The coming Chinese New Year, which falls on the 23rd of January 2012, is 'the Year of the Dragon' (龙年, lóng nián). According to the Chinese lunar calendar, each year is associated with one of 12 animal signs. Chinese Dragon lantern Creative commons image Credit: Heather Bickle under CC-BY licence Chinese Dragon lantern

The dragon is the only sign that is a legendary – and not a real - animal. In Chinese culture, the dragon is regarded as a divine beast, which is quite the reverse of the malicious monster that is often portrayed in Western literature.

In dynasty days, only the emperor was allowed to wear clothes with dragon designs. In Eastern philosophy, the dragon is said to be a deliverer of good fortune and a master of authority.

That is why many Chinese people plan to have their children to be born in the year of the dragon to give them a head start!

Here is a table illustrating the 12 animal signs corresponding to the years in the last cycle:

Year Sign Character Pinyin
2000 Dragon lóng
2001 Snake (small dragon) 蛇(小 龙) shé (xiǎo lóng)
2002 Horse
2003 Sheep yáng
2004 Monkey hóu
2005 Rooster
2006 Dog gǒu
2007 Pig zhū
2008 Rat shǔ
2009 Ox niú
2010 Tiger
2011 Rabbit

In Chinese-speaking countries, the Spring Festival (春节 Chūn Jié) is a general term used to refer to the festival season. The festival traditionally begins on the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar and ends on the 15th of the lunar calendar.

The 15th is known as the Lantern Festival in the West but 圆宵节 yuánxiāo jié (sweet dumpling festival) in Chinese-speaking cultures, when people eat sweet dumplings to mark the end of the New Year celebrations.

The predominant colour for Chinese New Year’s decoration is red. Red paper cut-outs and couplets written on red paper devoted to the popular themes of ‘happiness’, ‘wealth’, and ‘longevity’ are used to decorate windows and doors.

Children wear brand new clothes on this day and receive money in red envelopes, known as 红包 (hóng bāo), from their parents and grandparents.

The most frequently used new year's greetings are:

新年快乐 (xīn nián kuài lè)
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新年好 (xīn nián hǎo )
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... and 恭喜发财 (gōng xǐ fā cái) 
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The first two expressions mean 'Happy New Year' whilst the last one means' wishing you a Prosperous New Year' and it is mostly used in Cantonese speaking communities and in business circles.

If you want to be more specific and say ‘Happy Year of the Dragon’, you need to say:

龙年快乐 (lóng nián kuài lè)
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If you wish to learn more about the Chinese culture and study Mandarin Chinese, why not visit The Open University’s Beginners Chinese website?