Last week, K-pop singer Danielle Marsh asked her online fans what they were doing for Chinese New Year. A profuse apology followed two days later, in which she promised to “try to be more careful” and acknowledged the “hurt” she had caused.
Her crime? The “Chinese” that preceded “New Year.”
A longstanding debate over the usage of “Chinese New Year” versus “Lunar New Year” has reignited in recent weeks as people around the world celebrated the holiday, with brands and celebrities coming under fire for using either phrase.
Advocates of “Lunar New Year” point out that the holiday is celebrated by various countries, each with their own specific rituals, foods, histories and nuances – which are flattened and erased by an erroneous reference to “Chinese New Year.”
Marsh pointed to this in her apology, saying her original wording had been “inappropriate” given the holiday’s regional diversity.
A number of organizations, including the Associated Press Stylebook used by many newsrooms, recommend using Lunar New Year instead of Chinese New Year.
However, the usage of “Lunar New Year” has proved equally controversial for critics in China, many of whom argue that the holiday has its roots in the Chinese lunisolar calendar and China’s historical influence on countries in the region.
That has left many brands and public figures caught in the middle, trying to tiptoe their way through the holiday without being lambasted by either side – often unsuccessfully.
In one notable instance, the British Museum shared details about a show by a traditional Korean music group. “Join us in celebrating Korean Lunar New Year with magical performances,” it wrote on Twitter on January 12.
A barrage of angry tweets followed. “It’s called Chinese New Year,” one Twitter user replied.
The British Museum subsequently deleted its tweet. On January 22, the first day of the holiday, it shared a new post with the image of a Chinese painting. “Happy New Year!” it wrote, before repeating the greeting in Chinese.
In pictures: Lunar New Year celebrations
The push for ‘Lunar New Year’
Lunar New Year marks the beginning of the lunisolar calendar, with festivities often lasting for 15 days or more. It’s one of the most important holidays of the year for many participants, with families coming together – similar to Thanksgiving in the United States.
It is celebrated across Asia, including in the Korean Peninsula, where the holiday is called Seollal; in Vietnam, where it’s called Tết; in China, where it’s also known as the Spring Festival; and in other countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and more.
And while many of these regional celebrations have roots in the Chinese Spring Festival – for instance, Tết was widely popularized in Vietnam during the period it was under Chinese rule – they have since evolved to reflect each country’s cultures, beliefs and cuisines.
This variety is largely why advocates of “Lunar New Year” have urged the transition away from “Chinese New Year.” And while the debate isn’t new – celebrities have been coming under fire for saying one or the other for years – it seems to have gained particular traction this year.
Maggie Ying Jiang, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia who studies cross-cultural communication and consumer nationalism, pointed to the British Museum’s tweet as the catalyst. It had been reposted on Chinese social media, sparking a heated debate with related hashtags attracting hundreds of millions of views.
“This reflects two issues: cultural identity conflicts among Asian nations, particularly between China and Korea in this case, (and the) current geopolitical environment,” she said.
Besides the push for greater inclusivity, the adoption of “Lunar New Year” demonstrates the “ongoing efforts” by China’s neighbors to establish and promote their own independent cultural identities, she added.
These tensions can be seen in other recent cultural conflicts, she said. For instance, China and South Korea have engaged in numerous feuds over items claimed by both countries, such as kimchi, the iconic fermented vegetable dish, and the traditional hanbok dress.
It’s no coincidence these spats took place as relations between the two nations frayed, with recent years seeing political disagreements, economic retaliation and even tit-for-tat travel restrictions during the pandemic.
Nationalism and ‘Chinese New Year’
But the campaign for a more inclusive name hasn’t been welcomed everywhere. In China, the holiday remains firmly “Chinese” – even when referring to its celebrations in other countries.
State-run news agency Xinhua, for instance, hailed the celebration of “Chinese Lunar New Year” in Myanmar, Malaysia and Japan, emphasizing the use of “Chinese red” in decorations.
The same sentiment seems widely shared on China’s heavily censored social media, with some posts furiously railing against the alternative phrasing.
“We can see that the ‘Lunar New Year,’ led by Koreans, is an ideological attack on Chinese culture by Western countries,” read one popular post on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Another post scoffed that by the same logic, Christmas should be renamed to reflect each country that celebrates it – such as “American Christmas” or “German Christmas.”
Some people seemed more baffled than anything by the whole fuss. “But this is Chinese New Year, I really don’t understand why Koreans are so sensitive,” one Weibo user remarked. “Is it possible that they really think the Spring Festival belongs to South Korea?”
Jiang, the professor, pointed to surging nationalism as a potential factor driving these strong reactions.
Nationalism has risen in recent years under Chinese leader Xi Jinping and dominated Weibo. Many public intellectuals, scholars, lawyers and feminist activists have been viciously attacked or silenced for comments deemed “unpatriotic.”
The trend accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Jiang. She added that China’s “century of humiliation,” during which the Qing Empire and later the Republic of China were laid low by foreign powers, “serves as the basis for Chinese nationalism and (is) deeply rooted in the society.”
However, this has made life far more difficult for brands, foreign politicians and public figures trying to navigate cultural sensitivities in China and overseas. Last July, for instance, Dior faced protests outside its Paris store after Chinese social media users claimed a skirt had appropriated a centuries-old traditional garment.
With shrinking room for error, some are doing their best to appease all sides.
“On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I wish everyone celebrating Korean New Year a very happy and healthy Year of the Rabbit,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote in a statement on Sunday.
Then, in a separate statement, he wished the Vietnamese community a happy Tết Nguyên Đán.
A third statement followed. “新年快樂,” he wrote, before repeating the Chinese greeting for “Happy New Year” in romanized Mandarin and Cantonese.