In Beijing and commercial capital Shanghai normally busy streets were deserted, with only the odd firecracker going off, though both cities will sound more like warzones the closer midnight approaches thanks to the Chinese passion for fireworks.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who in previous years has spent the holiday with everyone from AIDS patients to coal miners, visited survivors of last May's massive earthquake in Sichuan that killed more than 80,000 people.
"It's been eight months since the earthquake, and I'm very happy to see how you've all been rebuilding your homes," Wen was paraphrased as telling survivors in Beichuan, the quake's epicentre, by the China News Service.
At Beijing's Temple of the Earth, people crowded into a fair featuring everything from break-dancing performances to re-enactments of imperial sacrifices.
"I've brought my parents here so they can enjoy a bit of traditional culture. Just like everyone else I hope that life this year will be a little better than last year," said lawyer Angela Zhu, 29, taking her parents around the fair.
"The holiday gives us a chance to escape our ordinary lives and enjoy hope for the future," she added.
Public relations executive Liu Bing, 26, said he was optimistic about the new year.
"Last year was very momentous for China. We had the earthquake which showed we could all come together and then we had a very successful Olympics. I think that this year will see China continuing to rise and become more important," he added.
The Transport Ministry reported that there were more than 63 million trips made on Saturday alone, as people scurried to get home for what for some is their only holiday of the year.
Still, even with the weight of the global economic crisis starting to bear down on the world's most populous country, many people are choosing to take their vacation overseas, helped in part by a strong Chinese currency, state media said.
In Shanghai, demand for holidays to Europe and Australia over the Lunar New Year has soared, though the figures for domestic tourism are not so rosy, the official Xinhua news agency said.
"The number of people travelling domestically is only a quarter of last year," it quoted travel agent Lu Min as saying.
"This indicates that the economic downturn has not taken its toll on high-income people, but has much affected those on middle or low incomes," Lu said.
Many Chinese see in the New Year eating dumplings, which symbolise wealth because their shape resembles traditional Chinese gold and silver ingots.
There are numerous Spring Festival taboos. Crying on New Year's Day means you will cry for the rest of the year, while washing your hair signifies washing away good luck.
The word for "four" is avoided, because it sounds like the word for "death", and using knives or scissors may "cut off" good fortune.
Under the Chinese Lunar calendar, New Year's Day falls on Monday this year.