the region but this restriction was eventually lifted.
Most restrictions were lifted or eliminated completely by President Deng Xiaoping in 1979. The Chinese government offered scholarships to African students to promote development and enhance Third World solidarity. Although these scholarships had been offered since the 1960s, additional support and funding became more available following the Cultural Revolution. While solidarity was one goal, foreign students (of all colors and ethnicities) remained segregated from Chinese students throughout the country.
Just before the incident in Tiananmen Square, a riot erupted in Nanjing in which Chinese students protested against the presence of African students on campus. There was discontent that the foreign (African) students were receiving better treatment than the local Chinese students, that African men were dating Chinese women, and that preferential treatment was given to foreign students.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government continued to show support for the African students, who were the largest group of Black students in China.
Today, African people remain the largest group of black persons in China, numbering around 100,000. They work as students, diplomats, traders, and other professions. There are also a sizeable number of African Americans and Afro-Caribbean people throughout the China.
It is very difficult to obtain an accurate accounting of the number of African Americans living in China today but the connection remains and continues to grow. More African Americans are visiting, working, or studying in China. People report various experiences—both difficulties and delights—while in China. But many people enjoy and participate in the festivities of Chinese New Year.
Another reason relates to an African American holiday that is celebrated every year: Juneteenth (June 19th). This is the day that the black slaves were freed in the state of Texas. It is celebrated in most (if not all) African American homes by holding parties, making barbecues, and getting families together to remember the hardships of slavery and the joy of freedom. It is celebrated as a day of freedom and independence together with the national Independence Day (July 4th). This great African American holiday is beginning to “crossover” into mainstream American culture but that is not diminishing its importance. Rather, it is spreading throughout the country and recognized as a great day, not just for African Americans, but for all Americans.
What do Juneteenth and Chinese New Year have in common?
Like white Americans recognizing Juneteenth, African Americans can also recognize (or even celebrate) the importance of this day in Chinese culture.
How to Celebrate Chinese New Year
One in every five people on the planet is Chinese. One in every five people is celebrating this great holiday. This is the biggest party of the year—and there are both traditional and modern ways to celebrate it!
Traditionally, Chinese families will get together for the New Year festivities. Sometimes, particularly in modern times, people will travel far and wide to be home for the New Year. In fact, more than 7 million people will travel the train to meet with family members. It is the largest mass migration (of humans) on the planet. People in the west should compare it to families at Christmas or Thanksgiving, only much larger.
More traditions include eating certain foods. In the run-up to the New Year, people eat foods such as rice porridge (called laba in Mandarin) made with glutinous rice, millet, ginkgo, and various seeds and berries. African American culture has many rice or porridge dishes that can serve as great substitutions.
In both traditional and modern celebrations, people give lots of gifts to the children, elderly persons, and relatives. What kinds of gifts? Money in a red envelope (very important!) is traditional for parents or adults to give to teens and younger children. Wine, tea, sweets, and flowers are excellent presents for adults. Just remember to think about its presentation and wrapping (red with gold trim).
Perhaps less fun than gifting is the tradition of cleaning the house, bedclothes, and utensils. (This takes Spring-cleaning to a new level!)
Many people will then decorate their newly cleaned homes, creating an atmosphere of festivity and rejoicing. Doors will be decorated with red paper panels and black calligraphy. Pictures of the god of doors and wealth will be posted to ward off evil spirits and welcome peace and abundance. The Chinese character “fu” (meaning blessing or happiness) is essential. Red paper cuttings can placed on windows.
Back to the food, families will eat or, rather, feast together (like on Thanksgiving Day in the United States). The meals will be more luxurious and elaborate than usual and must include chicken, fish, and tofu. Again, there are many traditional African American foods that include such meats so substitutions should be readily available, if desired.
No celebration is complete without fireworks! Traditionally, the fireworks shows (public and private) were legendary. However, because of fire hazard, new government regulations have limited or prohibited the use of fireworks. This is similar to Independence Day (July 4th) in the United States.
African Americans can (and should) join this incredible celebration! As more African Americans become acquainted with Chinese culture, language, and our shared history, it will feel natural to join this party. No invitation or RSVP required, just the desire for abundance, richness, and health in the New Year!