Last week, K-pop singer Danielle Marsh asked her online followers what they were doing for Chinese New Year. Two days later, she apologized profusely, promising to “be more careful” and acknowledging the “hurt” she had caused.
her crime? The “Chinese” before “New Year”.
A long-running debate over the usage of “Chinese New Year” and “Lunar New Year” has reignited in recent weeks as people around the world celebrate the holiday, with brands and celebrities under fire for using the terms.
Proponents of “Lunar New Year” point out that the holiday is celebrated by different countries, each with its own specific rituals, food, history and nuances – all smoothed over and erased Misreference to “Chinese New Year”.
Marsh pointed this out in her apology, saying her initial wording was “inappropriate” given the regional diversity of the holiday.
Many organizations, including the Associated Press style manual used by many newsrooms, recommend using Lunar New Year instead of Chinese New Year.
However, the use of “Lunar New Year” has proved equally controversial among China’s critics, many of whom believe the holiday originated from China’s lunar calendar and China’s historical influence on countries in the region.
This has caught many brands and public figures in the middle, trying to tread the holiday season carefully without getting bashed by either party — often without success.
In one notable example, the British Museum shared details of a performance by a Korean traditional music group. “Join us in celebrating Korean Lunar New Year with a magical show,” it tweeted on January 12.
A barrage of angry tweets followed. “It’s called Chinese New Year,” replied one Twitter user.
The British Museum subsequently deleted its tweet. On January 22, the first day of the long holiday, shared a new post with the image of Chinese painting. “Happy New Year!” it read, before repeating the greeting in Chinese.
Image: Lunar New Year Celebrations
Lunar New Year marks the beginning of the lunar calendar, and celebrations often last 15 days or more. For many participants, it’s one of the most important holidays of the year when families come together — similar to Thanksgiving in the United States.
It is celebrated across Asia, including in the Korean peninsula, where the festival is known as Seollal; in Vietnam, it is known as Tết; in China, it is also known as Tet; and in other countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, etc. .
While many of these regional celebrations have their origins in Chinese New Year — which was widely popular in Vietnam during Chinese rule, for example — they have evolved to reflect each country’s culture, beliefs and cuisine.
This variety is largely why “Lunar New Year” advocates are urging a transition away from “Chinese New Year.” While the controversy isn’t new—celebrities have been under fire for voicing one of them for years—it seems to be gaining particular attention this year.
Maggie Ying Jiang, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia who studies cross-cultural communication and consumer nationalism, points to the British Museum’s tweet as a catalyst. It has been retweeted on Chinese social media, sparking a heated debate, with the hashtag attracting hundreds of millions of views.
“This reflects two issues: the clash of cultural identities between Asian countries, especially in this case between China and South Korea, (and) the current geopolitical environment,” she said.
She added that, in addition to pushing for greater inclusiveness, the adoption of “Lunar New Year” shows that China’s neighbors are “working hard” to build and promote their own independent cultural identities.
These tensions can be seen in other recent culture clashes, she said. For example, China and South Korea have had numerous disputes over this issue. Both countries have sovereign items such as kimchi, signature fermented vegetables and traditional hanboks.
It’s no coincidence that these spats come at a time of deteriorating relations between the two countries, which have seen political differences, economic retaliation and even tit-for-tat travel restrictions amid the pandemic in recent years.
But the movement to call for more inclusive names has not been popular everywhere. In China, the holiday remains firmly “Chinese”—even in reference to celebrations in other countries.
For example, Xinhua, the official news agency, praised Myanmar, Malaysia and Japan for celebrating “Chinese New Year,” emphasizing the use of “Chinese red” in decorations.
The same sentiment appeared to be widely expressed on China’s heavily censored social media, with some posts lashing out at the alternative wording.
“We can see that the ‘Lunar New Year’ led by Koreans is an ideological attack on Chinese culture by Western countries,” read a popular post on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Another post mocked that, by the same logic, Christmas should be renamed to reflect each country that celebrates it – like “American Christmas” or “German Christmas”.
Some people seem baffled by the whole fuss. “But this year is Chinese New Year, I really don’t understand why Koreans are so sensitive,” a Weibo user commented. “Could it be that they really think the Spring Festival is Korean?”
Professor Jiang points to rising nationalism as an underlying factor driving these strong reactions.
In recent years, under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, nationalism has risen and dominated Weibo. Many public intellectuals, academics, lawyers, and women’s rights activists have been viciously attacked or suppressed for making statements deemed “unpatriotic.”
This trend has accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic, Jiang said. She added that China’s “hundred years of humiliation” — the fall of the Qing empire and later the Republic of China to foreign powers — “is the foundation of Chinese nationalism, deeply entrenched in society.”
However, this has made life more difficult for brands, foreign politicians and public figures trying to navigate Chinese and overseas cultural sensitivities. Last July, for example, Dior faced protests outside its Paris store after Chinese social media users claimed a dress had appropriated centuries-old traditional clothing.
As the room for error shrinks, some are doing their best to appease all parties.
“On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I wish all those celebrating Korean New Year a happy and healthy Year of the Rabbit,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote in a statement Sunday.
Then, in another statement, he wished the Vietnamese community happiness and happiness.
A third statement followed. “Happy Fang Nian,” he wrote, before repeating the Chinese greeting “Happy New Year” in Romanized Mandarin and Cantonese.