For the Chinese, the lunar New Year is the biggest festival of the year that’s celebrated with great pomp and pageantry. From reunion dinners that see children and relatives returning from all corners of the country to partake in a family meal together to letting off noisy fireworks to herald the birth of a brand new year, the celebration is also deeply steeped in culture and customs that have stood the test of time.
Chinese New Year Couplets
Chun lian (春联) couplets are essentially greetings that express happiness and desire for prosperity or a good life in the coming year. Meaningful words formed into a poetic couplet are written on vertical strips of red paper in elegant calligraphic stokes and are hung on both sides of the main door to welcome the New Year. Known as chun lian, these couplets appear only during the new year while the rest of the year, dui lian (对联) couplets are hung at the threshold. The couplet is often broken into two sections where the first line is hung on the right hand side of the door while the second line goes to the left. A third horizontal line may be included and pasted across the top part of the door. Not any old line is eligible to be called a chun lian as the lines need to be brief, succinct in the point it is making, lyrical and grammatically correct. Scholars train for years in this art and their creations are highly prized.
2013 marks the arrival of the year of the water snake. The 12 animals that make up the Chinese zodiac take turn presiding over each year in a 60-year cycle, with each animal zodiac being further broken down to one of the five elements: Earth, wood, water, fire and metal. There are many legends attached to the origins of the zodiac animals but the popular ones include Lord Buddha inviting all animals to a grand feast (a race in another version). The sequence of the animals in the zodiac indicates the order of their appearance from first to twelfth at the feast. Yet another tale says the Jade King, out of boredom in his heavenly abode, summoned all creatures of the earth to his palace. Although the mightiest creatures occupy top spots due to strength and brawn, the rat used its cunning and earned first position by jumping over the ox’s horns, catapulting itself into first place. The remaining 11 in sequence are the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, dog, rooster and pig. In Vietnam, the cat replaces the rabbit, while some northern Thai communities replace the pig with the elephant. People born under each animal sign are said to exhibit both positive and negative qualities of their signs. Monkey-born can be both imaginative and curious while being nosy and sneaky too. The Pig-born is hardworking and compassionate but obstinate and gullible as well.
The Reunion Dinner
The new year celebration not only marks the beginning of a new year, it is also to time to bid farewell to the old year. As such, the point where the year is about to end is also celebrated grandly with a huge reunion dinner. Ancestor worship is an integral part of Chinese culture and the eve of the new year is the time when the family prepares a huge feast in thanking the gods and family deities, and honouring their ancestors. Apart from instilling filial piety, kinship and loyalty in children and family members, ancestor worship also ensures the family receives full blessings and protection in the new year from elders who’ve since departed the earthly realm.
The food is then enjoyed by family members who make it a point to return to their parents’ home to partake in the feast. Interestingly, there is a reason why certain foods are served at the reunion dinner. Not only must the food look delicious, the name of the dishes must sound auspicious and prosperous. Fish, pronounced yu (鱼) in Mandarin and Cantonese, sounds like ‘never ending abundance’. Lettuce, pronounced sheng cai (生菜), sounds like ‘growing prosperity’. In Cantonese, prawns are called har (虾) and sounds like laughter. Certain ingredients like fa cai (发菜), a type of black moss, which sounds like ‘striking it rich’ and pineapples ong lai (黄梨), which sounds like ‘luck is on its way’ are always included in the food. However, as there are many Buddhist Chinese who typically observe vegetarianism on the first and 15th day of the month, New Year’s Day gives many living creatures a much deserved respite from the chopping block.
Cai Shen / God of Wealth
From greeting cards, hong bao packets, wall decorations and even appearances at shopping malls and private functions, Cai Shen (财神) is a jovial god with portly figure dressed in long flowing robes, dishing out abundance and prosperity to everyone. Seeing him and better still, receiving his blessings, albeit sweets and chocolates in these times, is considered very auspicious during the celebrations. Cai Shen, or sometimes referred to as Cai Bo Xing Jun, has his origins in ancient China, where Fengshen Yanyi, a novel from the Ming Dynasty recounts a tale of a hermit named Zhao Gongming who was accused of using magic to bring about the collapse of the Shang Dynasty. Zhao was later killed by Jiang Ziya but Jiang was rebuked by the gods for having killed such a virtuous person. Jiang repented for his deed and canonised Zhao as the god of wealth and, the Minister of Wealth in god’s kingdom. There are many tales and myths regarding Cai Shen but all agree that spotting this benevolent figure during Chinese New Year will certainly bring about a windfall in the coming year.