The occasion is also observed in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines as well as in Chinese communities across the world, not least in London’s West End, the biggest gathering of revellers outside of Asia.
Each year is assigned a spirit animal from the Chinese zodiac. Here are five facts for the Year of the Rat.
Fireworks are lit to banish monsters
The Lunar New Year is a season of heavy symbolism.
The colour red is associated with luck and paper lanterns and banners in that shade are hung in the home bearing poetic inscriptions while children are gifted cash in red envelopes.
Householders carry out a thorough spring clean to rid the home of the past year’s accumulated dust and grime.
Among the most interesting of the season's superstitions is the use of fireworks to banish the nian, a mythical half-lion, half-dragon beast. According to folklore, the monster, believed to prey on children, is frightened away by the noise and smoke.
The nian dance troupes who parade through town centres banging gongs and drums serve the same purpose.
It’s the world’s largest annual human migration
The Spring Festival is one of the busiest times of the year anywhere in the world.
The travel rush over the break is known as “chunyun”, but the deadly coronavirus has cast a shadow over the festivities this year. Some 830 cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed and 26 people have died, the National Health Commission said on Thursday, with all of the fatalities located in China. The biggest film weekend in China has been affected by outbreak, with many movie companies cancelling their releases.
You can rent a partner
As with all big family gatherings, the pressure to impress is immense and the chance of glowering parental disapproval high.
In a society with traditional expectations, singletons often dread the inevitable interrogation about their love lives.
But there is a solution.
Chinese dating websites commonly offer fake dates for hire for between 500 and 6,000 Chinese renminbi (£57 to £683), the perfect way to sidestep the nagging.
The Jade Emperor’s Great Race determined the Chinese zodiac
According to Chinese mythology, the zodiac was created by the Jade Emperor who invited the animals to cross the river and come to him on his birthday to discuss the calendar, with the promise that the first 12 to arrive would be honoured with a place on the wheel.
The cat and rat agreed a pact to go together, taking a lift on the back of a lumbering ox. The rat pushed the cat into the water, leapt off the ox and won the Great Race. This is why the cat does not appear and why cats have resented rodents ever since.
The ox arrived second, followed by the tiger and a rabbit, hopping across on a log, his passage eased thanks to a gust of wind blown by a dragon, who secured fifth place for this act of generosity.
A snake startled a horse to beat it into sixth before a goat, monkey and rooster arrived by raft. The penultimate arrival was the dog, who should have been a natural swimmer but spent too long bathing in the cool water.
The pig came last, arriving late as a result of his natural slothfulness, having stopped to eat and take a nap.
2020 is the Year of the Rat
This year marks the Year of the Rat, the first animal in the Chinese zodiac. The years on the Chinese calendar are divided into 12-year cycles, meaning that the rat will next be honoured in 12 years' time.
Last year marked the Year of the Pig, and 2021 will signify the Year of the Ox, the second in the cycle.