The holiday will continue through the week, with government and businesses shut down and millions of Chinese traveling to their home towns to visit family. Many foreign residents also leave the city, taking the opportunity to enjoy warmer weather in Southeast Asia or travel to Japan and South Korea for skiing holidays.
Chinese leaders have made few public appearances in recent days, although state broadcaster CCTV said new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping visited Saturday with policemen, subway construction workers, taxi drivers and street cleaners in Beijing to thank them for their service.
Premier Wen Jiaobao, who has made a point of spending the holiday eve with workers and the poor, celebrated the last such occasion of his term in office with victims of earthquakes and landslides in western China, CCTV said. Wen steps down in March.
The holiday took on a strong political flavor in North Korea, where current leader Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011, recently marked his second year in office.
"My longing for our great leader and general has grown stronger as I visited their statues," Pyongyang resident Kim Son Sil told The Associated Press at Mansu Hill, which overlooks the city. "After this Lunar New Year's Day, I will work harder, true to the leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un."
Crowds of children also packed a Pyongyang plaza and played traditional Korean games and watched singing and dancing performances, with the capital's streets covered in snow that had fallen Saturday.
Along North Korea's border with China last week, impoverished residents could be seen returning home by bicycle ferry and oxcart. North Korea's economy is on the brink of collapse, and the country remains dependent on China for food and fuel supplies.
At Jakarta's 350-year-old Buddhist temple, Vihara Dharma Bhakti, thousands of celebrants from the Indonesian capital and surrounding regions prayed before burning incense sticks and performed other rituals.
"Our hope for this new year is for our health, well-being and success to be even better than last year," worshipper Nio Ju-ie said.
The Lunar New Year could be celebrated only in private under Gen. Suharto's brutal 32-year dictatorship, but the occasion is now a national holiday in Indonesia, honoring the country's small but highly influential Chinese community.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.