BY ANASTASIA CHOO
As Chinese New Year is fast approaching this Friday 16th February, I am having my house spring cleaned or as the Chinese say, “Sweeping of the Dust” which represents a wish to put away old things, bid farewell to the old year and welcome in the New Year.
Pretty much all the top traditions of Chinese New Year serve one purpose: to usher in as much good fortune and prosperity as possible. Dating back centuries, many traditions are deeply rooted in lore and superstition. I am not ordinarily superstitious, but I, like other British Born Chinese, will go along with most of the traditions during this time to attract good luck in the year ahead.
The Chinese consider good things come in pairs and even (rather than odd) numbers, especially the number eight is considered a lucky number as “ba” sounds like “fa” which in Chinese means “prosperity” so today I will share with you Eight out of the many Chinese New Year Traditions:
Reunion Dinner 團年飯
The reunion dinner, which traditionally takes place the night before the Lunar New Year, is one of the most important meals for Chinese families. The reunion dinner usually features dishes heavy with symbolism which are believed to bear good luck, wealth, better grades, and so on. The Cantonese, for example, carefully choose ingredients that sound or look auspicious. For example, Lettuce is pronounced sang choi 生菜 – these two characters are homophones for “growing money.”
Hung Bao 紅包
Lucky red envelopes, are traditionally handed out by married couples to single adults and children during the Chinese New Year celebrations as tokens of good fortune and blessing. There are no rules in terms of the amount that should go into the red envelope, as the act of giving a red packet symbolises a gesture of blessing rather than a transaction. An even number is preferred, and you will not go wrong with the number eight, but don’t give anything amounting to four as it is the Chinese homonym for death.
Yu Shang 魚生
Also known as “Prosperity Toss” is a Cantonese style raw fish salad eaten on the seventh day of the lunar new year. It consists of strips of fresh raw fish such as salmon mixed with shredded vegetables, a variety of sauces and condiments tossed together. As fish 魚 is commonly conflated with its homophone “abundance 余”, Yu Shang is interpreted as a meaning for an increase in abundance, prosperity, and vigour.
Lion Dance 舞獅
The Lion Dance is a traditional dance in which two performers mimic a lion’s movements in a lion costume to bring good luck and fortune. The lion is thought to be an auspicious animal that symbolises courage, determination, and resourcefulness. It is therefore believed to bring good fortune to those who watch the dance. Impressive, acrobatic feats with heavy props amid the blaring noise of drums, gongs, and fireworks create chaos to discourage spirits with ill intent.
Gift of Mandarin Oranges 送金
The giving of presents during the Lunar New Year does not match the intensity of Christmas. However, gifts and thoughtful tokens are exchanged between friends, relatives, and co-workers. With all the trouble to keep Chinese New Year conducive for good fortune, the choice of gift is very important. Gifts to avoid include watches, sandals, pears, umbrellas, mirrors, and items that are white or black. Items that total up to four should also be avoided.
A Southern Chinese custom to give Mandarin Oranges continues to this day as the word for gifting orange送橘 sounds like the word for gifting gold 送金 so to give gold signifies wishing prosperity on the recipient.
Pussy Willow 柳絮
The pussy willow plant, also known as Catkins bear their furry buds from late winter onwards and this signifies the beginning of Spring. The many buds of the pussy willow make it a favourite flower for Chinese New Year. The fluffy white blossoms resemble silk, and they soon give forth young shoots the colour of green jade. Its Chinese name, yin liu, sounds like “money flowing in” which represents the coming of prosperity.
Other popular plants to bring wealth are peonies, orchids, and bamboo pots. These plants represent longevity, luxury, and good fortune.
Red Underwear 紅
As you may be aware, there are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac and each year welcomes a new animal. The Chinese zodiac starts with the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Those born under one sign will run into their sign again every 12 years. It’s important to be aware of your ben ming nian 本命年, or the meeting of one’s zodiac year.
Chinese traditional belief is that your zodiac year is going to be full of bad luck. For example, if you were born in the Year of the Dog, it’s your year, you need to take a few precautions to ensure that you have a good year. It is traditionally believed that it helps to wear the colour red. Red underwear is an easy way to “protect” yourself against the hazards of your zodiac year.
In addition, red is considered one of the luckiest colours in Chinese traditions, representing loyalty, success, and happiness. Red decorations will adorn Chinese households such as lanterns, red paper hangings and both children and adults will wear something new the colour of red.
Dumplings too are a significance of good fortune and wealth as they resemble ingots, an ancient currency used by the Chinese during the old times. Hence, the more dumplings you eat, the more wealth you will accumulate for yourself.
Different ingredients in the dumplings have their own significance as well. The cabbage stuffing represents a well-off life for many years; having the mushroom stuffing supposedly increases your luck; beef stuffing is popular among stock investors as it symbolises strong economic growth and celery stuffing gives you wealth.
Of course, there is no way to prove if these superstitions work or not, but they have been followed for generations of Chinese and have been adapted over the years. Such as the giving of red packets started off with a few coins, progressed to notes as the value would be higher and today tech-savvy elders use the WeChat Red Envelope App to transfer money direct into accounts. The recommended auspicious plants for the home look good anyway throughout the year, and a pair of red Calvin Klein’s look fun so try them, and you might get some good fortune!
Happy Chinese New Year! Kung Hei Fat Choy! 新年快樂! 恭喜發財!