The saying “if you can’t beat your enemy, join them” rings particularly true during Spring Festival, a time when our sight is inundated by a sea of red and an explosion of characters decorating doorways and windows. Without some prior knowledge of Chinese language or traditions, it can be hard to decode the many symbols that appear around this time year so we’ve created this guide so you know what exactly all the fuss is about.
福 fú – Happiness or blessing
You’ll see this character more than any other during Spring Festival. Printouts, paper cuttings, or hand-written characters are pasted to doors, glass, and walls and represent the invitation of happiness and good fortune into homes, restaurants, and offices. If you see the character pasted upside down, you may be forgiven for thinking that someone’s botched it but it’s actually a play on words: 福倒了 fú dàole, or “happiness upside-down,” has the same exact pronunciation as 福到了, or “happiness has arrived.” There’s also a set day to affix your 福 (along with couplets, New Year pictures, and the Gods of the Gate; more on those below) which falls on the 30th day of the 12th lunar month, Feb 15 for the upcoming Year of the Dog.
春联 chūnlián – Couplets
The custom of pasting couplets to either side of your front gate originated in the Song dynasty, when people would write or buy couplets from local poets expressing good wishes for the new year. There’s no punctuation in couplets, and to read them in the correct order, first read the left horizontal scroll, then the horizontal scroll on the right, and finally, the scroll above the door.
An example would be:
事事如意大吉祥 (shì shì rúyì dà jíxiáng) May you have good luck in everything;
家家顺心永安康 (jiā jiā shùn xīn yǒng’ān kāng) May your family be healthy and trouble-free;
四季兴隆 (sìjì xīnglóng) Be prosperous all year long.
迎新春事事如意 (yíng xīnchūn shì shì rúyì) With the spring incoming, everything goes well;
接鸿福步步高升 (jiē hóngfú bùbùgāo shēng) Good luck falls on you, and your career will bloom;
好事临门 (hǎoshì línmén) Good things are around the corner.
门神 ménshén – Gods of the Gate
People also often paste a pair of images detailing Chinese Taoist gods to drive away “evil spirits” and safeguard their house. Normally, the gods will face each other and their auspiciousness can be bolstered with additional images of 福 or matching couplets.
年画 niánhuà – New Year paintings
These propitious paintings are also hung during Spring Festival to invite good luck and add a little extra decoration to the house. They often feature gods and mascots, conventional practices, stories of the folk tales, chubby babies, happy husbands and wives, and fish (normally carp). The holiday season presents a time when last year’s picture is replaced with a new one, what is known as 辞旧迎新 (cí jiù yíngxīn), “to say goodbye to the past and welcome the future.”
剪纸 jiǎnzhǐ – Paper Cuttings
Traditional paper cuttings are usually made from red paper (by far the luckiest of Chinese colors; see below) and pasted on windows or glass. The cuttings can be a mix of characters, flowers, or pictures of the happy events that express good wishes and happiness.
红 hóng – Anything Red
Yes, red is the color of the season. The reasons are that red, hóng, is a homophone of 洪, meaning prosperity, and the color is traditionally shorthand for everything fortuitous, hence the unending sea of red packets (红包 hóngbāo) red lanterns, red couplets, red paper cuttings, red Chinese knotting (中国结 zhōngguójié), red undies … you name it, it can be found in red. Stuck as to what to wear to your Chinese friend’s house over the break? Slap some red on you and become the instant life of the party.
双喜 aka 囍 shuāng xǐ – Double Happiness
Though not specifically for Spring Festival, the character for double happiness (two characters for 喜 happiness together), apart from adorning many a cigarette packet, represents well-wishes to soon-to-be-married bride and grooms, of which there is an influx during Spring Festival given people’s penchant for celebration at this time. You’ll often see them in close proximity to the bride and groom’s house or at the wedding venue.