Chinese New Year Traditions
Preparations for the New Year festival start during the last few days of the last moon. Houses are thoroughly cleaned, debts repaid, hair cut and new clothes bought. Doors are decorated with vertical scrolls of characters on red paper whose texts seek good luck and praise nature, this practice stemming from the hanging of peach-wood charms to keep away ghosts and evil spirits. In many homes incense is burned, and also in the temples as a mark of respect to ancestors.
On New Year's Eve houses are brightly lit and a large family dinner is served. In the south of China sticky-sweet glutinous rice pudding called nian gao is served, while in the north the steamed dumpling jiaozi is popular. Most celebrating the festival stay up till midnight, when fireworks are lit, to drive away evil spirits.
On the morning of the New Year, children often receive lay see, lucky money in red envelopes (red is the color of luck). People greet each other with good wishes for the New Year. Old grudges are dismissed during this time of goodwill and reconciliation.
Things to Avoid on New Years
Avoid housework on New Years day: this activity runs the risk of washing or sweeping away good luck. For the same reason, avoid washing your hair on the first and last day of the New Year. It is also considered unlucky to use anything sharp on New Year's Day - knives, scissors, even nail clippers. The action of the sharp blades risks cutting the threads of good fortune brought in at New Year. It is important not to use language that is negative- having an argument on New Year's Day is to be avoided at all costs. Words related to sickness and deaths are to be avoided, and even alternative words where words sound like words related to sickness or death. To avoid any association with death, any slaughtering of poultry or livestock is carried out on New Year's Eve. Finally, care must be taken not to stumble or to break anything - this would be indicative of bad luck ahead.
More Festival Traditions, Symbolism, Customs and Couplets
Dragon: symbol of strength, adventure, courage and prosperity. To the Chinese the dragon is a benign animal that is made up of many different animals. It has the eyes of a rabbit, ears of a cow, antlers of a deer, mouth of a camel, whiskers of a catfish and scales of a carp, body of a serpent, paws of a tiger and the talons of an eagle. The dragon dance culminates the Chinese New Year celebration and parade. Approximately 100 people, working in shifts, dance the Dragon through the streets as the Dragon follows the leader, enticed by the "pearl" which dangles from a pole. This dragon is more than 160 feet long, and made with layers of silk, gauze and velvet which cover a bamboo frame.
Lion Dance: Lions are used to bring joy and happiness. Lion dancing is a traditional folk sports activity. From the fourth day of the New Year to the fifteenth of the first month, there are lion dance groups, each composed of seven to more than ten people, touring from village to village. All performers wear the same kind of coats, trousers, shoes and headgear, with a sash round their waist, armed with swords and clubs to give people an impression of grandeur. The lion's head is made of paper in a traditional shape; cat's head, rooster or the bullfighting lion. The lion's head is complete with painted eyes, nose, mouth and tongue, decorated with bells tinkling on tassels. The body is a motley piece of cloth. The dance is performed by one fellow holding the lion's head with both hands and another bowing low and hunching his back at the lion's tail. They will ape the various gestures of a lion to the accompaniment of drums and gongs. Lion dancing has a long history in this country and its performers are all very skillful dancers, some excelling in the head's movements, some in somersaulting and rocking on the ground, some acting boldly but nimbly to perform stunts.
Change Kuei: Ghostbuster - known to chase away ghosts. A fierce looking, but benign character known for his ability to catch ghosts and goblins. Colorful printed pictures of Chung Kuei and other "paper gods" are purchased and hung during the lunar new year for luck and protection as well as an inexpensive way to brighten up the house for the holidays.
Bats: Five bats surrounding the longevity character represent five blessings of wealth, status, longevity, love of virtue and a natural death. The Chinese word for bat is "Fok" which is a homonym for the Chinese word for prosperity or blessing which is also pronounced "fok". For this reason you will find bats in many Chinese motifs symbolizing prosperity and blessings. Bats play an important part in Chinese legendary lore. According to Pen Ts'ao, in the caverns of the hills are found bats a thousand years old, and white as silver, which are believed to feed on stalactites and if eaten will ensure longevity and good sight. The blood, gall, wings, etc. are therefore prescribed as ingredients in certain medicines.
Some of the Chinese bats are very large, the wings measuring two feet across. There are about 20 species, most which are found in Southern China. The conventional bat is frequently employed for decorated purposes, and is often so ornate that it bears a strong resemblance to the butterfly.
Bamboo: The bamboo, commonly known as "the friend of China" grows throughout the greater part of the country. There are about 10 species. The Spotted Bamboo is said to be marked with the tears of the two consorts of the Emperor Shun as they wept over his tomb in the land of Ts'ang-wu. The Spiny Bamboo attains a large size. The Coir Bamboo is solid stemmed and used in the manufacture of fans. The Chu P'u, or Bamboo Treatise, published in the 3rd or 4th century, gives a detailed account of the bamboo and its uses in ancient times. The young shoots serve as food, the pulp in the manufacture of paper, the stems for pipes, buckets, masts, furniture etc., the leaves for raincoats, thatch, packing, etc., and decorations of the seeds, leaves, sap, and roots are employed for medicinal purposes. In ancient times bamboo tables were used instead of books.
Blessings/Prosperity: The Chinese do not spell their words, but use a character or pictography to represent each word. The word for blessings is a combination of four words or pictures. The left side is the picture for clothing, the horizontal stroke on the top right means a roof or shelter, the square under the roof is the Chinese word for mouth representing food, and the bottom right side represents rice patties.
Chrysanthemum: The flower is an emblem of mid-autumn and symbol of joviality. The 9th moon is known as the Chrysanthemum Month, when it is customary to make a special point of going out and feasting the eyes upon the beautiful blossoms.
Goldfish: represents surplus and abundance. It is a tradition in many Chinese families to serve a whole fish as part of the New Year Eve's dinner. No matter how hungry the family or how good the fish is prepared, the fish is never completely consumed during this meal in order to represent surplus for the new year. To insure that the fish is not entirely consumed, some families place a wooden fish on the table to symbolize abundance for the new year.
Firecrackers: Setting off firecrackers is a practice handed down from the remote past - that of burning bamboo stems. Because bamboo stems have joints and are hollow inside, when they are burnt, the air inside after being heated expands so that the stem itself bursts open and cracks. Later on, people placed gunpowder into bamboo stems and invented bao zhu (exploding bamboo) or firecrackers.
At first people set off firecrackers for the purpose of "keeping away evil spirits and exorcising ghosts, suppressing demons and seeking happiness". Firecrackers enlivened the new year holiday and bring great joy to all people.
Couplets: During the Spring Festival, households hung peachwood charms on their main gates, or posted on them pictures of the Door Gods and couplets in bright red. These couplets expressed wishes for good luck. Displaying couplets is an ancient custom dating back to the time when they were written on peachwood boards. They bear auspicious words such as: "Happiness, high position and long life" or "The New Year brings in overflowing good fortune".
Crane: Next to the Phoenix, this bird is the most celebrated in Chinese legends, in which it is endowed with many mythical attributes. The figure of the crane, with outspread wings and uplifted foot, is sometimes placed on the center of a coffin in a funeral procession, being supplied to convey the soul of the departed to the "Western Heaven" riding on its back. This bird is one of the commonest emblems of longevity, being generally depicted under a pine tree -also a symbol of age.
Deer: The deer is believed by the Chinese to live to a very old age, and has therefore become an emblem of long life. The horns of a deer are sorted as "old" and "young". The soft internal part of the horns is dried, pulverized and made up into pills. The inferior parts are boiled into jelly or tincture and are made into a tonic or astringent to cure rickets and other infantile diseases.
Dog: The dog is the 11th symbolic animal of the Twelve Animal cycle and is classed among the six domestic animals of China. The dog is much valued for its fidelity, though despised for other reasons: it fulfills the dual role of guardian and scavenger. The coming of a dog indicates future prosperity. Many believe that if a strange dog comes, and remains with one it is an omen of good to his family, indicating that he will become more wealthy.
Feng Shui: A term used to define the geomantic system by which the orientation of sites of houses, cities, graves are determined. The forms of hills and the directions of watercourses (wind and water) are the most important, but heights and forms of buildings and the directions of roads and bridges are important as well. During the Sung Dynasty (A.D. 324), it was believe a grave should have a wide river in front, a high cliff behind, with hills to the right and left, would constitute a first class geomantic position.
Phoenix: The phoenix is adorned with everything that is beautiful among birds. The phoenix is the most honorable among the feathered tribes. It has been described as having a throat of a swallow, the bill of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the tail of a fish, the forehead of a crane, the stripes of a dragon and the vaulted back of a tortoise. The phoenix is only supposed to appear in times of peace and prosperity. It is the second among the four supernatural creatures: the first being the dragon, the third, the Unicorn, and the fourth, the Tortoise. It symbolizes sun and warmth for summer and harvest. This bird is the product of the sun or fire, hence it is often pictured gazing on a ball of fire.
Tortoise: The tortoise is sacred to China and is an emblem of longevity, strength and endurance. It's dome shaped back represents the vault of the sky, its belly the earth. The tortoise has a snake's head and a dragon's neck.
Unicorn: The unicorn is the symbol of longevity and grandeur. It is reputed to be able to walk on water as well as on land, and is said to have last appeared just before the death of Confucius. The unicorn is supposed to combine and possess all the good qualities which are to be found among all hairy animals Some writers state that it has the body of a horse, is covered with scales like a fish and has two horns bend backwards.
Ying and Yang: The Yin and Yang are the negative and positive principles of universal life. Yang signifies Heaven, Sun, Light, Vigor. It is symbolized by the Dragon and is associated with azure color and oddness in numbers. In Feng Shui, or the geomantic system of orientation, raised land forms (mountains) are Yang. Yin stands for Earth, Moon, Darkness, Female. It is symbolized by the Tiger and is associated with orange color and even numbers. Valleys and streams possess the Yin quality.
Story from San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce
"Folk Customs At Traditional Chinese Festivities" by: Qi Xing
Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China 1988
"Traditional Chinese Festivals" by Marie-Luise Latsch
Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd. Singapore 1988 ISBN 9971-947-80-3
"Chinese New Year Story" by Serena Chen
"San Francisco Chinatown A Walking Tour" by Shirley Fong-Torres
China Books & Periodicals Inc. San Francisco 1991 ISBN 0-8351-2436-3
"Chinese New Year: Fact and Folklore" by William C. Hu
Ars Ceramica, Ltd. Ann Arbor, Mi. 1991 ISBN 0-89344-037-x
"Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives by: C.A.S, Williams
Dover Publications, Inc. New York 1976 ISBN 0-486-23372-3
"Mooncaskes and Hungry Ghosts Festivals of China" by: Carol Stepanchuk and Charles Wong
China Books & Periodicals, San Francisco 1991 ISBN 0-8351-2481-9