Ancestors in China: A Chinese New Year Celebration
Before the Chiu family immigrated to the United States of America, they lived a rural lifestyle in the village of Na Booi, in the district of Na Tai, in the county of Taishan, in the province of Guangdung, in the country of China. This is my mother's homeland, and what follows is my uncle's recollection of their village life and how they celebrated the Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year
Festivals were an important part of village life in China. The fifteen-day long Lunar New Year was the first and most important festival of the year. New Year's marked the start of a new year, the beginning of a new spring season, and sort of communal birthday. In China, a person is considered one year old at birth, and everyone adds a year to his age at the same time at New Year (traditionally on the 7th day of the festival).
Preparations began many weeks beforehand. Every household was busy cleaning the whole house, including the furniture, walls, floors and doors. Then there was shopping and decorating. Decorations of the front door were especially colorful. On each door, portraits of a "good" ghost or spirit were posted, printed on red paper. These spirits were to guard the home against evil spirits or demons. Along the side of the door on the outside wall, they pasted parallel poems (couplets), also printed on red paper. The purpose of the banners was to welcome the New Year and to bless the house.
"The firecracker blasts the old things away. The peach symbol welcomes everything anew."
"Deep Spring shining on the blue ocean is like a dragon flying and swimming. The blooming flowers, the full blossom in my royal yard are like those beautiful birds' feathers."
My uncles used to ask a granduncle to write those poems for them. As soon as they were old enough, around 10-11 years old, they would write them themselves. It required good calligraphy.
Lanterns in the Darkness
At the front entrance of every house, a kerosene lantern would hang. Every house had the same lantern: same size, shape, and color (red of course). In those days, there was no electricity and fuel was in short supply and costly for those living out in the country. Once the sun set, there would normally be total darkness without the light of the moon, except for a small flicker of a kerosene or oil lamp here and there. But during the New Year holiday, every single house showed off a glowing kerosene lantern. The whole village was lit and bright. Rows and rows of flickering lanterns could be seen while looking out at the neighboring villages. My uncle recalls, "The clusters of bright lights, it gives you a wonderful feeling, an unexplained innermost relief and happiness, an abundance of hope and brightness."
The celebration began at home, then moved out to the village square, the district square (marketplace), and everywhere. Schools and shops were closed. Family members and people who were away from home would travel hours and days to come home. At the home gathering, Mother cooked good food and plenty of it. Everyone wore good or new clothes, especially the children, especially red clothes. Foods were offered to the ancestors first, then everyone sat down at a big table and enjoyed the feast. Adults gave children gifts, a penny or so in a red envelope. There were firecrackers, candies, cookies and toys. It was a happy day. Everyone said good, happy words, congratulatory words, to one another. People were kind and generous to beggars and the poor at New Years.
In the village square or marketplace, there was dragon dancing. The dragon dance team was usually hired from a neighboring village. The team was organized with 2 to 3 dozen men and boys, well trained in kung fu, martial arts, and many acrobatics. The dragon head was a huge hollow head-mask, fashioned half-dragon and half-lion. Its body and tail were made of a long beautiful cloth, embroidered with colorful scales or feathers. Two men operated the dragon - one played the head part and one stayed underneath the body and tail. They followed the rhythm of a big drum and gong. It was like a stage show. The crowd formed a big circle around the stage. The front row seats held the kids. Rows of people behind the kids sat on benches, stood on feet, or stood on benches to see the show.
The show had three parts. First was the dancing, as the team swung aroung and pushed out until the circle reached the right size. Sometimes a patriotic show was added. The dragon played a sleeping lion, symbolizing China. (Napoleon once said about China, "Let that lion sleep!") Then an actor came out and sang some patriotic songs or recited some patriotic verses. Example:
"Wake up, you sleeping lion. It is about time. Let all of us wake up and unite. United, is strength. We shall overcome."
Second part was an acrobatic show of athletic skill. They had solo exhibitions of all kinds of martial arts: kung fu, karate, tai chi, swordplay. They had duels of fist fighting, stick fighting, fencing, rumbling-tumbling, etc. My uncle always wished to learn kung fu, particularly after seeing those kids about his age performing. This part of the show was most inspirational and educational
Third part was the payment to the dragon team. By tradition and pre-arrangement, they didn't hand just them the money. Instead, the money in a red envelope was hung way up on the top of a flag pole or from a balcony, together with a bundle of lettuce and a 10-foot long bundle of firecrackers. Then, if the team wanted to get paid, they had to climb up there and get it. So they did. It was yet another show of athletic prowess. They placed their strongest men at the bottom of the flagpole. Next layer of men stood on their shoulders, a third group stood on their shoulders, and so on. The dragon then danced its way up and up to the very top. Up there, it showed off a few more circus tricks, then grabbed the lettuce, "chewed it up to pieces," and spit it down onto the audience. Audience laughter. It then finally grabbed the envelope. The audience responded with thunderous applause. After the dragon descended, that long bundle of firecrackers was ignited, and the crowd dispersed amid the happy sounds of firecrackers, drums and gongs.
Fireworks on Full Moon Night
The grand finale of the New Year celebration was on the evening of the full moon, which occurs a full fifteen days after the start of the holiday. On this night, fireworks and rockets were fired towards the village square by adults and kids alike. All sizes and fashions of fireworks were used, big and little, single and double exploding, ones that fired straight up, ones that looked like mushrooms when they exploded. It was quite a show, a firework free-for-all. Anyone could fire a rocket toward the moonlit sky. After all, it was the Chinese that invented the firework rocket. It was a beautiful, spectacular, exciting time for a young boy watching those flowery blossoms of light shooting up in the sky, one after another, from the village or from neighboring villages.
The celebration lasted from a few days to a whole month. During this period, people are supposed to say good words to each other, such as "Hung hei fat choy" (wish you prosperity). The Chinese are very conscious of using words that sound similar to other words - many of the traditions stem from word alliterations. For example, lettuce is called "sang choy." "Sang" means growth, life. "Choy" means prosperity. Therefore, that's why lettuce was used as bait for the dragon dance. Alliteration is also why fish is an important New Years menu item (sounds like riches or abundance), and the number eight is considered good luck (sounds like prosperity).
Hung hei fat choy - Wishing you prosperity in the new year!
Read more about the Chiu family's history in China at: Roots in China
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