Closer Readings Commentary

Celebrating Chinese New Year: Welcome the Year of the Dog!

February 16 marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year—the most important festival in this cultural tradition as well as the most joyous. Lasting for fifteen days, it ushers in a period of family celebration and community festivities. We are entering the Year of the Dog, the eleventh of twelve signs in the Chinese zodiac.

Except for the dragon, all the signs in the Chinese zodiac have counterparts in real animals; and those born under any one sign are said to take on that sign’s characteristics to some extent. Dogs stand for loyalty, honesty, and justice. They are good at helping others find and fix their bad habits. However, those born under this sign can also be stubborn: once they have decided on something they cannot be dissuaded. More broadly, the year of the Dog promises to be a good one for family relationships and for starting new projects. Noteworthy leaders born under the sign of the Dog include Winston Churchill (1874), two former presidents William Jefferson Clinton and George Walker Bush, and current President Donald J. Trump (all 1946).

Chinese New Year celebration

EDSITEment has two lessons that detail symbolic elements of the Chinese New Year and offer a variety of activities to use with students in the classroom in preparation for celebration of this annual festival. These lessons are targeted at early elementary students, but they can be adapted for any grade level.

Animals of the Chinese Zodiac lesson is a favorite with teachers at this time of year. The Chinese believe the characteristics of a given zodiac animal influence the personality of every person born in that year. Find many activities for students to explore, and have them answer the following:

  • How does the Chinese zodiac calendar work?
  • What are the twelve animals of the zodiac, and how were they chosen? What traits are associated with them? How are the animals used as symbols?
  • What is your animal sign, and what traits does it represent?

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.7: Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.

The very popular lesson Lions, Dragons, and Nian: Animals of the Chinese New Year contains much background information on the colorful customs and vibrant mythology associated with this seasonal festival. It offers teachers ideas on ways to celebrate and information to share on the meaning behind traditional observances, such as:

  • Why is the symbolism of the dragon important in Chinese culture? What role do dragons play in New Year celebrations?
  • What is a popular origin myth about the Chinese New Year?
  • How do firecrackers function during the New Year parade?
  • What are the characteristics of the Chinese lion? What role does the lion play in the New Year celebrations?

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.2: Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.

The Chinese New Year serves as a celebration of life’s renewal, heralding the coming springtime as a time of reunion for family and friends. The spring travel period in China commences a couple of weeks before the New Year festival begins. As a US-China Perception Monitor article attests, the festival triggers “the largest annual human migration in the world.” Travel within China to visit relatives during this pre-festival period is marked by indignities such as interminable delays at train stations and airports. Similar to the trials of traveling during the holiday period in the West, travel in China at this time can involve navigating huge crowds and often entails discomfort for the relatives making the trek back to their families in their hometowns. Most will agree, though, that reuniting with loved ones at holiday time is worth the pain and strain.

The website of the Asia Society provides a Flickr Pool of award-winning photographs that document the holiday festivities.

Additional resources to learn about Chinese culture:

The lesson Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2010) explores a Newbery Honor book by Grace Lin that offers elementary readers a fantastical adventure in a timeless, traditional China. Protagonist Minli, like one of Joseph Campbell’s archetypal heroes, leaves her home, sets out on a quest, has to pass through many crucial tests to reach her goal, and returns to her village, bringing back the aid that the villagers and her family need. She accomplishes her tasks, undertaken with the help of a talking dragon, by showing generosity, courage, and integrity. Students reading the book will not only share the adventure, but will learn much about traditional values in Chinese culture. Link to the following activities to help students unlock the text:  

Aligns with Anchor Standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Asia Society Kids offers a number of additional activities, stories, and games for you to explore other aspects of Asian culture in your classes.