Chinese New Year of the Dragon

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January 22, 2012 20:50

The Chinese New Year is a fascinating festival which is wrapped in several layers of some elaborate traditions and rituals. Popularly known as the Spring festival, the history of this all-important Chinese event dates back to thousands of years. Like any other festival of an agrarian society, the Chinese New Year stems from the celebration of spring just like Nowroz, Easter or Passover. Despite falling in the last few winter weeks, the festival is the start of preparations for a new rice growing season.

The Chinese calendar is based on a combination of lunar and solar movements, hence a lunisolar calendar in effect. The lunar cycle is about 29.5 days. In order to catch up with the solar calendar, the Chinese insert an extra month once every few years (seven years out of a 19-year cycle). This is similar to adding an extra day on leap year. The Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year due to its lunar basis.

Chinese New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are celebrated as a family affair, when members of the family have a reunion and thanksgiving. The festivities are traditionally highlighted with religious ceremonies held in honour of Heaven and Earth, the gods of the household and the family ancestors.

chinese new year of dragon

Chinese New Year Dragon. Illustration - A2Z School of English

The year 2012 in the Chinese calendar is the Year of the Dragon. To mark the festival, the festivities will begin on 23rd January, 2012 and end with the Lantern festival on 7th February, 2012. According to Chinese astrology, the Dragon is a mythological symbol that represents fertility, happiness and immortality. It is also seen as the symbol of activity and procreation in many Chinese traditions. Ancient Chinese, as far back as 3000 BC, believed that Dragons have the power to keep evil spirits at bay. Many ancient Chinese monuments, pillars of Chinese temples and statues have the symbol of Dragon inscribed on them which represents elegance, speed, strength and kindness of heart. As 2012 is the year of Water Dragon in the element cycle, which means people born during the year are more open to other people’s opinions than other Dragons and have the ability to project their personal charisma and leadership qualities.

According to legend, the Nian is this nefarious man-eating monster that showed up every twelve months to feast. It detested the colour red and loud noises. Photo - Cactusbeetroot

The Chinese New Year, according to traditions and mythology, starts with the fight against a beast called the ‘Nian’, which means year in Chinese. The beast comes on the first day of new year to destroy crops, livestock and harm people especially children. In order to protect themselves, the villagers used to offer sacrifices to the beast. Once, a little child wearing red clothes managed to ward off Nian. Since then, the Nian has never come to the village again.

According to another folklore, a wise old village councillor advised the villagers to ward off the evil spirit called ‘Nian’ by making loud noises with drums and firecrackers. As Nian is scared of colour red, people also hang red paper cutouts and scrolls on their doors to keep the beast at bay.

After taking the old man’s advice, the villagers managed to conquer Nian. The anniversary of the event is recognised as the “passing of the Nian” which is known in Chinese as Guo Nian (过年).

Women doing the laundry beside a river in rural China. Photo - Neomartian's Archive

In the run off to the New Year, Chinese families clean up their homes thoroughly. It is believed that cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the preceding year and attracts good luck and fortune. Homes are also painted with a new coat of red paint. Washing is generally frowned on New Year’s Eve and the New Year’s Day.

Preparations for the great event begin almost a month from the date of the Chinese New Year. People flock to the markets and start buying clothes, decoration materials, food and presents.

Passengers crammed inside a carriage of a train during the new year in China. Photo - Reuters

The biggest human movement takes place during the New Year when thousands of Chinese migrant workers and people living abroad travel to their hometowns to reunite with their families. More than 2.25 billion people travelled during the season last year.

The spring movement typically lasts 40 days – 15 days before the New Year festival for getting home and 25 days after the end of the festival for returning to work. After sweeping into power in 1949, Mao Tse Tung barred peasants living in the rural areas to enter and work in cities unless they obtained a hukou (a passport of sorts), enacted under the migration laws in 1958. The easy ways of getting it was through marriage, college admission or military enrolment.

The death of Chairman Mao and the rise of Deng Xioping in late 1970s made the lives of Chinese peasants a lot easier. They got the permission to freely move to the cities in 1984. Since then, Chinese cities have witnessed an influx of peasants lining up to find work. In the past 20 years, more than 100 million peasants have settled in the cities. They are the secret behind China’s rise as the world’s second biggest economy thanks to their low cost labor. Authorities in China are mindful of the need to ensure an easy and swift transportation of these people to home for the spring festival.

A Chinese family having a new year dinner in Singapore. Photo - Kin Mun Lee

Family reunion dinner is the biggest highlight of the New Year’s Eve. Fish is an essential part of the meal, accompanied by some other special dishes. Lighting fires and using knives is generally regarded as acts bringing bad luck so Chinese people usually cook everything before New Year’s Day.

The New Year’s Eve dinner is usually a banquet of seafood and dumplings which symbolises the many good wishes associated with the event. People feast on delicacies including prawns, for happiness; dried oysters, for blessings; raw fish salad or yu sheng to bring good luck; Fai-hai (Angel Hair), an edible hair-like seaweed for prosperity; and dumplings boiled in water (Jiaozi) signifying best wishes for the family.

Right after the dinner, members of the family assemble and engage themselves in card or board games. Television channels also broadcast programmes dedicated to the occasion. At midnight, people flock to the streets and set off fireworks.

A Chinese girl wearing the traditional red dress accompanied with a red umbrella in Sydney. Photo - Brian Yap

People usually wear something red in a bid to ward off evil spirits. Black or white are not worn at all as these colours are associated with mourning. The Chinese consider red as an auspicious colour that brings good luck and joy. Therefore, the dress code throughout the New Year’s events is red.

Chinese calligraphy posted on walls and doors during the spring festival. Photo - Hao Xuan

Family reunion dinner is the biggest highlight of the New Year’s Eve. Fish is an essential part of the meal, accompanied by some other special dishes. Lighting fires and using knives is generally regarded as acts bringing bad luck so Chinese people usually cook everything before New Year’s Day.

The New Year’s Eve dinner is usually a banquet of seafood and dumplings which symbolises the many good wishes associated with the event. People feast on delicacies including prawns, for happiness; dried oysters, for blessings; raw fish salad or yu sheng to bring good luck; Fai-hai (Angel Hair), an edible hair-like seaweed for prosperity; and dumplings boiled in water (Jiaozi) signifying best wishes for the family.

Right after the dinner, members of the family assemble and engage themselves in card or board games. Television channels also broadcast programmes dedicated to the occasion. At midnight, people flock to the streets and set off fireworks.

A Chinese man praying at a temple on New Year's Eve in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo - Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters

Streets and alleys of towns and villages are also decorated with red lanterns, believed by the Chinese to keep evil spirits at bay.

The New Year is also of the birthday of Tianguan. According to the Chinese philosophy of Lao Tzu, Tianguan is a god who is responsible for good fortune. On his birthday, which coincides with the first day of the New Year, people walk on the streets with red lanterns in their hands. Different sorts of lanterns are displayed in great numbers and released in open areas.

Offerings to ancestors and gods presented on a table by a Chinese family. Photo - eggiepooh

Some Chinese families offer fruits, sweets and confectionary to gods in order to achieve their blessings and good fortune. Chinese are obsessed with the playing of words and symbols. Homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings) are a big part of this national obsession. Dishes whose names or ingredients sound similar to different words and phrases are served that reflect the wishes of New Year. Every food served holds a symbolic meaning.

The food offerings are addressed to the ancestors as a prayer or a wish. The other deities to whom the food offerings are made include the Jade Emperor and The Kitchen God. The offering of food serves as an act of bonding and seeks to bring ancestors and other beings in the other world closer to each other.

Dumplings served at a dinner table in Beijing. Photo - Sheila

People in northern China make dumplings after dinner and have it around midnight. Dumplings symbolise wealth in Chinese culture because of its resemblance to long disused silver currency called Tael. They also signify family reunion. Many families insert a gold coin inside one of the dumplings that may be found by one lucky person.

Sweet fried nian gao cake cut into large squares, dipped in flour and egg and then pan-fried. The rice cakes are sweet and gummy, and are served with Chinese red dates. Photo - ulterior epicure

On the other hand, people in southern China make a New Year cake called ‘Niangao’ which means increasingly prosperous year by year. The cake is also sent to their neighbours and relatives. The consumption of this cake is considered good luck due to the fact that “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year.” The Chinese word 粘 (nián), which means “sticky”, sounds the same like 年 (nián), meaning “year”, whereas the word 糕 (gāo), which means “cake”, sounds the same like 高 (gāo), which means “high”.

An assortment of Chinese sweets along with tea. Photo - Neha Viswanathan

It is impossible to imagine New Year’s festivities without sweets and desserts. Many people treat their guests with a rich dessert called Peking Dust. According to the Chinese tradition, oranges symbolise wealth. The festive sweets and deserts can be bought from the bakeries that also produce special delicacies during the Chinese New Year season. Demand for Chinese sweets and confectionary soars during the festival.

A vegetarian meal at a Buddhist temple in Insadong, South Korea. Photo - Julie Facine

Many Buddhist families prefer having vegetarian meal on the New Year’s Day as they believe it will bring the “five blessings of the New Year,” which are longevity, peace, riches, virtue and wisdom. The meal is usually cooked early in the morning on day 1 in a large amount and is eaten throughout the day.

A troupe performing the Chinese New Year Lion Dance. Photo - Erin Williamson

Lion Dance is a symbolic ritual held on Chinese New Year’s Day to ward off the influence of evil spirits and bring good luck. The history of the Chinese Lion Dance goes back more than a thousand years. The first recorded performance of an early form of the Lion Dance dates to the early Ch’in and Han Dynasties (3rd century BC).The lion dance expresses happiness and joy. The troupes performing lion dance tour from village to village in traditional China from the fourth to the fifteenth day of the New Year.

The dance figures feature both dragons and lions in the New Year’s Parades. This dance plays a vital role in the consecration of temples and other events such as openings of offices, planting and harvest rites, official celebrations, and religious festivals.

Fire crackers going off at a Chinese New Year festival in a Chinatown in Austin, Texas. Photo - jmtimages

Fire works are an important aspect of the New Year festival. The use of fireworks is one of the most ancient traditional practices of China which holds great significance in the eyes of the nation. The passage of thousands of years has given birth to as many beliefs about why fireworks are used during the New Year’s festivals.

Some say the noises wake up the dragon that flies across the sky to bring the spring rain for the crops. Others believe the noise of the fireworks scares away all the evil spirits and misfortunes and prevent them from returning during the New Year. The matter of fact is that gunpowder was invented in China over 1000 years ago for this very purpose. Revellers believe they throw firecrackers at the feet of the dragons in the parade to keep them awake for the celebration. They are of the view that the dragons are deep asleep during the rest of the year.

Red packet containing money is known as an Ang Pow in Chinese culture and are given to little children to wish them luck for the New Year. Photo - Bertrand Tan

Children also receive red packets from their parents and elders stuffed with money or gift vouchers on New Year’s Day. The number 8 is considered lucky so usually bills of 8 are found in the envelopes.

The Hóngbāo (紅包) is a red coloured envelope that is long and narrow with money stuffed in it. The Chinese characters of happiness and wealth are printed in gold colour on the traditional red envelopes. The bank notes inside the red envelope are always new and crisp. Folding the notes or putting soiled or wrinkled bills can be considered offensive. The use of coins or cheques is avoided because change is not worth much and cheques are not widely used in the country.

Fireworks to celebrate the Chinese New Year light up the sky above Beijing, China. People welcome the arrival of the new year with raucous celebrations, setting off firecrackers in the streets and sending fireworks into the sky. Photo - Reinhard Krause/Reuters

Fireworks are an important part of the festival. However, they bring death and destruction at the same time. Larger-than-usual amount of fireworks during the festival put the lives of millions of people at risk. After being banned for decades, the Beijing municipal corporation allowed people to set off fireworks and firecrackers six years ago. As a result, 45 fires were reported during the first five days of the Chinese New Year in 2004. The figures have gone down since then with 25 such fires reported last year. A drought persists in northeastern China which makes the situation precarious for fireworks displays.

An elderly woman is honoured during Chinese New Year celebrations in Ottawa, Canada. Photo - Manfus

Chinese women traditionally celebrate the second day of the New Year by visiting their parents and giving them presents. According to a custom, married women traditionally visit their homes to meet their parents on the second day of the New Year. The second day is chosen due to the belief that if a daughter returns home on the first day of the year, poverty and ill-fortune will strike the family. The custom is called “poan-chhiu” where daughters take gifts with them for the family.

Meeting the parents is an intricate convention. Handshakes and hugs are accompanied with greetings while meeting them. Many Chinese look towards the ground when meeting the parents or other older people as a sign of respect and modesty. They also address their elders by an honorific title. The younger people speak in a very soft voice and also display a good sense of humour.

People visiting the graves of ancestors in Chongqing, China. Photo - hhslim2

The third day is reserved for visiting the graves of deceased family members and ancestors. Fake paper money is thrown over their grave, incense is lit and then firecrackers, all to please their them.

On the fourth day, people gather to “welcome the gods”. Families prepare offerings of fruit, wine and other items during the time of the visit. The deities are honoured by burning incense sticks, candles and money. People also set off firecrackers to welcome the deities and ancestral spirits on their return. The gods of the mortal world are also welcomed when the effigies of “spirit horses”, “armoured horses”, and “soldiers of Heaven”, are set alight in full regalia.

The Chinese god of wealth and fortune. Photo - Rodny Dioxin

The fifth day of the New Year, called the “Fifth Day Interval”, is the birthday of the Chinese god of wealth. It is also the day when bustle of the Chinese New Year holiday ends. The cakes, spring rice, New Year sweets and other temple offerings are also removed on this day. Businesses open their doors and factories begin production again. Many shops also reopen due to the auspiciousness of the day. Other activities of the fifth day include entertaining guests, setting off firecrackers and worshipping the deities.

A Chinese family tossing the Yusheng fish salad for good luck. Photo - Bernardoh

The seventh day is considered as the common man’s birthday. People of Chinese origin observe a custom where toss raw fish salad called yusheng is eaten. Yúshēng” (鱼生, also known as “Yee Sang” and “Yu Sang”) literally means “raw fish” in Chinese but sounds like Yúshēng (余升) which means an increase in abundance. People get together to toss the colourful salad and make wishes for continued wealth and prosperity.

A view of the Kek Lok Si which literally means Temple of Supreme Bliss. The temple, which is more than a century old, is the largest in Southeast Asia. Photo - See Tatt Yeo

The ninth day of the New Year is marked as the birthday of the Jade Emperor. People offer their prayers to the Jade Emperor of Heaven by visiting the temple.

The Jade Emperor is one of the most important gods in the Chinese Taoist beliefs. He is the Supreme God of the Chinese folk religion, the ruler of all Heavens (over 30 in Chinese mythology), Creator of the Universe, Emperor of the Universe, and Lord of the Imperial Court. The Jade Emperor and The Kitched God are worshipped during the Chinese New Year Festival by burning incense sticks. Food offerings are presented to welcome the Jade Emperor’s carriage. The Jade Emperor is believed to vegetarian, however, people make meat food offerings with a hope that the Emperor might have some non vegetarian guests. Some believers regard the Jade Emperor as Heavenly Grandfather as he is the supreme venerable divinity in Heaven.

Thousands of people take part in the Chinese New Year's Lantern Festival held in Pingsi, a town in northern Taiwan. Photo - Sheng-Fa Lin

The fifteenth day of the New Year is the last day of the festivities. On the full moon, people write their wishes on paper lanterns, light them, and launch them into the sky with the belief that they will come true. Decorative lanterns depicting birds, beasts and historical figures are carried by the children. The customary lantern riddle parties held on this night enrich the last event of the New Year Festival.

In addition to displaying and launching of the lanterns, the festival is also celebrated by eating tang yuan, a glutinous rice dumpling filled with pastes and meat, which symbolises family unity and marks the end of the 15 days of festivities.

- Welcom
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Guo Nian (Chinese New Year
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