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How to welcome the Chinese New Year with a gamut of intriguing traditions,some superstitions and mouth-watering food

Updated on June 19, 2013
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We have just celebrated Christmas and rung in the new year. But hark! Not the herald angels sing, but the coming of another 15 day celebration deeply entrenched in Chinese culture -the Lunar New Year. It is a festival to herald the beginning of spring.

Being Chinese Peranakan, this festival has been a cannot-do-without, yearly tradition for all my life. I looked forward to the annual receiving of red packets of money that connote good luck as a child (who would not). Now though, the roles have been reversed, with me now giving them to the little ones.

And oh, yes, the food! This is another time of the year to put on a bit of weight, if we have not already done so because of Christmas turkey and cake. As in all cultures, we will find great cooks among the Chinese, and they bring to the table a welcome host of pure pleasures during the season.

This writer will introduce some fun but stressful traditions, a few New Year superstitions, and of course some fabulous food!

The Nian Beast
The Nian Beast | Source

How the Chinese New Year started

Chinese New Year is a festival developed around a little folklore. Before launching into the tale the words “Xin Nian” are the Mandarin representatives for “New Year”.

So here is the tale.

It all started when a village in China became terrorized yearly by a beast named “nian”, who would attack and kidnap villagers. The monstrous problem became so traumatic that there had to be some solution.

A village chief suggested using loud noises like firecrackers and drums to fend off the beast as it was afraid of them. Hence was born the tradition of lighting firecrackers and drumming loudly during the New Year.

The chief also suggested that villagers wear the color red, as the beast was afraid of the hue. So everyone began wearing red colors and pasting red scrolls with words of auspicious meaning on doors and windows.

Then came the visits to the homes of relatives and friends each year. Lo and behold, Chinese New Year was born.

Red packets or hongbaos
Red packets or hongbaos | Source
The Kumquat Plant
The Kumquat Plant | Source

Some interesting but stressful Chinese New Year traditions

As with every culture, the Chinese embrace many fascinating, heartwarming customs. They are so enjoyable, yet can generate a fair amount of stress too. I hope you enjoy my little take on these!

Reunion Dinners

On the eve of the Lunar New Year, families would gather at an elder’s home to have a night of feasting. In Mandarin, the eve of the New Year is known as “Chu Xi”.

Some families would enjoy a good round of steamboat with customary dishes that bring tidings of good luck. These I will introduce later. Others enjoy a heavenly assortment of cooked meats in steamboat.

“Chu XI,” though thoroughly enjoyable, can be a stressful, tense night as well. Let me explain why.

Traditionally, a woman has to attend the dinner at the home of her husband's family. This can cause a little tension, especially when a wife feels that she should be with her own family during a reunion. Sometimes, a little compromise has to be settled for, with a little rushing around.

To solve the little dispute, some couples would eat a little with the husband’s side of the family and then run over to the wife’s maiden home for a quick dinner. Now, that’s a rush!

Giving of Ang Pow or red packets

I have mentioned that the tradition of receiving amounts of money in little red packets to herald auspiciousness is of course, an enjoyable one. It always helps to build your savings over a festival!

However, stress can come in financial form. Ang Pows are given to younger members and children of the family by married adults. The more of them there are, a greater strain on the pocket it can be!

Something else that gives a little stress is the amount of money to put in the ang pow. Denominations with the number 4, the homonym for the word “si” or “die” is traditionally not preferred. It can be a task to remember!

Spring Cleaning

This is the part of the lunar new year no one usually likes. Cleaning the home before the new year symbolizes the cleaning away of bad luck.

In addition, for a little auspiciousness, the "nian" plant, coxcombs or kumquats are displayed to herald good tidings for the year.

Visiting relatives and the exchange of mandarin oranges

During this season of the lunar new year, many would be visiting relatives and friends. During these visits, Mandarin oranges are exchanged in pairs to connote the idea of double happiness.

With so many relatives to say hello to, it is fun to catch up, but a tad tiring!

Source

Lion Dancing

Lion dancing may be a familiar sight for some.

It is another colorful, wonderful yet sometimes stressful tradition. It started thousands of years ago in China when the writer, Bai Qi Yi, described the dance. He noted people wearing masks and costumes made out of grass or wood.

These days, costumes are ornately designed and intricately woven. The dance was born when the same village chief I mentioned earlier suggest that a colorful creature was needed to drive the dreaded ‘nian’ beast away. The creature was chosen for its benevolence and bravery.

The “lion”, usually helmed by two people, is teased by two others holding a red ribbon. You can sometimes see it trying to catch mandarin oranges or cabbage strung on the doorway.

This is to stress the acceptance of auspiciousness and something new, represented by the little cabbage pieces.

Different types of lions

There are differences between lions that come from the Northern and Southern parts of China. To see photos of what they look like, do visit this link.

The Northern Lion

The Northern lion looks very much like a Peking dog, far more hairy around the face and ears. The male and female pairs usually come together in a dance, chasing after objects and leaping over tables. The male has a red ribbon on his head and a female, green.

The Southern Cantonese lion

Hailing from the Canton region in China, the southern lion has far bigger eyes and looks more imposing with the horse stance. There were two schools of southern lion dancing, the Futshan and the Hoksan. People soon became creative and integrated various styles into the dance.

But enough about lions. What makes lion dancing a little stressful is the noise-the loudness can be a little heady!

Source

The dragon dance

The Chinese not only use lions as a symbol of prosperity, they bring in dragons as well. Before the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, passed away, dragons, or “long”, symbolized auspiciousness and power, and the emblem was sewn onto the emperor’s robes.

The five-clawed dragon was assigned to the emperor, known as the ‘son of heaven”. In Chinese mythology, dragons come in many forms to represent the elements. The included the water, earth and fire dragons.

Dragon dancing was popularized during the Tang Dynasty which ruled China from 618 to 907 A.D . The difference between lion and dragon dancing is that while the lion costume only requires two to hold it up, holding up a dragon costume requires a little more effort.

A dragon dance costume is divided into 13 sections, with each being held up by a dancer. The costume is traditionally green to represent a lush spring harvest.

A Chinese New Year Yu Sheng/Prosperity Salad Toss

Chinese New Year Superstitions

Traditions generally come with a few superstitions attached. To preserve the atmosphere of good luck, here are a few things the Chinese observe during the season.

Do not sweep the floor on the first day

On the first day of the Lunar New Year, it is considered bad luck to sweep the floor. Doing so would literally sweep one’s luck away.

Do not wash your hair on the first day of the new year.

It is considered bad luck to wash one’s hair on the first day of the new year, as again, it means washing one’s prosperity away.

Do not visit anyone if a relative or family member has passed away.

According to Taoist tradition, if one has a relative who has passed away, there is a 100 day period of mourning during which it is considered bringing bad luck if one goes visiting.

Barbecued Pork or "bakkwa"
Barbecued Pork or "bakkwa" | Source

A smorgasbord of Lunar New Year delicacies

As I have said, this s really a season for eating. The lunar new year brings with it a smorgasbord of delights.

Barbecued Pork

Barbecued pork, known in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien as “bakkwa” or in Mandarin as “rou gan”, is a traditionally popular gift to give during Chinese New Year, especially in Singapore and Malaysia.

The delicacy first became popular when fat was trimmed from leftover meat. The meat was then smoked.

These were then cut into smaller pieces and stored for later, and the snack can be kept for an extended period of time.

Pineapple Tarts
Pineapple Tarts | Source

Pineapple Tarts

These are a true pastry delights I look forward to every year. Little bits of pastry are topped with golden pineapple.

Pineapple, “huang li” or ‘ong lai’ in the Hokkien dialect is in the color of gold symbolizing prosperity. Eating these little tartlets certainly makes one prosperous, waist wise!

Fatt Choi or Hair Moss
Fatt Choi or Hair Moss | Source
Fatt Choy as it is prepared in Chinese cuisine
Fatt Choy as it is prepared in Chinese cuisine | Source

Fatt Choy

This dish is popular among the Hakkas. The Hakkas, in ancient times, were a nomadic, traveling tribe.

They created “fatt choy”, a vegetable dish made from edible hair moss (don’t be mistaken, this is absolutely delicious). Combined with mushroom and braised, this dish is to die for. The words "Fatt Choy" are a Hakka dialect homonym for the Mandarin words "Fa Cai" or 'prosper."

My mother, of Hakka descent, creates this dish every year for the reunion dinner. And no, she does not use her own hair.

Source

Prawns

Prawns, in the Cantonese dialect known as ‘ha’, symbolize happiness and a good dose of luck.

We say ‘ha ha” and have prawns in a variety of ways during this festive season.

Yu Sheng or Prosperity Salad
Yu Sheng or Prosperity Salad | Source

Yu Sheng

This is a very important dish which I have saved for the last. The seventh day of the new year is ‘every man’s birthday,” when this dish of raw fish (either sashimi or salmon) is consumed with many condiments, each with its own symbolism.

Eaten together as a family, the fish is tossed by all, and the higher the toss, the greater the luck. Before the toss, the condiments have to be added in a particular order, with an accompanying phrase, as follows:

Pomelo, for good luck, with the accompanying phrase of “da jie da di”-blessings from Da Di, God of the Earth

Pepper, to attract more money, accompanied by the phrase “zhao cai jin bao”- may more money come

Oil, for money to flow from all directions, with the phrase ‘yi ben wan li’ or money from all over

Carrots, heralding prosperity and auspiciousness, with the phrase ‘hong yin dang tou”, prosperity to come

Finally, deep fried flour crisps, symbolizing auspiciousness, with the phrase “pian di huang jin.” or gold scattered all over.

Conclusion.

After that mouthful of food and words, I hope that I have provided some insight into a part of my culture!

During this happy season, I wish everyone a blessed, auspicious and definitely joyous new year with loads of good fortune to come.

Copyright (C) by Michelle Liew

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    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Paul, yes, I forgot Nian GAO! Thanks for the reminder! Nowadays, the customs are a little more flexible! But we still enjoy the new year all the same! Thanks for sharing!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Michelle,

      This is a very interesting hub which I really enjoyed reading having been married to a Chinese and living in Taiwan for many years. Almost all of the New Year customs which you have listed are followed in Taiwan. One thing that you didn't mention are the sweet and salty glutinous rice cakes (NIAN GAO - MANDARIN; DEE-GWAY - TAIWANESE) which are eaten by many people in Taiwan. On the third day of the Chinese New Year, Chinese in Taiwan always go to visit the parents of the wife. Voted up and sharing with followers and on Facebook. Also Pinning and Tweeting

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Actually, some of it has been sadly lost over time, Mary. For example, not many people of the younger generation will know, or want to know, the order in which ingredients are introduced when eating raw fish. It is sad...but I guess as time goes on and with the introduction of technology, people become less connected with their roots. Thanks for sharing, Mary!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      This is just great. We can always learn new things and it is especially fun to learn about other cultures. I admire the strict adherence to custom. I guess in some ways we have it here, but not like you do. People tend to do their own thing more in the States.

      Thank you for this great lesson done to make it so interesting and easy to read. Pictures are great too!

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Cristina!! Oh yes, once, we were the young ones receiving the presents, now we are the old ones giving them away! Thanks for sharing and oh yes, I'll certainly get a prosperous waist if I'm not careful! Thanks for sharing!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      I'm Chinese too, Ariel! Yes, it's going to vary between state to state and also, family to family. Thanks for sharing!

    • CrisSp profile image

      CrisSp 4 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

      Your intro just reminded me of Christmas tradition as well, "once we believed in Santa (and his gift) and then we are the Santa (giving away gifts)".

      Lots of fun during the Chinese New Year and I love celebrating it with my Chinese friends.

      Now, you also make me feel like eating pineapple tart (with macha green tea) and I like when you say, "eating these little tartlets certainly makes one prosperous, waist wise!" Ha...ha...ha (for the prawns as well)! You are too funny!

      Awesome hub, very entertaining! Kung Hei Fat Choi to you Michelle!

      Up and sharing the goodness!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Vinaya.......wow, if we really could see them, it would be spectacular! Thanks for sharing!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

      I have seen Chinese new year celebrations on TV. Thanks for sharing comprehensive article on new year festivities. I wish I could dragons and paper lamps in real.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Eddy!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      I loved this hub Michelle and vote up,across and share all a

      round .

      Enjoy your weekend.

      Eddy.

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 4 years ago

      I adore this hub!! ^_^ It's so interesting and fun. I'll be sure not to sweep or wash my hair the first day of the Chinese new year... I need all the luck I can get this year ^_^ I'm voting and sharing this one a bunch!!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Glimmer Twin Fan, I can imagine that Chinatown then would have been so lively! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Leslie, hello from the other side of the world, literally speaking! I'm glad you pass the message around too. Ah, believe me I know, not everyone loves raw fish. But yes, the pineapple tarts are delectable! Do zip by Chinatown and grab a few when you can. Thanks for sharing!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Glad you like it, Jools! Yes, the time of stress - yet joy- arrives yet again. I will soon be wishing you a happy lunar new year! Thanks for sharing!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      This is fascinating! I was lucky enough to be in San Francisco once for Chinese New Year and it was so much fun. Fire crackers and dragons and the colors were absolutely incredible. Up, awesome and pinned.

    • ImKarn23 profile image

      Karen Silverman 4 years ago

      i always mention to friends who believe that 'christmas' begins and ends on the 25th of december - that there are other folks in the world besides them! I love learning about different cultures and traditions - and this hub is chock full of them! I dunno about some of the food but - the pineapple tarts look delicious..lol..

      and btw, michelle - WHAT family get together is NOT stressful? Hmmm...

      Zackly! lol..upandsharingxx..

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      Wow Michelle, what a fantastic hub - so interesting! Now I feel that I know a lot more about the Chinese New Year. It's not all people inside of dragon costumes :o) It is richly traditional and I bet it it wonderful (if sometimes stressful, as you say) to be involved and celebrating it!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      So glad to share, Rebecca!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Who! Glad to share the knowledge!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Mary, always glad to share a few of our traditions. I think spring cleaning disciplines us, though. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Stephanie, glad to share a few of our traditions here. Thanks for passing this on, I hope to share the blessings with others too!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Nancy!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, TT! You'll enjoy the food, I'm sure. Go on down to Chinatown....I"m sure it's rollicking about now!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Bill, always happy to share little slices of tradition!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Janine! Will be by on the actual day to wish everyone a Happy Lunar New Year. Thanks for dropping in to share the joy!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Happy Chinese New Year! This was an interesting Hub. I learned a little bit of another culture. Thanks!

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 4 years ago from United States

      Fantastic work, my friend midget. and now I can relate when I hear of the celebration. Thank you for this wonderful sharing of information and photos. I really enjoyed it. whonu

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

      I enjoyed learning about the customs and food of the Chinese New Year.

      We Southern people of the US always had a custom of spring cleaning, and some folks still do that (I don't). Your mention of fried flour reminds me of our Funnel Cakes that are fried dough.

      Great Hub with great photos.

      I voted this UP, etc. and will share.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Thank you for a fascinating article on Chinese New Year culture and foods! Most of us know very little about Chinese New Year beyond the firecrackers, and I loved learning more about the food and customs. Your photographs and hub design are beautiful, a fitting tribute to this festive holiday! Voted up and shared.

    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      Very awesome hub. I love the pictures.

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      Michelle, you did an awesome job! You answered ALL my questions and loved the story of the beast! The food looks soooooo good! Will have to catch a celebration some day - it is now on my bucket list. :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I love hubs where I find out something about other cultures, and I found out a great deal in this wonderful hub. Sharing!

    • ishwaryaa22 profile image

      Ishwaryaa Dhandapani 4 years ago from Chennai, India

      An amazing hub packed with plenty of engaging information, wonderful photos and all! I enjoyed learning about your beautiful culture. Well-done!

      Thanks for SHARING. Useful, Awesome & Interesting. Voted up & shared on HubPages

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 4 years ago from New York, New York

      Awesome Michelle and didn't know as much as would have thought I did about this holiday and thank you so very much for sharing the traditions and customs here with us. Have of course voted way up, shared and tweeted, too!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      On Chinese New Year traditions, superstitions and food.