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