Chinese New Year 2020: Rats, luck and why you should avoid medicine, laundry and crying children

Telegraph Reporters
A pig lantern displayed at the Yu Yuan Garden in Shanghai, to mark Chinese New Year 2019 and the Year of the Pig - AFP

Chinese New Year is fast approaching – and with it comes a host of superstitions that will apparently dictate how the next 12 months will play out for each of us.

Washing clothes, using scissors and sweeping floors are some of the easier omens to sidestep. However, parents might find it difficult to dodge crying children and – on the more extreme end of the scale – women might find it difficult to avoid leaving the house all day.

According to Chinese superstition, doing any of these on January 25th – the day Chinese New Year falls in 2020 – will lead to bad luck for the entire coming year. But it isn’t all doom and gloom: 2020 is the Year of the Rat, an animal that  symbolises wealth and the beginning of a new day.

Here is everything you need to know about the annual celebration, as well as recipes to cook for a delicious family feast and why the Year of the Rat will be more lucky for some than others.

When is Chinese New Year?

The annual celebration begins on the new moon that comes between Jan 21 and Feb 20. The Chinese year will start on 25 Jan  2020 and end on 11 Feb 2021, when the Year of the Ox begins.

The new year, also known in China as the Spring Festival, is marked by the lunisolar Chinese calendar; this means the date changes from year to year. 

The festivities usually start the day before the new year and continue until the Lantern Festival, the 15th day of the new year.   

The Chinese zodiac is divided into 12 blocks (or houses) just like its western counterpart, but with the major difference that each house has a time-length of one year instead of one month. 

Each Chinese New Year is characterised by one of 12 animals that appear in the Chinese zodiac – last year was the Year of the Pig.

Which Chinese zodiac sign are you? 

Your sign is derived from the year you were born in the Chinese lunar calendar. 

  • Rat: 2020, 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960 
  • Ox: 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961 
  • Tiger: 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962 
  • Rabbit: 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963 
  • Dragon: 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964 
  • Snake: 2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965 
  • Horse: 2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966 
  • Sheep: 2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967 
  • Monkey: 2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968 
  • Rooster: 2017, 2005, 1993, 1981, 1969 
  • Dog: 2018, 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970 
  • Pig: 2019, 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971   

The years above are a rough guide; bear in mind that if you were born in January or February it may be slightly different as the new year moves between January 21 and February 20.

The years allocated to each animal are in a very specific order. According to an ancient Chinese folk story, the Jade Emperor had called 13 animals to a meeting and announced that the years on the calendar would be named according to the order they arrived in. This led to ‘The Great Race’. 

The rat travelled on the back of the ox, leaping from its back to nab first place. The pig stopped for a snack and a nap and arrived last; a cat was also in the race but drowned during the competition, leading to there being only 12 animals in the zodiac.

Who should be on their guard this year?

According to Chinese astrology, the year of your birth sign is believed to be one of the most unlucky years of your life. It is thought that people in their zodiac year offend Tai Sui, the God of Age, and incur his curse.

Famous names who should be wary this year include Jeremy Clarkson (1960) and Idris Elba (1972), as well as the Duke of Sussex, Katy Perry, and Scarlett Johansson (all born in 1984).

Lewis Capaldi (1996) was also born in the Year of the Rat, plus Gary Lineker and Jonathan Ross (both born in 1960). 

The Duke of Sussex, pictured in 2019, was born in the Year of the Rat Credit: FRANK VAN BEEK/AFP

Lucky Signs for the Rat

Lucky numbers for people born in the Year of the Rat are two and three, and their lucky colours are blue, green and gold. Their lucky flowers are lilies and African violets and their lucky directions are west, northwest and southwest. 

The Personality of the Rat

People born in the Year of the Rat are characterised as smart, resourceful and quick-witted. They have great imaginations and make sharp observations, with the ability to take advantage of several opportunities. 

While their weak communication skills can sometimes come across as rude, they are kind and sensitive to other people's emotions. 

They also enjoy saving their money, but this personality trait can sometimes cause them to waste their money on unnecessary things. 

Strengths: Intelligent, optimistic and adaptable

Weaknesses: Stubborn, timid and greedy

Why do the Chinese value rats?

Rats symbolise wealth, intelligence, success and wisdom to the Chinese. In terms of the Yin and Yang theory, they are the yang and signify the beginning of a new day. They also represent the midnight hours and the Earthly Branch Zi. 

A person born in the Year of the Rat is thought to be clever, optimistic and favoured by all. In particular, men born in this year are able to adapt to new situations, while women take a caring, organised approach.

As rats tend to have a strong reproductive capacity, the Chinese say they are a sign of virility and married couples have been known to pray to them, in hope of conceiving. In fact, Chinese astrology specialists suggest that 2020, the Year of the Metal Rat, is a good time to give birth as metal symbolises stability and longevity. Those born in the Year of the Metal Rat tend to live a stable life and have the ability turn unlucky events into fortune. 

What does your Chinese zodiac sign mean? 

In Chinese astrology, the 12 animal zodiac signs each have unique characteristics. 

  • Rat: Intelligence, adaptability, quick-wit, charm, artistry, gregariousness. 
  • Ox: Loyalty, reliability, thoroughness, strength, reasonability, steadiness, determination. 
  • Tiger: Enthusiasm, courage, ambition, leadership, confidence, charisma. 
  • Rabbit: Trustworthiness, empathy, modesty, diplomacy, sincerity, sociability.
  • Dragon: Luckiness, flexibility, eccentricity, imagination, artistry, spirituality, charisma. 
  • Snake: Philosophical, organised, intelligent, intuitive, elegant, attentive, decisive. 
  • Horse: Adaptable, loyal, courageous, ambitious, intelligent,  adventurous, strong. 
  • Sheep: Tasteful, crafty, warm, elegant, charming, intuitive, sensitive, calm. 
  • Monkey: Quick-witted, charming, lucky, adaptable, bright, versatile, lively, smart. 
  • Rooster: Honest, energetic, intelligent, flamboyant, flexible, diverse, confident. 
  • Dog: Loyal, sociable, courageous, diligent, steady, lively, adaptable, smart. 
  • Pig: Honorable, philanthropic, determined, optimistic, sincere, sociable. 

Popular Chinese New Year Greetings 

If you want to get into the swing of the festivities but don’t have the foggiest how to decipher Mandarin characters, here is our handy guide to the most essential phrases.

1. 新年快乐 / 新年快樂 (xīn nián kuài lè) “Happy New Year!”

In Mandarin: /sshin-nyen kweye-luh/

In Cantonese:  /san nin fai lok/

2. 新年好 / 新年好 (Xīn nián hǎo) “New Year goodness!” 

In Mandarin: /sshin-nyen haoww/

In Cantonese: /sen-nin haow/ 

3. 恭喜发财 / 恭喜發財 (Gōngxǐ fācái) “Happiness and prosperity!” 

In Mandarin: /gong-sshee faa-tseye/  

In Cantonese: Kunghei fatchoy /gong-hey faa-chwhy/ 

4. 步步高升 / 步步高陞 (Bùbù gāoshēng)  “A steady rise to high places!” / “on the up and up”

In Mandarin: /boo-boo gaoww-shnng /  

In Cantonese: /boh-boh goh-sshin /

Dancers from the Central Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble perform during a Chinese New Year celebration in Trafalgar Square, London Credit: Fiona Hanson/PA Wire

Chinese New Year traditions

In preparation for the new year, the Chinese will clean their homes and put up red decorations and lanterns.

The celebrations will then officially kick off with a New Year’s Eve family dinner, with fish and dumplings being served to encourage prosperity.

Shou Sui, which translates as “after the New Year's Eve dinner”, follows the traditional feast, where families stay awake throughout the night and gather for fireworks at midnight to banish evil.

Adults typically give children red packets containing money at Chinese New Year, to help them avoid the evil and wish them good health.

Chinese New Year's Day taboos 

There are many superstitions surrounding Chinese New Year. These are to be avoided on the first day of the festival:

  1. Medicine: Taking medicine on the first day of the lunar year means one will get ill for a whole year. 
  2. Porridge: It is considered that only poor people have porridge for breakfast – and people don’t want to start the year “poor”. 
  3. Laundry: People do not wash clothes on the first and second day because these two days are celebrated as the birthday of Shuishen (水神,  the Water God).
  4. Washing hair: Hair must not be washed on the first day of the lunar  year. In the Chinese language, hair (发) has the same pronunciation and  character as ‘fa’ in facai (发财), which means ‘to become wealthy’.  Therefore, it is seen as not a good thing to “wash one’s fortune away”  at the beginning of the New Year.
  5. Sharp objects: The use of knives and scissors is to be avoided as any accident is thought to lead to inauspicious things and the depletion of wealth.
  6. Going out: A woman may not leave her house otherwise she will be plagued with bad luck for the entire coming year. A married daughter is not allowed to visit the house of her parents as this is believed to bring bad luck to the parents, causing economic hardship for the family.
  7. The broom: If you sweep on this day then your wealth will be swept away too.
  8. Crying children: The cry of a child is believed to bring bad luck to the family so parents do their best to keep children as happy as possible.
  9. Theft: Having your pocket picked is believed to portend your entire wealth in the coming year being stolen.
  10. Debt: Money should not be lent on New Year’s Day and all debts have to be paid by New Year’s Eve. If someone owes you money, do not go to their home to demand it. Anyone who does so will be unlucky all year.
  11. An empty rice jar: A depleted receptacle may cause grave anxiety as the cessation of cooking during the New Year period is considered to be an ill omen.
  12. Damaged clothes: Wearing threadbare garments can cause more bad luck for the year.
  13. Killing things: Blood is considered an ill omen, which will cause misfortunes such as a knife wound or a bloody disaster. 
  14. Monochrome fashion: White or black clothes are barred as these two colours are traditionally associated with mourning.
  15. Giving of certain gifts: Clocks, scissors, and pears all have a bad meaning in Chinese culture.  

How to celebrate Chinese New Year in the UK

In what is set to be the biggest celebration outside Asia, thousands of people are expected to join in with the array of celebrations in London on January 26.

Colourful floats will pass through the streets of the West End and Chinatown along with dragon and lion dances, as part of the vibrant Chinese New Year parade.

London residents and tourists can enjoy family-friendly entertainment in Leicester Square, cultural activities and traditional cuisine in Chinatown and live performances in Trafalgar Square.

Performances will also be shown in the martial arts and cultural zone on Charing Cross Road and visitors to Chinatown have the opportunity to grab a selfie with one of the Chinese zodiac animals.

Elsewhere in the country, a Chinese New Year concert will be held at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on January 21, while the annual Dragon Parade will make its way through Manchester on January 26. 

Chinese New Year recipes

Essential spices and sauces to upgrade your Chinese cooking

From which vinegar to use to the ideal noodles and fried parcel wrappers, Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fong Chan discuss the best ingredients, spices and sauces to help create the most authentic tastes and textures. 

Fuchsia Dunlop's Shanghai stir-fried chunky noodles

This Shanghainese dish is made with thick, bouncy noodles like fresh Japanese udon, which are given a dark caramel tint by soy sauce and freshened up with barely cooked greens.

A quick, authentic Shanghai stir-fry, by Fuchsia Dunlop

Cool steamed aubergine with a garlic dressing

Steaming brings out a gentle, unfamiliar side to a vegetable that is more commonly fried, baked or grilled, and, simple as they are, the seasonings taste sublime.

Traditional Jiaozi dumplings

Chef Jason Li demonstrates how to make make traditional Jiaozi dumplings, which are eaten with friends and family at Chinese New Year.

Chinese dumplings Credit: DuKai photographer/Moment RF

Chicken fried rice

Ken Hom reveals his trick for quick, easy and tasty fried rice, inspired by the delicious version he ate at a food stall in China.