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 more carefully” and acknowledged the “hurt” she had caused.
Her crime? The “Chinese” that preceded the “New Year”.
A long-standing debate over the use of “Chinese New Year” versus “Lunar New Year” has resurfaced in recent weeks as people around the world celebrated the holiday, with brands and celebrities coming under fire for to use either expressions.
Advocates of the “Lunar New Year” point out that the holiday is celebrated by different countries, each with their own specific rituals, foods, stories and nuances – which are flattened and erased an incorrect reference to “Chinese New Year.”
Marsh pointed that out 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, which is used by many newsrooms, recommend using the Lunar New Year instead of the Chinese New Year.
However, the use of the “Lunar New Year” has proven 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 left many brands and public figures caught in the middle, trying to tiptoe their way through the holidays without lambasting from either side — often to no avail.
In one notable case, the British Museum shared details of a show by a traditional Korean music group. “Celebrate with us during the 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 his 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!” wrote it before repeating the greeting in Chinese.
In photos: Lunar New Year celebrations
Lunar New Year marks the beginning of the lunisolar calendar, with festivities often lasting 15 days or more. It is one of the most important holidays of the year for many participants, with families coming together – similar to Thanksgiving in the US.
It is celebrated throughout Asia, including in the Korean peninsula, where the holiday is called Seollal; in Vietnam, where it is called Tết; in China, where it is 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 example, Tết became widely popular in Vietnam during the period it was under Chinese rule—they have since evolved to reflect each country’s cultures, beliefs, and cuisine.
This variety is largely why advocates of the “Lunar New Year” have demanded the transition to the “Chinese New Year”. And while the debate isn’t new—celebrities have been under fire for years for saying one thing or the other—it seems to have come to the fore especially 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 was 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 between Asian nations, especially between China and Korea in this case, (and the current geopolitical environment),” she said.
In addition to the push for more inclusiveness, the adoption of the “Lunar New Year” demonstrates the “persistent efforts” of 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 example, China and South Korea have engaged in many disputes Items claimed by both countries, such as kimchi, the iconic fermented vegetable dish, and the traditional hanbok dress.
It is no coincidence that these spats have taken place as relations between the two nations have frayed, with recent years seeing political disagreements, economic retaliation and even tit-for-tat travel restrictions during the pandemic.
But the campaign for a more inclusive name was not welcomed everywhere. In China, the holiday remains firmly “Chinese” – even if you refer to its holidays in other countries.
State news agency Xinhua, for example, celebrated the celebration of the “Chinese Lunar New Year” in Myanmar, Malaysia and Japan, emphasizing the use of “Chinese red” in decorations.
The same sentiment appears widely shared on China’s heavily censored social media, with some posts raging against the alternative phrasing.
“We can see that the ‘Moon Age’ led by the Koreans is an ideological attack on Chinese culture by Western countries,” reads a 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 seem more surprised than anything about 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 that the Spring Festival belongs to South Korea?”
Jiang, the professor, pointed to rising nationalism as a potential factor driving these strong reactions.
Nationalism has risen in recent years under Chinese leader Xi Jinping and has 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, Jiang said. She added that China’s “century of humiliation,” during which the Qing Empire and later the Republic of China were settled by foreign powers, “serves as the basis for Chinese nationalism and (is) deeply rooted in society.”
However, this has made life much more difficult for brands, foreign politicians and public figures trying to navigate cultural sensitivities in China and abroad. Last July, for example, Dior faced protests outside its Paris store after Chinese social media users claimed that a skirt matched 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 on Sunday.
Then, in a separate statement, he wished the Vietnamese community a happy Tết Nguyễn Đán.
A third statement followed. “方年快樂,” he wrote, before repeating the Chinese greeting for “Happy New Year” in Romanized Mandarin and Cantonese.