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Birth Of A Brand New Year

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.

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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.

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Birth-Of-A-Brand-New-Year-Air-Asia-AirAsia-Travel-3Sixty-Travel360-chinese-zodiacChinese Zodiac

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.

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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. 

Hong Bao/ Red Packets

Having wished each other Gong Xi Fa Cai or Kong Hei Fatt Choy, it is common to see elders handing out little red packets containing a small cash gift or hong bao (红包). This custom of giving out money has historical significance, as in the past, parents used to give their children a gift of 100 coins or ya sui qian (压岁钱) in the hope that the children would live and prosper for up to 100 years. Later, during the Song Dynasty, money pouches made of cloth called li shi (利是) was given away to family and friends. This later evolved into the red packet called hong bao made of paper. Apart from literally giving money (prosperity) to recipients, the gift is also an auspicious one due to the red colour of the packets. Generally, the elders and married members of the family give out the hong bao as a form of blessing and well wishes. The hong bao packet too has undergone tremendous modernisation and amazingly beautiful packets in red and gold, and emblazoned with auspicious sayings have become the norm. Commercial businesses such as banks and retailers make it a point leading to the new year to thank their customers by giving stacks of the empty packets to be filled in with cash and given out to celebrants.

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Tong Yuen

This sweet soup called tong yuen (汤 圆) with little coloured glutinous rice balls is normally eaten on the 15th day of Chinese New Year in conjunction with Lantern Festival or Chap Goh Mei. The 15th day marks the end of the new year festivities and smaller celebrations are held to commemorate the occasion. Similar to the marking of the winter solstice in December, this dish calls for the whole family to participate in rolling the small balls. The round balls symbolise completeness, the starchy skin suggests togetherness and the sweet soup represents the good times the family will enjoy. Chap Goh Mei celebrations, which is Hokkien in origins, apart from bringing the new year festivities to an end, is also a time for young people to look for potential life partners. In the past, women would write their names on oranges and throw them into rivers and lakes. The man who picks up the fruit would then endeavour to locate and marry the girl whose name is written on it. In other parts of China, the last day is celebrated as the Lantern Festival with grand parades and firework displays.

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Mandarin Oranges

Most visible during the celebration, not only on dining tables but in decorations and as gifts, is the Mandarin orange. Pronounced kam (柑), which is a homophone to gold in Cantonese, the bright orange colour also suggests prosperity and abundance. Mandarin oranges start flooding the market leading up to the new year celebration and are often given away to friends and family as a gift together with the hong bao. Keeping with commercialisation, mandarin orange gift hampers have become very sophisticated in recent years and are the preferred corporate gift. Additionally, homes are also decorated with potted citrus plants such as kumquats and tangerines.

Lion and Dragon Dances

Lions are not endemic to China and the dance is said to have come about after the beast was gifted to Chinese emperors of the past by visiting traders from India and Sri Lanka with the spread of Buddhism. A majestic animal that was often regarded as a symbol of valour, divinity and royalty, the lions was quickly adopted into their cultural milieu. Historical records suggest the dance started in the Han Dynasty and subsequent dynasties such as the Tang, Sung, Yuen and Ming included the lion dance as an important element in royal spiritual rites.

     Two distinct dance forms evolved in the process. The northern variety has a furry lion that resembles the Peking dog and wears coloured ribbons in its mane to identify the gender of the animal. The southern lion, however, looks more like a mythical version of the actual beast and has many versions based on the clan that’s performing. Overall the dance is divided into two styles: Wen shi (文狮) or a civil lion that’s docile and funny and, wu shi (武狮), a powerful and acrobatic lion. Additionally, the dragon, being a revered mythological creature, also found its movement being imitated by man in dance form with records dating back to the Han Dynasty.Performed by dancers well hidden in the costume, the lion dance is very popular during Chinese New Year with businesses and homes welcoming the creature to usher in prosperity by dancing and performing acrobatic acts accompanied by loud clanging of cymbals and drums.

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Fireworks

Historical accounts suggest that fireworks were created by the Chinese as early as 200 BC, during the Han Dynasty. The loud noise the explosion made frightened people and animals and soon, the early Chinese imagined it would scare the daylights out of spirits too. In the past, a nasty creature called Nian (年) was said to have terrorised the Chinese, gobbling up livestock and killing human beings. To avoid getting killed, they tried to please the creature by putting out food for it to eat. One day, someone spotted the creature reacting aversely to the colour red and loud noises. Hence, they learnt what scared Nian and started setting of fireworks to chase it out of their villages. Nowadays, although firecrackers are banned in most countries due to the dangers it poses, large and spectacular displays of fireworks light up the sky during the celebrations. Hong Kong Harbour is one such place to catch amazing displays yearly.

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Nian Gao

A mixture of glutinous rice flour and sugar is steamed slowly for a long period to produce a thick and viscous cake that further hardens like vintage cheese when cooled. To serve, nian gao (年糕) needs to be sliced thinly and steamed, before being rolled in coconut, or deep-fried between two slivers of sweet potato and yam. Associated with prosperity, this cake is famous for its ability to seal shut a very important person’s mouth: The Kitchen God (灶神)! The deity is said to return to heaven a week before the new year to report to the Jade King (玉皇大帝) the merits and misdeeds of each family. To literally shut his mouth, each household will serve him the delicacy before the send off as nian gao turns into a delicious but terribly sticky cake when prepared in the aforementioned styles – perfect for sweetening his words and if that fails, to totally shut him up when he meets his Big Boss.

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