Why I Deep Clean Before Chinese New Year (and You Should Too)

published Feb 4, 2019
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(Image credit: Jenny Chang-Rodriguez)

I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I am that the Year of the Dog is almost over. For Chinese people, the year of one’s zodiac sign is traditionally the unluckiest year for them with warnings of trouble and danger at every turn. So as a Dog person, I am looking forward to welcoming that first day of the Year of the Pig (February 5) with all the new positive energy that comes with it. But first, I have to sweep the past year away—literally.

Good luck doesn’t like a mess

Chinese tradition and superstition dictate that homes be clean before the start of the new year, ridding the house of the bad luck and misfortune of the past, and opening up spaces for all the new, good luck to enter and infuse your life. In Mandarin, this deep clean is referred to as 扫年 (sǎo nián) and literally means to “sweep away the year,” but extends beyond just cleaning to repairing or discarding broken items, finishing home projects, and decluttering the home. Good luck, say my gaggle of Chinese aunties, doesn’t like a mess.

While I’m not one for superstition, ancestral guilt and the potential for good fortune are strong motivators for me. Since 2018 felt like an endless steamroll, clearing out the bad luck was critical for attracting good luck for the future; I was looking forward to looking forward.

My Year of the Dog detox

My deep clean process started three weeks earlier than the Chinese New Year calendar’s “official” clean date (generally a week before the first day of the new year) to make sure I was as thorough as possible. I went through clothing and shoes, paperwork and files (including my digital ones), treated upholstery, emptied junk drawers, scrubbed out cabinets, reorganized kitchen appliances, and repaired, recycled, donated or discarded a stunning amount of stuff.

To be sure I hadn’t forgotten anything in my Year of the Dog detox, I checked in with friends about their to-do lists for the new year deep clean. One friend sorted through clothing and shoes, scrapped old or unused pantry and kitchen items, wiped down ceilings, walls, and furniture, and washed all the air filters around the house. Another friend cleaned out her closet, scoured the fridge, washed the windows, and scrubbed down the kitchen’s hood vent. In keeping with Chinese beliefs about good luck traveling via airflow, their cleaning tasks were focused on ensuring airflow entry and exit points were ready for receiving the new year—something I had forgotten in my home. I turned my attention to cleaning window screens and removing any clutter from the doorways, inside and out, clearing the path for any future fortune.

Oddly, despite being responsible for being the source of all my Chinese New Year traditions, my mother does not have holiday-specific cleaning regime. She’d rather focus on filling her home with the fresh flowers and bright red decorations of celebration than deep clean and declutter her space. Filled with motivation and a lifetime of filial piety, I extended my new year purge to my mother’s home. Rationalizing that my mom’s good luck is mine too, I went in hard on her kitchen pantry, reorganizing her cookware, removing old items I knew she would never use, and discarding the petrified herbs she’s collected from Chinese traditional medicine doctors over the years. She, on the other hand, hung four massive red paper lanterns and covered every available surface with flowers.

Cleaning as catharsis

Despite the work involved, I feel good about having a strong start for the Year of the Pig. The process of cleaning my home, symbolically stripping my life of past negativity and optimistically looking forward to better days ahead, was incredibly cathartic. The physical purge gave me the time to reflect emotionally and mentally. I might not be entirely over how draining 2018 was for me, but I’m in a better place to move forward.

Here’s to a wealthy, healthy, and lucky year of the Year of the Pig for us all!

Four tips for a successful pre-Chinese New Year clean

Don’t forget additional spaces not in your home

The act of cleaning and clearing house extends to all home-related items, so any storage areas, garages, sheds, and vehicles are also cleaned. Don’t cut corners on these areas, you never know where stagnant energy and bad luck might still be lurking.

Outside is as important as inside

Good luck won’t enter if the outside of your home is in disrepair—so make sure the outside of your home is also new year ready by making the exterior inviting to luck. Don’t forget to make sure your house/apartment number is visible, good luck can’t enter if it can’t find you!

This is not a time for shortcuts

Only you can determine if the home is clean enough to properly welcome that Year of the Pig fortune. After all, you know exactly where you took shortcuts (not vacuuming behind that heavy cabinet), what you might have willfully ignored (hello junk drawer!), and when you plain ran out of steam (the trunk of my car). Nothing like self-guilt and shaming to keep you motivated to do the detail work!

Don’t sweep away your good luck

On the first day of the new year (in 2019, that’s February 5) absolutely no cleaning can be done, lest you sweep out any good luck that found a place in your home. So be sure to finish the cleaning the day before! This cleaning ban extends to you too—no bathing or washing of hair—or you might wash away any accumulated good luck.