Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chinese New Year

In years past I have celebrated parts of the Chinese New Year, but this year I forgot, well the food part at least. I have always been taken with the idea of the Chinese New Year, the idea that you clean your old luck and get rid of your dust in hopes of new luck for a new year. Plus, it makes me clean up my house some! Weather Boy and I had a conversation yesterday afternoon (while he was finishing off some amazing looking homemade dumplings left over from his celebration) and I explained part of the celebration to him. Well Weather Boy, here is more info for you.

Day Before Preparations (Wikipedia)

On the days before the New Year celebration Chinese families give their home a thorough cleaning. There is a Cantonese saying "Wash away the dirt on ninyabaat" (年廿八,洗邋遢), but the practice is not usually restricted on nin'ya'baat (年廿八, the 28th day of month 12). It is believed the cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the preceding year and makes their homes ready for good luck. Brooms and dust pans are put away on the first day so that luck cannot be swept away. Some people give their homes, doors and window-frames a new coat of red paint. Homes are often decorated with paper cutouts of Chinese auspicious phrases and couplets. Purchasing new clothing, shoes and receiving a hair-cut also symbolize a fresh start.

In many households where Buddhism or Taoism is prevalent, home altars and statues are cleaned thoroughly, and altars that were adorned with decorations from the previous year are also taken down and burned a week before the new year starts, and replaced with new decorations. Taoists (and Buddhists to a lesser extent) will also "send gods" (送神), an example would be burning a paper effigy of the Kitchen God, the recorder of family functions. This is done so that the kitchen god can report to the Jade Emperor of the family household's transgressions and good deeds. Families often offer sweet foods (such as candy) in order to "bribe" Gods into reporting good things about the family.

The biggest event of any Chinese New Year's Eve is the dinner every family will have. A dish consisting of fish will appear on the tables of Chinese families. It is for display for the New Year's Eve dinner. This meal is comparable to Christmas dinner in the West. In northern China, it is customary to make dumplings (jiaozi 饺子) after dinner and have it around midnight. Dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape is like a Chinese tael. By contrast, in the South, it is customary to make a new year cake (Niangao, 年糕) after dinner and send pieces of it as gifts to relatives and friends in the coming days of the new year. Niangao literally means increasingly prosperous year in year out. After the dinner, some families go to local temples, hours before the new year begins to pray for a prosperous new year; however in modern practice, many households hold parties and even hold a countdown to the new lunar year.

Red Envelopes (Wikipedia)


Red packets for sale in a market in Taipei, Taiwan, before the Year of the Rat

Traditionally, Red envelopes or red packets (Cantonese: lai shi or lai see) (利是, 利市 or 利事); (Mandarin: 'hóng bāo' (红包); Hokkien: 'ang pow' (POJ: âng-pau); Hakka: 'fung bao'; are passed out during the Chinese New Year's celebrations, from married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors. It is also common for adults or young couples to give red packets to children. Red packets are also known as 壓歲錢/压岁钱 (Ya Sui Qian, which was evolved from 壓祟錢/压祟钱, literally, the money used to suppress or put down the evil spirit ) during this period.[4]

Red packets almost always contain money, usually varying from a couple of dollars to several hundred. 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 (帛金 : Bai Jin). The number 8 is considered lucky (for its homophone for "wealth"), and $8 is commonly found in the red envelopes. The number six is also very lucky due to the reason, in chinese six[六,liu] can mean smooth, as in 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.

The act of requesting for red packets is normally called (Mandarin): 讨紅包, 要利是. (Cantonese):逗利是. A married person would not turn down such request as it would mean that he or she would be "out of luck" in the new year. While this practice is common in South China, in the North people give cash without any cover to their sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, and children of their relatives and friends. Unlike the South, it is common for people give ¥50, ¥100 or even more, odd or even numbers are not taken into consideration anymore.

Gift exchange

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 (of different households) during Chinese New Year. Gifts are usually brought when visiting friends or relatives at their homes. Common gifts include fruits (typically oranges, and never pears), cakes, biscuits, chocolates, candies, or some other small gift.

Good Luck/Bad Luck (Wikipedia)

Good luck

  • Opening windows and/or doors is considered to bring in the good luck of the new year.
  • Switching on the lights for the night is considered good luck to 'scare away' ghosts and spirits of misfortune that may compromise the luck and fortune of the new year.
  • Sweets are eaten to ensure the consumer a "sweet" year.
  • It is important to have the house completely clean from top to bottom before New Year's Day for good luck in the coming year. (however, as explained below, cleaning the house on or after New Year's Day is frowned upon)
  • Some believe that what happens on the first day of the new year reflects the rest of the year to come. Chinese people will often gamble at the beginning of the year, hoping to get luck and prosperity.
  • Wearing a new pair of slippers that is bought before the new year, because it means to step on the people who gossip about you.
  • The night before the new year, bathe yourself in pomelo leaves and some say that you will be healthy for the rest of the new year.
  • Changing different things in the house such as blankets, clothes, mattress covers etc. is also a well respected tradition in terms of cleaning the house in preparation for the new year.

Bad luck

  • Buying a pair of shoes is considered bad luck amongst some Chinese. The character for "shoe" (鞋) is a homophone for the character 諧/谐, which means "rough" in Cantonese; in Mandarin it is also a homophone for the character for "evil" (邪).
  • Getting a hair-cut in the first lunar month puts a curse on maternal uncles. Therefore, people get a hair-cut before the New Year's Eve.
  • Washing your hair is also considered to be washing away one's own luck (although modern hygienic concerns take precedence over this tradition)
  • Sweeping the floor is usually forbidden on the first day, as it will sweep away the good fortune and luck for the new year.
  • Saying words like "finished" and "gone" is inauspicious on the New Year, so sometimes people would avoid these words by saying "I have completed eating my meal" rather than say "I have finished my meal."
  • Talking about death is inappropriate for the first few days of Chinese New Year, as it is considered inauspicious.
  • Buying (or reading) books is bad luck because the character for "book" (書/书) is a homonym to the character for "lose" (輸/输).
  • Avoid clothes in black and white, as black is a symbol of bad luck, and white is a traditional Chinese funeral colour.
  • Foul language is inappropriate during the Chinese New Year.
  • Offering anything in fours, as the number four (四), pronounced , can sound like "death" (死), pronounced , in Chinese. Pronunciations given here are for Mandarin, but the two words are also near-homophones in Cantonese. See tetraphobia.
  • One should never buy a clock for someone or for oneself because a clock in Chinese tradition means one's life is limited or "the end," which is also forbidden.
  • Avoid medicine and medicine related activities (at least on the first day) as it will give a bad fortune on one's health and lessen the luck one can obtain from New Years.
There is a lot more to the holiday than what I have outlined here. As you can tell different parts of the country celebrate it differently than other parts.

Enjoy ~SJ

1 comment:

sarala said...

Nice summary.
I bought some of last year's red packets because it was the year of the rat and I like rats. Oxen don't interest me as much although if I remember correctly I am an ox on the Chinese Zodiac.
Happy New Year.