In the early 20th century, China tried to ban its millennia-old lunar calendar in the name of modernity—with mixed success
As Chinese workers enjoy a long weekend for the New Year (元旦 yuándàn in Chinese) on January 1, they can also begin to look forward to a more extended break when the start of a new lunar year comes around.
But in the early 20th century, successive governments sought to suppress the traditional Lunar New Year celebrations in order that the country might break from ancient customs and ”modernize” by following the example of the West. Luckily for workers today, though, the attempts failed.
In ancient China, Yuandan was already celebrated as the beginning of the first month of the year, though the actual date of this moved around according to which ruler or dynasty was in charge. The Xia dynasty (c. 2070 – 1600 BCE) is said to have established the first calendar based on the moon’s cycles, which is the basis of the Chinese lunisolar calendar (often just called lunar calendar) still used today. In their calendar, the Xia designated Yuandan as the first day of the first month, or Zhengyue (正月).
Later dynasties designated different months in the Xia calendar as Zhengyue: for the Shang (1600 – 1046 BCE) it was the 12th month, and for the Qin (221 – 206 BCE) it was the 10th month. However, at the start of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Yuandan was moved back to the first day of the first lunar month, and continued to be celebrated on that date until the fall of the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911).
When the Qing dynasty fell and the Republic of China emerged from the wreckage, Sun Yat-sen (孙中山), the provisional president of the new regime, declared that the country would henceforth follow the Gregorian calendar instead of the traditional lunar one. Yuandan, therefore, changed from the first day of the lunar calendar to January 1 in the Gregorian system, as in the West. In 1912, Sun declared China would “use the lunar calendar for farming and use the Gregorian calendar for counting and classification.” This is reflected in the names China still uses for the lunar and Gregorian systems, nongli (农历 “agricultural calendar”) and gongli (公历, “public calendar”), today.
But the ancient Xia calendar had been used for thousands of years, and China’s vast territory and large population made the switch problematic. Business owners in Shanghai, and even the capital Nanjing, for example, were still using the lunar calendar for auditing the previous year’s accounts when Sun issued the new Calendric Law.
Just months into 1912, Sun stepped down and gave way to the military general Yuan Shikai (袁世凯), who became the first president of the new Chinese republic. Yuan retained Sun’s calendrical reform and ruled that on January 1, all shops and restaurants had to close and people had to return to their hometowns for New Year celebrations. Violators could even receive a fine. Government officials were asked to take the lead to celebrate the Gregorian New Year. With the lunar calendar considered a part of China’s best-forgotten imperial past, Yuan decreed that there would be no holiday during the Lunar New Year, with all citizens required to work as normal.
Unsurprisingly, the new rules triggered strong resistance nationwide. On the first day of the Lunar New Year in 1913, citizens across the country continued to celebrate as in previous years despite the official regulations. As a compromise, the Interior Minister Zhu Qiqian (朱启钤) suggested to Yuan that the traditional Lunar New Year, Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Winter Solstice be reinstated in the public calendar under the names Spring Festival, Summer Festival, Autumn Festival, and Winter Festival, so as to respect folk customs and traditions while still promoting the Gregorian calendar.
Yuan partially agreed, and designated the Spring Festival a new holiday in the place of the Lunar New Year in 1914. It is because of Yuan and Zhu’s compromise that the term Spring Festival (春节) is still used for the Chinese Lunar New Year today. Yuan ruled that the Gregorian New Year on January 1 would still be the larger celebration, with a four-day public holiday, while the Spring Festival would only consist of a single day off (instead of seven days as it had typically been in the past). Government officials were forbidden from observing the Spring Festival altogether. On the Gregorian New Year, officials, military leaders, and even ”living Buddhas (revered figures in Tibetan Buddhism)” would send gifts and blessings to the president.
The revamped Lunar New Year coexisted with the Gregorian New Year until 1919 when the May Fourth Movement reignited the desire to do away with old customs and traditions in the hope of achieving modernity and development. Many students and reformers who took part in the May Fourth Movement saw the Gregorian calendar and New Year as a symbol of scientific progress while the traditional lunar calendar and Lunar New Year celebrations were considered superstitious, backward, and wasteful. Traditional offerings made to gods were widely criticized as unscientific, while the popular Shanghai newspaper Shen Bao criticized setting off firecrackers as a waste of money that generated pollution. The “lucky money” traditionally gifted to children was attacked for teaching the young to be greedy and selfish.
Criticism of traditional culture only grew in the 1920s. Shen Bao once compared the Lunar New Year to the feudal warlords who controlled parts of the country as their own fiefdoms, suggesting the abolition of Lunar New Year would be analogous to defeating the warlords. Influential literary magazine New Youth founded by Chen Duxiu (陈独秀), who later co-founded the Communist Party of China, concluded that persisting with old customs like the Lunar New Year would prevent the country from developing.
Efforts to remove the traditional calendar from public consciousness continued after Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石) united the country and established a new Nationalist government in Nanjing in 1928. To reinforce the Calendric Law first implemented by Sun Yat-sen, the Interior Ministry proposed eight regulations, including a ban on sales of lunar calendars and explicitly forbidding all government and public institutions across the country, including schools, from having holidays related to the lunar calendar. Chiang approved, and in December 1928 his government formally abolished the traditional lunar calendar along with Yuan’s Spring Festival.
Under the law, holidays, fireworks, Spring Festival couplets, and new year visits were all forbidden, and shops had to stay open during the Spring Festival. Violators would be punished with detention or fines; even calligraphers who made a living writing rhyming couplets used as decorations could face being detained by police. Civil servants also faced strict requirements. There were even rumors that one official of the Kuomintang (the ruling Nationalist Party) was made to stand for hours in front of a statue of Sun Yat-sen as punishment for saying “I wish you prosperity” to someone during the Lunar New Year.
But many people still celebrated covertly at home, and in rural areas, where law enforcement was lax, many celebrated with the normal family dinners and fireworks during the Lunar New Year of 1929.
Facing a Japanese invasion and a Communist guerrilla insurgency from 1931, the Nanjing government placed less priority on implementing enforcing calendar laws. In January 1934, Chiang finally repealed the ban, stating: “As to the lunar calendar (with the exception of government departments), there shouldn’t be too much intervention in folk customs.” Though there was no official holiday during the Spring Festival, the public could celebrate it openly again. Even the writer and satirist Lu Xun (鲁迅), once a staunch critic of Chinese tradition and old customs, changed his tune in his 1934 essay “Celebrating Spring Festival (过年)” stating, “Such celebrations cannot be so lightly discarded just by saying they are ‘feudal remnants.’”
When Chiang’s government collapsed and the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the new government reverted to Yuan Shikai’s 1914 compromise of using the Gregorian calendar for Yuandan but still celebrating the Lunar New Year as the Spring Festival. For today’s workers, that means a short break around January 1, but not long to wait for a longer holiday at the beginning of the lunar calendar.