Chinese New Year Beliefs and Traditions
The Year of the Dragon- 2012
We have already celebrated one set of New Year’s celebrations based on the Julian and Gregorian calendars and now another peeps around the corner. For many people (in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Tibet, Korea, and Mongolia, to name a few) Chinese New Year marks the longest and most important of the traditional holidays. In countries such as Canada, the United States and Australia it is not considered an official holiday, however new stamps are issued and various forms of celebrations are held. Because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar, the Chinese New Year is often referred to as the “Lunar New Year”. In the Chinese calendar, winter solstice occurs in the 11th month, which means that Chinese New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice.
Chinese Legends and the source of many New Year Traditions:
Chinese legends and varying regional stories about the New Year and its traditions had been told for many centuries. Here’s one that was circulated way before the Han Dynasty; it featured the beast Nian, a monster that rose from the bottom of the sea to destroy property and prey on children, livestock and crops. As the village folk were all preparing to flee to the mountains to escape Nian’s wrath, a beggar approached one of the villagers for help. Too frightened to linger on, the woman gave him some alms and then ran off, leaving the beggar alone in the village to fend for himself. Upon their return, the villagers learned that the beggar had, in fact, chased Nian all the way back to the sea simply by hanging red paper decorations on the door, wearing red clothes and setting off fireworks.
Another version informs us that the beginning of Chinese New Year started with a fight against the Nian:
In ancient times the Nian manifested on the first day of the New Year to eat livestock, crops and even villagers, children being the favourite choice. (Sounds like European Dragons, right?) Anyway, in order to protect themselves, the villagers started placing food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was widely believed that, once Nian ate his fill of the bounty, he would be deterred from his destructive and rapacious ways. One time Nian was scared away by a little child wearing red. The villagers adapted this effective deterrent from then on and applied red to their hangings, couplets, lanterns and scrolls, painted it on windows and doors and used firecrackers as well to frighten the beast away. From then on Nian never again preyed on the village. The Nian was eventually tamed by the legendary Taoist Immortal, Hongjun Laozu, who from then on rode it like a regular person would ride a horse.
And so the many Chinese traditions related to New Year to date, was born.
Indeed, to ensure good fortune in the New Year, windows and doors are routinely decorated with red coloured paper cuts and couplets depicting popular themes of “happiness”, “good fortune”, “prosperity”, and “longevity”.
As in western culture, there are many customs and traditions that need to be addressed before, during, and after the Chinese New Year celebrations. First, on the days immediately before the New Year celebrations the home is thoroughly cleaned. This is done to sweep away the ill-fortune of the preceding year and pave the way for receiving the incoming good luck. Brooms and dust pans are then kept out of sight on the first day of the New Year so the newly arrived good fortune cannot be accidentally swept away.
In many households where Buddhism or Taoism is prevalent home altars and statues are cleaned thoroughly. The previous year’s decorations on the altars are burned a week before the New Year starts, to be replaced with new decorations. Taoists and, to a lesser extent, Buddhists will also ‘send gods’ to report the family household’s transgressions and good deeds to the Jade Emperor. It is usually done (sometimes through a burning a paper effigy) by Zao Jun, the Kitchen God and recorder of family functions. To ensure a favourable report the families offer the Kitchen God a ‘bribe’ of food, sweet cakes and other delicacies to fill his mouth with sweet words and make him unable to speak ill of them. Sometimes his poster is hung so that the family can rub a small amount of honey on his lips during the first morning of the New Year, again for the purpose of eliciting his favourable report.
Then there are presents to be bought, decorations to be put in place and feasts to be prepared for the gathering of families and friends. At these feasts the food will include ducks, chickens, pigs and countless sweet delicacies. At the conclusion of the feast firecrackers are lit to chase away any lingering bad luck. The Chinese New Year traditions are, after all, geared to reconciliation, forgetting all grudges and sincerely wishing peace, prosperity, and happiness for all.
There is lots that go into the preparation of this most important festive event. Mega-Malls aside, in many countries throughout the world open-air markets or village fairs provide people with the New Year related products such as flowers, toys, clothing, and even fireworks, making it convenient for people to buy specific gifts for their New Year visits as well as their home decoration. In some places, the practice of shopping for the perfect plum tree is very much akin to the Western tradition of buying a Christmas tree.
On Chinese New Year’s Eve, Chinese families often gather for the annual reunion dinner known as Chu Xi or “Eve of the Passing Year.” In China, this is also called “Spring Festival” as it marks the end of the winter season. By the way, lichun happens to be a solar term marking the start of spring that occurs around the February 4th. The festival (combined the New Year and Spring Festivals) begins on the first day of the first month in the traditional Chinese calendar and ends with the Lantern Festival on the 15the day. On New Year’s Eve, when members of the family gather for the celebration, the venue is usually at or near the home of most senior member of the family. The extravagant dinner traditionally includes chicken and fish. In some areas fish is included in the meal but not eaten completely. The remainder is stored overnight as the Chinese phrase “may there be surpluses every year” sounds the same as “may there be fish every year.” There are of course many other delicacies served at this time to usher in wealth, happiness, and good fortune. Chinese food names are often homophones for words that mean good things. For example: Buddha’s delight, fish (surplus), dumplings (gold ingots), Mandarin oranges (luck and fortune) Melon seeds (for a prosperous year), Nian gao, made of glutinous rice, otherwise known as New Year Pudding (luck), Noodles (longevity and long life), sweets , Bakkwa (salty-sweet dried meat akin to jerky) , Taro cakes , Turnip cakes etc.
Red packets for the immediate family are sometimes distributed during the reunion dinner. These packets often contain money in numbers chosen to reflect good luck and esteem.
Here’s a succinct look at some more Traditions associated with the New Year:
We know of course that red is the predominant colour used in New Year celebrations. Aside from historical implications, the colour red is also the emblem of joy; it symbolizes virtue, truth and sincerity. On the Chinese opera stage, a painted red face usually denotes a sacred or loyal personage and sometimes a great emperor. Candies, cakes, decorations and many things associated with the New Year and its ceremonies are coloured red. The sound of the Chinese word for “red” is “hong” in Mandarin which also means “prosperous.” Therefore, red is an auspicious colour and has an auspicious sound.
Clothing featuring the colour red along with other bright colours is commonly worn throughout the Chinese New Year because, as mentioned earlier, red was believed to be an effective way to scare away evil spirits and bad fortune. In addition people typically wear new clothes from head to toe symbolize a new beginning and, having more than enough things to use and wear in the New Year, abundance.
One common example of Chinese New Year symbolism is the red diamond-shaped fu characters (literally “blessings, happiness”), which are displayed on the entrance to Chinese homes. This sign is usually seen hanging upside down, since the Chinese word “upside down”, is homophonous or nearly homophonous with “arrive” in all varieties of Chinese. Therefore, it symbolizes the arrival of luck, happiness, and prosperity. New Year couplets, printed in gold letters on bright red paper, are another way of expressing auspicious New Year wishes. They probably predate the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but became widespread at that time. Today they are omnipresent at Chinese New Year.
The New Year verbal greeting: The Chinese New Year is often accompanied by loud, enthusiastic greetings, often referred to as (jíxiánghùa), loosely translated as auspicious words or phrases. Some of the most common greetings include, Xin Nian Kuai Le and Kung Hei Fat Choi. Here’s an interesting fact: Kung Hei Fat Choi, which loosely translates to “Congratulations and be prosperous”, is oftentimes mistakenly assumed to be synonymous with “Happy New Year”. In truth its usage dates back several centuries and the first two words of this phrase have a much older historical significance as an exchange of messages of congratulation for having survived the ravaging of the Nian beast. In practical terms it also meant surviving the harsh winter conditions that destroyed their stored crops and killed the children with disease and starvation. The saying is now commonly heard by English-speakers as greetings during Chinese New Year in those parts of the world where there is a sizable Chinese-speaking community; whether they are overseas Chinese communities that have been resident for several generations, relatively recent immigrants from Greater China, or those who are transients or migrants, particularly students.
Numerous other greetings exist, some of which may be exclaimed out loud to no one in particular in specific situations. For example, as breaking objects during the New Year is considered inauspicious, one may then say suì suì píng ān immediately afterwards, as it means “everlasting peace year after year”. Demonstrating the Chinese love for wordplay in auspicious phrases, Suì, meaning “age” is homophonous with “shatter”. Similarly, nián nián yú yú, which is a wish for surpluses and bountiful harvests every year, plays on the word yú, which can also refer to meaning fish, thus making it a catch phrase for fish-based Chinese new year dishes and for paintings or graphics of fish that are hung on walls or presented as gifts.
The other most common auspicious greetings and sayings are:
Yingchun jiefu – “Greet the New Year and encounter happiness”
Wanshi ruyi – “May all your wishes be fulfilled”
Jiqing youyu – “May your happiness be without limit”
Fushou shuangquan – “May your happiness and longevity be complete”
These greetings or phrases may also be used just before children receive their red packets, when gifts are exchanged, when visiting temples, or even when tossing the shredded ingredients of yusheng particularly popular in Malaysia and Singapore.
Children and teenagers sometimes jokingly use the roughly translated: “Congratulations and be prosperous, now give me a red envelope!” In the Hakka dialect the saying is more commonly said as ‘Gung hee fatt choi, fung bao diu loi’ which would be written as a mixture of the Cantonese and Mandarin variants of the saying.
Some Flowers used as gifts at New Year’s time carry great significance also: Plum Blossom (symbolizes luck), Kumquat (prosperity), Narcissus (prosperity), Bamboo, Sunflower (have a good year), Eggplant (a plant to cure all of your sickness), Chom Mon Plant (gives you tranquility) etc.
Fish symbolize surplus or success and New Year Lanterns, red in colour and oval in shape, differ from the Mid Autumn Festival lanterns that are bright, many colours and appear in different sizes and shapes. Chinese calligraphy posters show Chinese Idioms, New Year pictures, Chinese knots, and paper cutting and couplets. Dragon and lion dances are common during Chinese New Year. It is believed that the loud beats of the drum and the deafening sounds of the cymbals together with the face of the dragon or lion dancing aggressively can evict bad or evil spirits.
On the eight day of the lunar month prior to Chinese New Year, a traditional porridge known as Labazhou, is served in remembrance of an ancient festival, called La that occurred shortly after the winter solstice. La is a term often linked with Chinese New Year as it refers to the sacrifices held in honour of the gods in the twelfth lunar month. The Cured meats of Chinese New Year are known as larou. Without fail at dawn the porridge is prepared by the womenfolk and typically the first bowl is offered to the family’s ancestors and the household deities. Every member of the family can partake of the porridge after this and leftovers are shared with other distant relatives and friends.
The most important event of the Chinese New Year’s Eve is the dinner, comparable to Christmas dinner in the Western Worlds. A dish consisting of fish is usually the main course at the New Year’s Eve dinner. In northern China it is customary for dumplings to be made after dinner and be eaten around midnight. This is important as the dumplings’ shape resembles a Chinese teal, or precious metal ingot, it has come to symbolize wealth. In the South it is the glutinous New Year cake (Niangao) that is customarily eaten or shared with relatives and friends, with pieces of it forwarded as gifts, in the subsequent days of the New Year. Niangao literally means “New Year Cake” with a homophonous meaning of “increasingly prosperous year in year out.”
At the conclusion of dinner some families visit local temples hours before the New Year in order to pray for a prosperous New Year and light the first incense of the year. Modern practices have taken root, however, and now many households simply gather at home parties where there hold a countdown to the New Year. At one time firecrackers were a tradition, lit after the stroke of midnight to scare away evil spirits. The household doors are sealed, not to be reopened until the new morning in a ritual called” opening the door of fortune”.
Here’s a brief day by day account of New Year’s Celebrations:
The first day of New Year: It officially begins at midnight and is usually reserved for the welcoming of deities of the Heavens and Earth.
At first light of New Year, according to tradition, children young and old greet their parents by wishing them a healthy and happy New Year and receive money in red paper envelopes. Members of the family who are married also give red envelopes containing cash to junior members of the family, mostly children and teenagers. (Business managers also give bonuses through red envelopes to employees, symbolizing good luck and wealth.)
Red packets are also known as Ya Sui Qian which was evolved from, literally, the money used to suppress or put down the evil spirits during this celebration. Red packets almost always contain money, varying from a couple of dollars to several hundred. As per custom, the amount of money in the red packets should be of even numbers, as odd numbers are associated with cash given during funerals (Bai Jin). The number 8 is considered lucky (for its homophone for “wealth”), and $8 is commonly found in the red envelopes in the US. The number is also very lucky as it sounds like ‘smooth’, in the sense of having a smooth year. Sometimes chocolate coins are found in the red packets.
Odd and even numbers are determined by the first digit, rather than the last. Thirty and fifty, for example, are odd numbers, and are thus appropriate as funeral cash gifts. However, it is common and quite acceptable to have cash gifts in a red packet using a single bank note – with ten or fifty yuan bills used frequently.
This is also the time reserved for honouring one’s elders and children usually visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended families: parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, in order to pay their respects.
For Buddhists, the first day is also the birthday of Maitreya Bodhisattva (better known as the more familiar Budai Luohan), the Buddha-to-be. Many people, especially Buddhists, abstain from killing animals and meat consumption on the first day because it is believed that this will ensure longevity for them. Some consider lighting fires and using knives to be bad luck on New Year’s Day, so all food to be consumed is usually cooked in prior to this day. On this day it is also considered bad luck to clean.
Some families may invite a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in good fortune for the Chinese New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises.
In ancient China bamboo stems filled with gunpowder were burnt to create small explosions that drove away the evil spirits. In modern times firecrackers are used during the festive season. These are usually strung on a long fused string so it can be hung downwards. Each firecracker is rolled up in red papers, as red is auspicious, with gunpowder in its core. Once ignited, the firecracker lets out a loud popping noise and, as they are usually strung together by the hundreds, the firecrackers are known for their deafening explosions that scare away the evil spirits. The burning of firecrackers also signifies this joyful time of year and has become an integral aspect of Chinese New Year celebrations.
While fireworks and firecrackers are traditional and have always been very popular, some regions have recently banned them due to concerns that they are fire hazards.
The Second Day: On this day incense is burned at the graves of the family ancestors as part of an offering and prayer ritual. Also known as kainian (beginning of the year), it is the day when married daughters may visit their birth parents, relatives and close friends. This day is also the God of Wealth’s birthday. Therefore, during the days of Imperial China, beggars and other unemployed people travelled from family to family, carrying the picture of the God of Wealth and shouting, “Cai Shen do!” To this the householders would respond with “lucky money” to reward the messengers. Business people of the Cantonese dialect group will hold a ‘Hoi Nin’ prayer to start their business on the 2nd day of Chinese New Year so the business will be blessed with good luck and prosperity for the year. Some believe that the second day is also the birthday of all dogs and remember them with special treats.
The Third Day: The third day is known as chì kǒu, directly translated as “red mouth”. chì kǒu is also called chì gǒu rì chì gǒu means “the God of Blazing Wrath”. It is generally accepted that it is not a good day to socialize or visit your relatives and friends. Hakka villagers in rural Hong Kong in the 1960s called it the Day of the Poor Devil and believed everyone should stay at home. This is also considered a propitious day to visit the temple of the God of Wealth and have one’s future told.
The Fourth Day: In some communities that Chinese New Year is celebrated for only two or three days, the fourth day is the time when business return to normal.
The Fifth Day: In northern Mainland China, people usually eat traditional Chinese dumplings on the morning of Po Wu. In China people will also set of firecrackers in an attempt to get Guan Yu’s attention, therefore ensuring his favour and good fortune for the New Year.
The Sixth Day: In Taiwan businesses traditionally are re-opened on the sixth day, accompanied by firecrackers.
The Seventh Day: The seventh day is traditionally known as Renri, the common man’s birthday, the day when everyone officially grows one year older. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Singapore it is also the time when a tossed raw fish salad, Yusheng, is eaten for continued wealth and prosperity.
For the Chinese Buddhists, this is another significant day to avoid eating meat, as the seventh day commemorates the birth of Sakra, lord of the devas, comparable to the Jade Emperor, in Buddhist cosmology.
The Eight Day: Officially the holidays are considered over as the business, all government agencies resume the normal schedule. Some store owners may host a lunch or dinner with their employees, thanking their employees for the work they have done for the whole year. It is the day which another family dinner is held to celebrate the eve of the birth of the Jade Emperor.
The Ninth Day: The ninth day is traditionally the birthday of the Jade Emperor. This time is reserved for offering prayers to the Jade Emperor of Heaven in the Taoist Pantheon. This day is especially important to Hokkiens of Singapore. Come midnight of the eighth day of the New Year, Hokkiens will offer thanks giving prayers to the Emperor of Heaven. Offerings will include sugar cane, as it was the sugarcane that had protected the Hokkiens from certain extermination generations ago. Incense, tea, vegetarian food, fruit, or roast pig, and gold paper are served as a customary protocol for paying respect to an honoured person.
The Tenth Day: It’s another day of celebration for the Jade Emperor.
The Eleventh Day- Twelfth Day: These days are for socializing where family and friends are invited to dinners.
Note: In addition to red envelopes, which are usually given from elder to younger, small gifts, usually of food or sweets, are also exchanged between friends or relatives during Chinese New Year. Gifts are usually brought when visiting friends or relatives at their homes. Common gifts include fruits, typically oranges bit never pears, cakes, biscuits, chocolates, candies, or some other small gift.
The Thirteenth Day: This day is dedicated to Guan Yu, also known as “The God of War.” A legendary General, known for having won over one hundred battles, he represents courage, loyalty, truth, justice and strength. Evil spirits are scared of Guan Yu, so he is also an effective protection against malicious, supernatural apparitions. Every business and organization in China will pray to Guan Yu on this particular day for protection and for success as he is also considered to be “God of Wealth or the God of Success.” On the practical note, people will eat pure vegetarian food on this day in order to clean out their stomach due to consuming far too much meaty, rich food during the last two weeks.
The Fifteenth Day: This day is celebrated as Yuan Xiao Festival or Shang Yuan Festival, or Lantern Festival, otherwise known as Chap Goh Mei, ( literal meaning: “the fifteen night”) in Fujian dialect. Rice dumplings, sweet glutinous rice balls brewed in a soup, are eaten on this particular day. Candles are lit outside the houses as a way to guide wayward spirits home. This day is celebrated as the Lantern Festival, and families walk the street carrying lit lanterns.
There is a charming tradition is carried out in Singapore and Malaysia on this day. It is celebrated by all individuals seeking a love partner as an altered version of Valentine’s Day. Normally, single women would write their contact number on mandarin oranges and throw it in a river or a lake while single men collect and eat the oranges. The taste is an indication of their possible love: sweet represents a good fate while sour represents a bad fate.
Last but not least, this day often marks the end of the Chinese New Year festivities.
Here’s another interesting note: In 1849, with the discovery of gold and the ensuing California Gold Rush, over 50,000 people, among them many Chinese, to work in the gold mines and on the railroad. By the 1860s, the residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown were eager to share their culture with their fellow San Franciscans who may have been unfamiliar with or hostile to them. The organizers chose to showcase their culture by using a favourite American tradition: the parade. They invited a variety of other groups from the city to participate, and marched down what today is Grant Avenue and Kearny Street carrying colourful flags, banners, lanterns, and drums and firecrackers to drive away evil spirits. The current San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade traces its lineage back to those early days.
Chinese New Year is also celebrated annually in many western cities with significant Chinese populations. Among cities with such parades are San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, London, Sydney, Wellington, Toronto, and Vancouver.
Happy New Year 2012