When it comes to New Year celebrations, China’s party is longer and more festive than the West’s one-day holiday. Rather than toasting at the stroke of midnight and then immediately embarking on a self-improvement regimen, you can embrace Spring Festival (春节 Chūnjié) by enjoying a seven-day marathon of fireworks, dumpling-eating and colorful traditions that have endured for millennia.
The Year of the Tiger
According to myth, the first emperor held a race for 12 animals, each symbolizing a birth year. The Ox was the fastest animal in the race, but the Rat jumped on the Ox’s back at the last moment and so won the race – relegating the Ox to the second spot in the zodiac lineup. The Tiger followed shortly after, exhausted from swimming across the river.
Chinese people believe their characters are more or less similar to their Chinese zodiac counterpart. People born in the year of the Tiger are supposed to be courageous, generous, and brash. Although not many people believe in the zodiac anymore, it’s a good way to subtly reveal one’s age.
The Feast to End All Feasts
Even more than fiery paper-cuttings or popping firecrackers, the seemingly boundless eating that takes place during Spring Festival is the new year’s most important – and loved – tradition. Dumplings, whose shape resembles ancient Chinese money (元宝 yuánbǎo) and so represent good fortune, are the main dish for Chuxi dinner, also called tuányuán fàn (团圆饭), which means “family reunion dinner.” It’s common to wrap lucky fillings inside dumplings to send wishes to family members; sugar means a sweet life, peanuts signify a long life, and dates or chestnuts forecast pregnancy.
A delicious dessert for this time of year is tāngyuán (汤圆), balls of soft, sticky rice stuffed with sweet fillings – such as haw fruit or black sesame – and served in soup. Tangyuan are traditionally eaten on the last day of Spring Festival, alternately called Shíwǔ evening (十五), or the Lantern Festival. Other popular dishes during the holiday include: smoked meat (larou 腊肉); niángāo (年糕), a sweet, sticky cake made from
glutinous rice; and zǎohuā mó (枣花馍), a type of bread shaped like a flower and sprinkled with dates.
Rage All Night
Chúxī (除夕), the last day of the lunar year, is a time to dispel bad luck from the previous year and welcome new fortune. On this night, which falls on February 13 this year, Chinese people are supposed to stay awake all night – which translates into crazy parties that last until dawn.
According to legend, a ferocious monster called Nián (年) rose from the sea every Chuxi to devour human beings. One year, the creature suddenly turned up in a village in southern China and ate everyone – except for one couple dressed in red clothing who had hung a red curtain on their door and a group of children who had been playing with firecrackers. People concluded that Nian feared the color red and the noise of firecrackers – which explains the tradition of wearing red, decorating with red paper-cuttings, raising red lanterns, playing drums and bells, and setting off firecrackers.
Prepping for the Party
Nowadays Spring Festival lasts seven days, but traditionally the holiday was a month long. The festival dates back more than 4,000 years, and Chinese people still follow traditions passed down through the generations, though by now most of the customs have been simplified.
Traditional activities include holding sumptuous banquets, decorating the house, and of course, going home for a big family reunion. Preparation for this celebration begins several days or even weeks in advance.
On February 6, get out your brooms and mops. That day is the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month, when tradition calls for a top-to-bottom cleaning of your home in preparing for the new year. Chinese people also place paper-cuttings on windowpanes and illustrations of mythical door guardians on doors; the guardians defend the residents of the home against evil with their scary faces and weapons.
Families also hang the character for fortune, 福 (fú), upside-down on walls or doors. It’s believed that this custom originated in the Ming dynasty, when Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang tried to use the 福 character as a marker to identify people he wanted killed. To prevent this bloodbath, his wife, Empress Ma, secretly ordered every family in the city to paste a 福 on their door. Later, when Zhu dispatched his assassins, they were unable to distinguish their targets from the general population. One unfortunate family accidentally placed their 福 upside-down. When the soldiers reported this back to Zhu, the emperor ordered the killing of this family.
To save the family, Ma reasoned with her husband, saying, “My dear Emperor, they knew you would visit them, and that is why they pasted the 福 upside-down. The upside-down 福 just means their fortune is coming.” Indeed, dǎole (倒了), which means “upside down,” shares the same sound as dàole (到了), meaning “to arrive,” and thus the upside down 福 can therefore be interpreted as meaning, “Fortune is arriving.” Ma’s words calmed the emperor, and Zhu removed the death sentence placed on that family, as well as his earlier targets.
Although this story has not been proven to be historically accurate, Chinese people still like to paste the 福 character upside-down on their doors every Spring Festival to promote good fortune and to commemorate the mercy and virtue of Empress Ma.
The Best Gift is Cash
Chinese children look forward to receiving special pocket money wrapped in red paper, called yāsuì qián (压岁钱), from their parents and older generations in their family.
Like other Chinese customs, pocket money has an ancient story behind it. A small devil, Sui (祟), who had a white face and black hands, used to haunt children during the last night of the year. One couple started putting a red paper bag filled with eight copper coins under their child’s pillow because copper coins were engraved with various lucky symbols and were thought to ward off evil. When Sui got close to the child, he was scared away by the glowing light under the child’s pillow. This story spread across the country, and soon all parents were putting coins under their children’s pillows on the last night of the year.
Gradually, however, the meaning behind this custom gradually changed. Now, money is given to bless children and bestow luck upon them. Yā (压) means “to press,” while the name of the devil has been replaced by a homophone, suì (岁), which simply means “year.” Qián (钱) means “money,” and while yasui qian is no longer comprised of copper coins or left under pillows, it is still given to children wrapped in red paper, otherwise known as hóngbāo (红包) or red envelopes.
In Beijing, you can take part in one of the many temple fairs in Beijing (See Playing Outside). This year, look for lantern exhibitions held in the parks at night. In the old days, Chinese people used to write riddles on Lantern Festival, the last night of Spring Festival, and attach them to lanterns for visitors to solve.