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January 20, 2017

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Legends and rituals that make up the Chinese New Year

CHINESE Lunar New Year has been celebrated for more than 4,000 years since the time when Emperor Shun (c. 2277-2178 BC) is said to have ascended the throne on New Year’s Day and paid homage to Heaven and Earth.

But in the years that followed, festivities were said to have been disrupted by monsters called Nian — year in Chinese — that terrorized people and gobbled them up. They were said to be especially fond of eating little children.

Nian lived in the mountains and descended on villages at dusk on every Lunar New Year’s Eve, devouring people and livestock. At dawn, they would return to their mountain lair.

For protection, people strengthened fences, huddled together as families and ate nianyefan (New Year’s Eve dinner). Since they didn’t know whether they would survive the night, the meal was a lavish feast, lest it be their last.

On one Lunar New Year’s Eve, it was found that the rampaging monsters did not eat a newlywed couple who wore red, covered their windows in red material and decorated their house in the same color. Children also discovered that the monsters fled when they lit bamboo sticks that made loud cracking noises.

Villagers realized that the monsters feared the color red, bright lights and cracking sounds.

Armed with this information, many customs associated with the Spring Festival — Chunjie (春节) — celebrations emerged.

The Chinese Lunar New Year — which falls on January 28 this year and will welcome the Year of the Rooster — is the most important festival of the year. Family get-together is at the heart of it.

“Chinese New Year celebrations place great emphasis on family reunion and most customs are practiced within the family,” says Tian Zhaoyuan, a professor of anthropology and folk customs at East China Normal University.

Though the holiday is about a week long from the Chinese New Year’s Eve, traditional celebrations usually start as early as the La Ba Festival, which falls on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month or on the Kitchen God’s Festival on the 23rd day of the same month. It lasts until the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month.

Ban Nian Huo (prepare New Year’s goods) 办年货

The Spring Festival always ushers in one of the year’s biggest shopping sprees. Usually from the 12th month of the lunar calendar, families will prepare or stock up sufficient foods, fruits, snacks, and new clothes needed for the New Year celebration.

Larou (腊肉), or cured meat, is an essential ingredient for a Shanghai-style New Year’s Eve dinner. Traditionally, a Shanghai wife will make cured meat for the family. It starts from meat selecting, seasoning, salting and drying — she does them all. She starts working on them as early as a month before the New Year.

It was common to see lines of red glittering cured meat hanging outside windows. Today, many families prefer buying ready cured meat from the market or even from online shops.

Zhuanggao (焋糕), a Shanghai-style cake made of sticky rice, is as important to the Shanghai natives just as jiaozi (dumpling) is to most residents in north China. Eating the cake on the morning of the first day of the Lunar New Year indicates a sign of improvement in the coming year.

Tangtangcha (糖汤茶), or sweet tea, is a traditional drink for the locals in the last month before the Lunar New Year. It simply involves pouring hot water with some candied jujube.

And of course, various candies and snacks on the list will always thrill the children.

Ji Zao (sacrifice to the Kitchen God)

Prepare sweet candy for the god who lives in the kitchen and has a sweet tooth to ensure a safe Lunar New Year.

Ji Zao Jie, or the Kitchen God Festival, is the day when the Kitchen God reports on his work to his boss just like many of us do at the end of the year. It is also called xiao nian, literally small Lunar New Year, which indicates the importance of the day.

The Kitchen God’s report will not have any affect on his achievements, but determines the fortune of the families that he protected and observed throughout the year. Providing a simple yet warm ceremony is one of the most important tasks for Chinese families in the year.

To “bribe” the Kitchen God, most families offer rich sacrifices at the god’s statue and offer paintings. It is also important to spread melted candy on the Kitchen God’s mouth on the statue or painting, so as to sweeten his mouth and make sure he won’t speak evil of the family.

The Kitchen God Festival is celebrated on the 12th month in the lunar calendar, but on different days by different groups of people — the 23rd day for the official families, the 24th day for the ordinary families and the 25th day for the families living on boats. However, most of the Chinese families today tend to keep the tradition on the 23rd day which falls today this year.

Nianyefan (Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner) 年夜饭

No matter how far from home they are, most Chinese people try to return to their families for this end-of-year dinner, which can last through midnight.

Foods with good implied meanings are always a must for this important feast in China, but in Shanghai it can be slightly different.

Meat balls indicates reunion; egg dumpling featuring gold ingot’s shape implies wealth; spinach, also known as chang geng cai (long stem vegetable) in Shanghai, carries wishes for longevity; and soybean sprout assembling ruyi (an S-shaped ornamental object) suggests that everything will happen as per the family’s wishes.

Bai nian (making courtesy visits) 拜年

Calling on older relatives and friends make up much of the Spring Festival schedule. People put on new clothes and begin to visit them.

Tradition calls for families to visit the husband’s relatives on the first day, the wife’s family on the second day, and distant relatives and friends on the days that follow.

Adults give yasui qian (压岁钱), lucky money, in red envelopes, hongbao (红包), to children. Odd numbers are usually avoided except for 5, which is considered auspicious. The number 4 symbolizes bad luck because it sounds similar to death or si (死). Lucky money is supposed to protect recipients in the coming year.

THINGS you should do ...

NEW Year’s Eve

Chinese families clean up their homes to “sweep away the dust of the past year.” Homes are decorated with red or gold paper cutouts of auspicious couplets and symbols before the big family meals.

At midnight, fireworks are lit to scare away Nian and welcome the New Year. However, this tradition has ceased in Shanghai since last year after the local government banned firecrackers within the Outer Ring Road to clamp down on air pollution.

New Year’s Day

People get up early and set off more firecrackers to welcome the New Year before beginning the rounds of visits. Traditionally, the elderly give out hongbao to children for good luck and good health.

Second day

Couples visit the wife’s parents for lunch before returning home for dinner. In some places, it’s a tradition to buy fish and set them free in rivers and ponds to earn merit through good deeds.

Third day

It’s time to get rid of rubbish and waste accumulated since Lunar New Year’s Eve. This symbolizes sweeping away the spirit of poverty.

Fourth day

This is the day to invite the God of Wealth into the homes to celebrate his birthday on the fifth day. Firecrackers are set off at doorways around midnight and windows are kept open to welcome him. Now Shanghai residents will have to find another way to attract the God of Wealth.


Fifth Day

This is called po wu ri, meaning breaking five day. Firecrackers were set off in the morning to drive the five bad things — evil, monsters, disasters, sickness and poverty — from the house. Again, no firecrackers now in Shanghai.


Fifteenth day

The 15th day is celebrated as Yuanxiao Jie or the Lantern Festival. It marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Tangyuan — a sweet glutinous rice ball in a soup — is a must on this day.

Temple fairs are one of the most important activities in some regions on this day.

... And things you shouldn’t do

NEW Year’s Eve

On Lunar New Year’s Eve, only positive and lucky words are permitted. Negative words such as “no,” “empty,” “lost” and “broken” are strictly forbidden. People should say “youle,” meaning “I have had enough,” rather than “buyao” — meaning “no” — to decline more food. A broken dumpling is described as “zhengle,” meaning earning, rather than “pole,” which means broken.


New Year’s Day

There are many taboos on the first day of the year.

Don’t sweep, lest good luck is swept away.

Don’t wash your hair as in Chinese hair — fa — has the same pronunciation as fa in facai (发财), which means “to become wealthy.” Therefore, it’s not seen as a good thing to “wash your fortune away” at the beginning of the New Year.

In fact, don’t wash anything or take a bath, for fear that you may wash away good luck.

Also, don’t use any sharp-edged tools, in case they hurt the gods.


Third day

The third day of the Spring Festival is considered an unlucky day for visits, as it is the day of chi gou — red dog — that leads to quarrels.


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