First of all I want to say a special thanks Andrew (Andy) Chang, who teaches Chinese Culture. He helped make this blog possible.
While I am not Chinese myself, my marriage to a Singaporean of mainland China decent has given me a unique insider’s view of how Chinese New Year is celebrated by Chinese families. Keep in mind that there are many Asian cultures, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese etc that celebrate the new lunar year. Each shares similarities but the celebrations vary. Individual family traditions come into play too just as they do with American holidays.
Note: As you read, please keep in mind that the phonetically spelled words vary in spelling as the Chinese use characters rather than letters and pronunciation also varies from one province to the next. Consider that Mandarin is a different dialect than Cantonese even though both share the same written language.
Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival marks the end of winter. Spring and the New Year celebration starts on the first day of the first month on the traditional Chinese lunar Calendar. It ends on the 15th day with the Lantern festival. [Not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival which is sometimes referred to as the Lantern Festival]
Chinese New Year usually occurs between January 21 and February 20th. On rare occasions the date may fall at the first of month. For more info on the lunar calendar, see the links below.
Since the dragon is held in the highest esteem above all other signs it behooves this humble rabbit to first bow down and give the fifth sign of the Chinese zodiac just phrase.
Dragons are bringers of wealth and good fortune so they are actually the epitome of what Chinese New Year is all about, a celebration of luck and good fortune for the coming year.
The dragon symbol is the sign of authority and is worn on robes of the Imperial family and nobility. He is king of all scaly creatures: fish, reptiles, amphibian etc.
In Chinese mythology these revered creatures are seldom depicted as malevolent as they are in western cultures. They may be fearsome and powerful and held in awe, but are also considered just and benevolent. Chinese mythology may have some tales of evil dragons but these were “never” Chinese dragons but monsters from a foreign land.
Another interesting fact that I bet you didn’t know is that most dragons are considerd aquatic. The bigger the body of water they live in, lake, river, sea etc. the more powerful. There are some that inhabit the heavens as well, especially in the quarter of the sky called the Palace of the Green Dragon. The appearance of the dragon constellation heralds the rainy season.
The dragon is reputed to be deaf, owing to the fact that the Chinese word for deaf rhymes with the word for dragon.
Understanding Chinese Symbolism:
So that you will understand the reasoning behind the Chinese symbolism and why they celebrate the way they do, I need to explain a little about how it works.
In the Chinese culture, like the American Indian culture there is a story/myth explaining the existence of absolutely everything.
When I married my husband he said a woman should always eat tofu because it makes her skin smooth. Okay, tofu is smooth but . . . I thought he was pulling my leg until his mother visited and said the same thing. But you see where I’m going with this. Comparisons factor into the symbolism.
Chinese words that rhyme are often given symbolic meanings between the two. Example: The Chinese word for Mandarin orange rhymes with the word meaning gold. Thus the orange represents wealth. It’s golden color (comparison) factors in too. The orange is very important to serve and eat during Chinese New Year.
Also anything round in shape is a symbol of completeness – that is it has a beginning and an end. Again the orange is round so it serves not only as a symbol of gold but also completeness. You’ll find more examples of these as you read.
How Did the Zodiac Animals Originate?
The mythology goes something like this:
In ancient times the god of gods decided the people needed a better method to keep track of the years. The gods devised a system based on a 12 year cycle and to make those years easy to recall they decided to give them animal names.
But which animal should have year one, year two etc.? The gods decided to hold a race across the river and the animal that came in first would be the name of the 1st year in the cycle. The second animal to come in would be the second year and so forth. The animals complained that dragon would win because he can fly so the gods gave him the task of bringing rain to a far-away village before he could return and join the race.
Ox was a strong sturdy fellow, able to battle the river currents. Rat grabbed his tail and as Ox neared the shoreline, Rat hopped up on Ox’s back and then jumped ashore before Ox set foot on it. So Rat was given the first year, Ox the second year. Next came, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and last of all, Pig.
Family New Year Celebrations
Even in these modern times Chinese people journey many miles to their home village to celebrate the New Year with family. In a manner of speaking it is a family reunion much like our Thanksgiving. And as usual, there is a symbolic myth to explain the reason for this.
The story of the Nian, a hideous monster is one of many mythological stories that has brought forth Chinese New Year customs. While there are several versions of the Nian story on the net, I’m telling the one told to me by Andrew Chang. He’s very knowledgeable and a wonderful story teller in the bargain. Enjoy!
The hideous Nian creature always left his ocean home on the eve of the New Year to terrorize seashore villages. He ate people and livestock alike and destroyed everything in his path. One year when New Year’s Eve was nearly upon one of these villages, the people decided to abandon the village and not return until after New Years Eve when the monster would be gone. One old woman refused to leave. The Nian had killed her husband and her son already and sadly, she felt she had little to live for.
So when everyone left the village she remained. Night settled in and she heard a rhythmic knocking. It started at the first house and ventured toward hers. She grew very frightened. Eventually the knocking came at her door. “Who’s there?” she called out.
An old man’s voice answered. “I’m tired and hungry, please let me in.” The old woman peeped out and saw an old man with a cane. She guessed he had been knocking on all the village doors with it. Inviting him in, she kindly fed and warmed him. He asked her where all the people had gone. She explained about the Nian and he asked, “Why didn’t you go with them?” She told him about her lost family.
The old man said he knew of way to outwit the Nian and gave her instructions. She gathered up bamboo and piled it in her garden. [In those days the house formed a square around a garden] Then she gathered up everything red in the house and decorated the doors and windows with it. Next the old man told her to gather up all her pots and pans. Then together they waited for the Nian.
The Nian destroyed every home looking for food. It growled in fury when it found no people. It came to the old woman’s door and squealed in fright. Next it tried the windows and then the backdoor, squealing and running away at each. Clearly the Nian did not like the red color.
The old man told the old woman to burn the bamboo. Then as dry, burning bamboo will do, it exploded with a loud bang. The old woman followed that by banging loudly on her pots and pans. The Nian shrieked in terror and returned to the ocean.
When the people returned to the village they asked how the old woman had survived. The people decided the old man had been a good fairy and that he’d rewarded the woman for her hospitality by scaring away the Nian.
From that time on all Chinese New year celebrations have included lots of the color red and firecrackers. And by the way, the Chinese word for firecrackers means burning bamboo.
I promised a reason for the Chinese people’s mass immigration to home villages. In short, the gathering was to make sure all family members are well and accounted for [To make sure the Nian or other evils had not befallen them.] Gung hey, a typical part of a New Year’s greeting means literally, “congratulations for surviving the Nian.”
Celebrations in Chinese homes start with a good house cleaning to sweep away any bad luck that may have accumulated over the past year. However, there is no cleaning the first few days of the New Year for fear of disposing of good luck.
Homes are decorated with the lucky color red, esp. the doorway, and red lanterns are hung inside and out.
Mirrors are sometimes placed over the door or on each side of the doorway so that when evil spirits try to enter, they scare themselves and run away. The mirrors were placed in the middle of an eight-sided piece of peach wood that had been painted red. Peaches are a fruit of the gods so it was a good wood to repel evil. [This is not strictly a New Year’s custom]
Chinese families gather on New Year’s Eve to share festive foods that will bring them good luck for the coming year. They do this at a round table. (completeness of family members)
Some Festive Foods Might Include The Following:
- Chicken and fish: Represents prosperity and are served whole (the chicken with head and feet, the fish with head and fins) to represent completeness, that is, having a beginning and an end. [A poor farmer kept chickens for eggs to sell and only ate one on a “festive” occasion.] Fish sounds like the word meaning “something still coming or excess. It also means “there will be more after this” It is always the last dish to be served.
- Oysters: the Chinese term for oysters rhymes with grand which suggests, wealth and plenty.
- Tangerines: Passed out as symbols wealth and good luck. [See symbolism above] Today, you’ll find pretty miniature orange trees in Chinese markets during the New Year.
- Small steamed rice cakes that look like gold nuggets: Theses sweet treats are steamed then fried to a golden color. Again the gold color symbolize wealth.
- Sesame balls: These are made from glutinous rice and filled with a sweet red bean paste or lotus seed paste. (My absolute favorite by the way) They are round (completeness) and golden (wealth) and the sesame seeds, actually in the Chinese culture, seeds of any kind represents children/bearing children, esp. sons.
- Trays of Candy: Round-shaped trays with compartments holding candied lotus seeds, dried fruits, plums, apricots, perhaps dragon eye fruit, dried coconut strips, dried ginger etc are set out to provide a sweet & happy beginning to the new year. The Chinese name for lotus seed rhymes with the Chinese word that means “continue to have sons.”
I provided such a tray for my New Years guests at a party. I remember one guest in particular, a college friend of my son’s who was from China. The young man was thrilled to share the New Year with us, and he nearly cried at the sight of the special tray of sweets. I was so touched that I sent a replenished tray home with him.
- Watermelon Seeds: Spiced or salted, many different kinds of seeds are served due the symbolism, of good luck for having more children.
- Dumplings: Often their shape is in the same as ancient Chinese money. Wealth again.
On New Year’s eve after the feast, families stayed up late to greet the new year just as many of us do today. Even little children were allowed to stay up until midnight. Often, they ate dumpling soup or some type of meat ball soup.
Long ago, visiting family members and friends brought gifts when they visited. This might be a chicken or something they had grown. But traveling many miles to celebrate made this difficult and in time the practice evolved. Instead, red packets were given to children. The money in these packets was called lucky money and it a congratulations to the children for surviving yet another year-literally holding down the year – and it was a wish to live and prosper. Remember that life expectancy was short.
Red packets are also given for birthdays and weddings but most especially for Chinese New Year. These days, children might also give red packets to their parents. My husband has always given his mother a red packet.
Only, an “even” amount of money is given, never odd. You might receive $6 dollars but never $5 or $20 but never $17. My husband explained that an odd amount is bad luck. At first I found the exchange of red packets strange because it was like trading money – there was no profit. My husband said the red packets aren’t just about the money. They are a way to wish good luck and wealth to your friends and family. At my New Year party I handed out red packets containing two brand new silver dollars.
New Clothing: In much the same way that Chinese sweep away the bad luck before New Years, they replace old clothing with at least one new outfit. Lots of red clothing is worn as it is a good luck color.
Dragon and Lion dances in the streets: Most Americans are familiar with the long dragons, operated by many people maneuvering poles underneath the body. The lion dance is popular too, but it takes only two people to operate the movement.
The lion dance requires great skill and is often performed my martial art schools.
Today, many Chinese restaurants host a mini dance of the dragon and/or lion accompanied by the loud banging of drums. Offerings of red packets/coins are accepted by the dancers. [Turning down a red packet is very bad luck for the receiver] During a lion dance, when he eats an orange and spits it out, he spreading the wealth. In China and Hong Kong the parade creatures undulate through the streets and around buildings during the festival.
The different provinces of China all have their own mythology on the origins of the dragon and lion dances. You might enjoy investigating them by using the links below.
Chinese New Year Don’ts:
Don’t drop your chop sticks
Don’t greet people in the morning.
Don’t lend or borrow money
Don’t sweep the floor
I’ve enjoyed sharing these fascinating Chinese New Year traditions with you. If you plan on hosting a Chinese New Year party, red lanterns, red packets, mirrors, strings of red-paper firecrackers and etc are usually available at local Asian food markets. If you can’t find what you need, ask the management, and I’m sure they can point you in the right direction. Be sure to offer tangerines to your guests!
History of Chinese New Year – Qing dao
U-tube Celebration in Singapore
Chinese Zodiac signs
Western-Chinese Calendar Converter
Structure of the Chinese Calendar – this incorporates the zodiac
Chinese Lion Dance – a good site that explains types of lion dances and originations. The photos are beautiful.
Dragon Dance – the history and one of the most comprehensive explanations I found