Wah liao!! Kung hey fatt choi!
Yes! Wah liao indeed! And much wealth, prosperity and good luck to all! It is the crowing year of the ROOSTER!! Not my year (damn, that sucks…!), but, it’s Chinese New Year nonetheless!
Now, others will call it ‘Lunar New Year’ and that’s their prerogative, but to me, being two different kinds of Chinese – it will always be CHINESE NEW YEAR!!
Two different kinds? Yeah – two. I’m Chinese-Chinese on my mother’s side, and Straits-Chinese on my father’s side. If you don’t know what ‘Straits Chinese’ is, then I’ll pop in a link to my article about the Straits Chinese here, so that you can read all about them, and their fascinating history!
Either way – It’s Chinese New Year, and that means dusting off all kinds of old, ancient, decrepit traditions and rolling them out of the shed for their once-a-year moment in the sun.
“What traditions!?”, I hear you wail, in your frustrated groan of ‘getonwithitedness’?
Chinese New Year actually has loads of traditions and customs, and it’s all those traditions, customs, superstitions and legends that we’ll be covering in this posting! So, let’s hop to it!…
This is the biggest and most well-known of all traditions during Chinese New Year. If you’re going to any major CNY celebration – make sure you wear red! A red tie, red shoes, red shirt, red dress, red jacket…something red!
Red is considered the luckiest colour in Chinese culture. That’s why all the doors, rooves, bricks and everything else in the famous ‘Forbidden City’ in Peking – is bright crimson red! To bring in all that good luck, baby! This is also why people hang red couplets outside their doors, and light red firecrackers outside their houses.
Red is the Chinese colour of good luck. This stems from an ancient fable where a brave warrior entered a village on New Year’s Eve. He noticed that everybody barred their doors and shuttered their windows, not daring to leave their houses after dark.
Perplexed, he questioned a village elder, asking for an explanation. The old man said that each year on New Year’s Eve, a vicious monster emerged from the forests nearby to devour anybody caught outside after dark.
While they were talking, a little girl in a red dress ran out into the streets. Before anybody had noticed, the monster had arrived. The girl screamed and the monster recoiled in horror, fleeing back into the jungles. Observing this, the warrior deduced that the monster was frightened of the colour red, and sudden, loud noises.
To protect themselves and bring good luck, he advised the villagers to festoon their houses in red fabric, and light firecrackers outside their doors at sundown. The bright colours and loud explosions would keep the beast at bay. When they tried this the next evening, New Year’s Day, the beast failed to materialise.
Ever since, it has been a tradition to wear red, and light firecrackers to scare away evil spirits and demons, and to herald forth good luck for the year ahead.
Offerings to Zao Jun
In households which follow Chinese customs and traditions, one of the most important annual rituals are the offerings of ‘nian gao‘, or new years’ cake, to the Kitchen God – Zao Jun.
As God of the Kitchen, the traditional heart of the home, Zao Jun’s shrine within this room would’ve been privy to all the family’s deepest, darkest secrets and misdeeds. At the end of the year, it was his duty to rise to heaven, and to give a report of the family’s misdeeds to the Jade Emperor. The emperor then granted blessings or retribution accordingly.
In order to ensure good fortune for the year ahead, the household (usually in the form of the lady of the house) would give Zao Jun offerings (or bribes!) of sweet desserts (including, but not limited to new years’ cake), so that his jaw would be glued shut and so he would only tell the emperor about the good things which the family had done that year.
Legend says that Zao Jun was a man who broke up with his wife, experienced hard times, and returned to her for charity when his luck had run out. While she went to get him a drink, Zao Jun, overcome with shame, crawled into the clay, wood-fired stove in his wife’s kitchen, committing suicide. The Jade Emperor of Heaven took pity on him, and appointed him as the Kitchen God thereafter.
Chinese New Year Food
There are loads of foods which are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year, either because they’re considered Chinese delicacies, or because they’re seasonal foods traditionally eaten during the New Year period. Some of the more common ones are…
Nian Gao (literally ‘Year Cake’ or New Year’s Cake) is a big tradition in Chinese households. Given China’s vast size, it’s probably no surprise that nian gao varies significantly from coast to coast, north and south across the country, and that the ways in which nian gao is consumed is also extremely varied.
The type of nian gao that most people outside of China will be familiar with is a fat, round, dense, sticky little thing, which traditionally hailed from Canton Province (today Guandong Province), in southern China.
If you’ve ever eaten nian gao, then you’ll know that what I say next will be more true than you want to admit – it’s extremely dense, sweet, filling, and in some instances, it can be bloody hard to eat! It’s so gooey and chewy it’s like trying to eat liquid tar! Good luck with that…
Despite this, however, nian gao is amazing. My favourite way of having it is with dessicated coconut sprinkled on top. It tastes just divine. A pity we can only have it (or at least, only buy it) once a year.
Nian Gao should not be confused with moon cakes. The size is about the same, but the texture and taste are completely different!
Also called Lo Hei, among several other naming variations, Yee Sang is popular in southern China, and many Chinese-expat communities, such as those in Malaysia and Singapore. Yee Sang is a Chinese-style salad, served cold with sweet sauces, a wide variety of vegetables, nuts, and most uniquely of all – raw (or if not raw, then at least, cold) fish.
The tradition with yee sang is to mix it up by throwing it up in the air as high as possible, while using chopsticks. Trust me, this is not easy…it’s a lot of fun!…but it’s not easy! And if you do it wrong, it’s a hell of a mess!!
Egg noodles, usually served with lobster or crayfish, is another extremely popular Chinese New Year dish. It’s also popular during anniversaries and birthdays. The length of the noodles symbolises longevity, continuity and a long life. As such, you should eat them and slurp them for good luck – but never snap, bite through, or break them, as that would symbolise one cutting short one’s life or run of good luck! Woops…
The Giving and Receiving of ‘Hong Bao’
Aaaah yes! Every little Chinese child in every gigantic Chinese family will have grown up with THIS amazing tradition – the yearly gifts of hong bao!
‘Hong Bao’ literally means ‘red bag’ or ‘red packet’ in Chinese (in Cantonese, it’s the slightly different ‘Ang Pow’, but it means exactly the same thing). They’re the little red envelopes stuffed with money, which parents and older, married relatives, give to children, and any unmarried relatives. When my brother announced that he was getting married at a family reunion – one of my aunts jokingly teased that he should reconsider his decision – it would mean no more red envelopes of cash from her!…or anybody else!…in the family once he tied the knot!
(Note to self: Never marry).
Like a lot of other Chinese traditions, the giving and receiving of hong bao goes back untold centuries. The earliest records of a hong bao-like tradition dates to the days when China still had large numbers of round coins with square holes in them, as part of their currency.
To wish their offspring good luck for the year ahead, parents and grandparents would tie coins together on red cord or string, and give them to children to symbolise good fortune in the months that were to come. This eventually morphed into the more convenient red paper envelopes or packets which are used today.
Traditionally, the amount of money inside the envelope is of significance. Ideally, it should always be an even number (so $10 instead of $5, for example). This is to ensure that good things always come in pairs (numbers divisible by two). In my long history of receiving hong bao, I’ve had amouts ranging from $5 all the way up to $100!
The traditional greeting expected at the receipt of a red packet is ‘Gung Hey Fatt Choy!’ (Cantonese), or ‘Gong xi fa cai’ (Chinese-Mandarin). In either dialect, the result is more or less the same: “Wishing you happiness and prosperity for the year ahead!”.
Another big, big tradition for Chinese New Year is the annual family reunion. When you have large families spread out all over the world, this can be a bit hard to pull off, but in China, at least – the annual family reunion is still a BIG event. Millions of people book flights, train-tickets and bus-tickets to travel hundreds of miles across China to be with their relatives on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
In some instances, it’s not just the living who join the reunion, either! In some parts of Asia, even the dead are invited! This usually takes the shape of visiting shrines or family temples, or graveyards to leave offerings to ancestors, to clean up gravesites, and to light incense, burn paper money and in some cases, light firecrackers to wake the spirits of the dead and invite them back to the family home.
Nothing like having the WHOLE family around during New Year’s Eve, huh?
Incidentally – this tradition is also why it’s considered VERY bad form in Chinese culture to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice – You do the same with sticks of burning incense when offering prayers to the dead. So unless you want to commit a major social faux-pas – keep your chopsticks down!
The Lion Dance!
The lion dance – performed using a giant lion puppet, is yet another popular tradition. Although not an animal on the Chinese Zodiac, the lion dance has been a part of Chinese culture for hundreds of years.
Traditionally, the dancers come from local martial-arts schools, Chinese youth associations, or clan associations, and are typically young men (the exertion involved in the dancing is significantly higher than you might expect!).
The aim of lion dancing is to try and grab at offerings of vegetables, red envelopes (Hong Bao or Ang Pow), and to bring good luck to the local community. They’re usually accompanied by loud, raucous music, designed to drive away demons and evil spirits, and sometimes, even firecrackers.
The lion dance that most people are familiar with comes from the Canton or Guandong region of China, in the far south, near Hong Kong. Many people confuse the lion dance with the dragon dance – which are absolutely nothing alike. The lion dance involves a long, full-body lion with a working head, which the dancers move around inside of. The dragon is held up in the air on poles, with the operators working the poles from below.
The Twelve Zodiac Animals!
This is possibly the most famous part of Chinese New Year – The Chinese Zodiac! There are twelve animals in the Zodiac, they are, in order (yes, there is an order):
Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
Each animal has specific attributes and qualities, and being born in one year over another means that you’re supposed to have different strengths and weaknesses.
Myself? I’m a rabbit, or ‘tuzi‘, in Chinese. And what could be more awesome than being a a fuzzy, cute little sex maniac who delivers chocolate? According to the books, among other things, Rabbits are highly creative. That sounds like me! 😛
So where do these twelve animals come from? Well, for that answer, we need to go back to the Guy in the Sky – the Jade Emperor. Confused with time, because they had no way to distinguish passing years, the commoners prayed to the emperor for guidance. In his wisdom, the emperor devised a twelve-year cycle. In trying to figure out how to structure this, he came up with the idea that each year would be represented by an animal. To decide which twelve that would be, he arranged a race. The first twelve animals to finish the race, and most importantly – cross the river at the end and make it to the other bank – would be honoured for eternity by having a place in the Chinese Zodiac.
Now whether or not you really believe this – it makes for a heck of a fairytale.
Happy New Year!
This is just a brief rundown of the most common Chinese New Year traditions, customs and rituals. Although they can vary from region to region around China, as well as from place to place among expat Chinese communities around the world, most families and communities who follow Chinese traditions will adhere to at least some of these, which are the most common and well-known customs.
Happy Chinese New Year!!