So many ways to ring in the Lunar New Year

China may be the biggest country to observe Lunar New Year, but different ethnic groups within the country celebrate the holiday differently

Three Mosuo girls attend a Coming-of-Age party, which is celebrated during the first week of the Lunar New Year.

Betsy Joles/Getty Images

Words by Clara Wang

Lunar New Year is one of the biggest holidays in Asia, and as Chinese immigrants are one of the biggest Asian immigrant groups in the West, a rapidly growing population of non-Chinese people are becoming more familiar with customs such as red envelopes, firecrackers, and dumpling making.

However, China is also a country the size of the United States, with 1.4 billion people and 56 state-recognized ethnic minorities (with more still seeking official recognition by the state), who each have their own unique traditions and beliefs celebrating Lunar New Year. Within China, Han Chinese comprise the largest ethnic group at about 92 percent. Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols scattered throughout autonomous regions and border territories make up most of the remaining 7.5 percent, along with dozens of other smaller ethnic minorities such as Mosuo, Yao, and Zhuang, who are native to specific regions. Customs change from region to region, village to village. While it’s natural for a founder effect to occur with immigrant populations—so that outside of the home country, the best-known customs reflect the demographics of those who brought them there—China is no monolith.

Of course, this is not to idealize China as a rainbow nation of different ethnic groups coexisting peacefully side by side; human rights abuses against certain ethnic minorities are rampant, academic and political representation is barely tokenistic, and oftentimes assimilation is pushed as the only option for social advancement. Modernization and tourism are taking their toll on many tribes. More and more trains and electric lines are criss-crossing the once-impassable mountains that insulated many of these ethnic minorities from the outside world, bringing tourists into their world and taking curious young people from these once isolated communities out to the Han world. But that is also why it’s so important to highlight the diversity of Lunar New Year traditions—because despite distinct cultural practices, many ethnic groups in China time their lives to the cycles of the same moon. 

Here are some unique ways that Lunar New Year is celebrated by different groups in China.

Mosuo

A Mosuo woman in a purple floral top, holds her dark hair above her head, which is decorated with beads and a flower.

The Mosuo people are known for their matriarchal society.

Still frame from "Mosuo Women: Inside China's Last Matriarchal Tribe"

Residing in southwest China, where Sichuan and Yunnan provinces intersect at the foot of the Himalayas, the Mosuo are a Tibetan Buddhist tribe famous for their matriarchal practices and “walking marriages.” The ancient tribe of roughly 56,000 members are usually raised in communal longhouses by their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and uncles on their mother’s side, while the men tend to animals, build houses, and fish. The Mosuo don’t celebrate individual birthdays, but follow the lunar calendar, so everybody turns one year older on the first day of the Lunar New Year.

When a Mosuo child turns 13, they have a coming of age ceremony on the first day of the Lunar New Year. This signifies the beginning of adulthood; boys stop wearing long gowns and put on adult pants, while the girls start wearing their hair in long plaits. During the ceremony, the girls wear new white or sky-blue dresses with red belts and red flowers in their hair. From this day forward into the new year, the girls are given private bedrooms and allowed to take lovers at will, and begin to learn how to run the household from their mothers, while boys learn about adult responsibilities from uncles on their mother’s side.

Yao

Women from the Yao ethnic group in China stand side by side, with their long black hair twisted in their faces.

Yao women are known for their long hair, which they only cut once in their lives.

Tang Mengxian/Getty Images

About 2.6 million ethnic Yao live in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and the southern provinces of Guizhou, Guangdong, Hunan, and Yungnan. The Yao women are known for their colorful woven clothes and long black hair, which they only cut once in their lives between the ages of 16 and 18, and cover with a headwrap. During the Lunar New Year, Yao people all gather together and watch the symbolic re-enactment of a farmer working his fields. In this farm play, one man dresses as an ox, one man plays a hoeing farmer, and another man plays a farmer following the hoe; the three men sing and dance to bring in a good harvest. As the Spring Festival is supposed to usher in fertility, it’s also a time for new couples, which is why single young men and women gather outdoors around the village playing traditional instruments and singing folk songs to invite true love. 

Mongolian

There are nearly 6 million ethnic Mongolians in China, mostly in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, as well as the northwestern provinces of Xinjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Yiming. Traditionally nomadic herders and renowned warriors (the descendants of Genghis Khan), Mongolians revere the color white as a symbol of purity, and kick off the first day of Tsagaan Sar (White Moon, their Lunar New Year) by gathering with friends and family, and presenting a whole ox or sheep with white hada, a traditional cloth embodying purity and good fortune, to their friends and close relatives. While practices vary from region to region, common foods served include milk tea, a steamed meat dumpling called buuz, and various dairy products from their sheep, horses, and camels. During the 15-day festival, young Mongolians typically horse race through the grasslands and have bonfire parties at night.

Zhuang

The largest of China’s ethnic minorities, there are between 16 million and 18 million Zhuang people living in the southwestern provinces of Guangxi, Yunnan, Guangdong, Hunan, Guizhou, and Sichuan. The most significant Zhuang festivities start on the last day of the old lunar year and last until the second day of the new lunar year, though the Zhuang traditionally celebrate the entire first month of the Lunar New Year. In the days leading up to the festival, they prepare lots of glutinous rice called “ya nian fan,” symbolizing wealth, which is eaten during the new year. As the Zhuang are renowned balladeers and folk singers, the Zhuang new year involves plenty of singing. Young people will gather on the first and second day of the new year to sing ballads to each other and perform shoulder pole dancing, accompanied by gongs and drums to bring in a bumper crop. While customs vary from region to region, they typically eat vegetables and glutinous rice balls during the first day of the Lunar New Year and reserve meat for dinner in order to keep diseases and misfortune at bay.

Published on February 7, 2024

Words by Clara Wang

Clara Wang is a freelance writer spending the year in Nashville who mostly muses about food, culture, sex, and the unbearable lightness of being a 5’0” Yellow girl quicker on her feet than Borat’s lawyers. Her work has been featured in publications such as Eater Austin, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American Statesman, Daily Dot, and Giddy.