Chinese New Year — also known as the Spring Festival — is celebrated over 15 days at the turn of the lunisolar Chinese calendar. Did you know that...
1) Firecrackers were used to drive away Nian
An ancient Chinese legend tells of a man-eating predatory beast called Nian. It dwelled deep in the sea, but on every Chinese New Year eve it would climb onto the shore to devour livestock and harm humans. Therefore, every Chinese New Year’s Eve, all the villagers would take their old and young deep into the mountains to hide from Nian.
One Chinese New Year’s Eve a grey-haired man appeared in the village. He asked permission to stay for the night and assured everyone that he would chase away the beast. No one believed him and tried to persuade him to flee with them. But he refused, and the villagers left.
When the beast arrived at the village to wreck havoc as usual, it was met with a sudden burst of exploding firecrackers. Startled by the noise, the flashes of light and red banners flying about, it hastily turned and fled.
The following day, as the people returned from the mountains, they found the village intact and safe. The old man had vanished, but they found the remains of the items he had used to chase the beast Nian away. From then on, every Chinese New Year's Eve, families would hang red banners, set off fire crackers, and light their lamps the whole night through, awaiting the Chinese New Year. The custom became known as “Passing of Nian” (“nian” in Chinese also means “year”) or “guo nian”.
2) The Zodiac and why the rat is first
The Chinese Lunar New Year is the longest chronological record in history, dating from 2600 BC when the Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac.
According to legend, a race was held in a Chinese village to select the twelve animals of the horoscope. Rat asked Ox for a ride on his back to get to the village for the contest. So Ox carried Rat for miles across rough terrain and struggled mightily as he swam across a torrential river, finally arriving at the village. The village people saw Rat riding on Ox's back and were so impressed his ingenuity that they declared Rat to be first in the sequence of the horoscope. (And the hard-working, selfless Ox became second in the sequence.)
3) Pasting the “Fu” upside down
The Chinese character “fu” means good fortune and happiness, and during Chinese New Year, every family would paste it upside down on their doors in the hope that the word could bring blessings to their families.
One version of how this practice began is said to have originated with Jiang Ziya of the Zhou Dynasty. When he was made a god, his wife demanded to be made a goddess. “After I married you I was always in poverty in my life,” Lord Jiang said. “It seems you are destined to be poor. So let me appoint you as the Goddess of Poverty.”
His wife (almost unbelieveably) was happy, and asked, “Now that I'm the Goddess of Poverty, where shall be my domain?”
Jiang replied, “You are off limits wherever there is good fortune.”
Thus, families began pasting it on the doors and windows of their houses to keep the Goddess of Poverty away.
And why upside-down? It’s a pun: Upside-down in Chinese is “dao” — which sounds like “dao” meaning arrived. There is a story that a Qing dynasty prince had wanted the lucky “fu” word pasted all over his compound, but either as a prank or because the person pasting was illiterate, it got pasted upside-down. But some fast-talking by a friend of the prince convinced him that the pun (upside-down dao vs arrived dao) was a good one, and so the practice continued…
4) Hongbao/ang pow
In China, the red packet is called yasui qian (压岁钱), which means “suppressing ghosts money”. It was believed, a long time ago, that a demon was terrorising children — touching their children heads while they were asleep and killing them. One worried couple decided to protect their newborn child by praying to their god for protection. In return, their god sent eight fairies to protect the newborn child, disguised as eight coins hidden under the child's pillow at night to protect the child.
At night when the demon tried to attack, the coins shone so brightly that they blinded the demon and it ran away. After that, the villagers began spreading the word and gave out red envelopes filled with coins to be placed under their pillow at night. By giving these red envelopes it would bring good luck and prosperity to the one receiving it. It would also prevent any evil spirits from attacking them throughout the year until the next Spring Festival.
5) CNY has a Lantern Festival too
The Lantern Festival is the last day of CNY. After the Lantern Festival, the traditional taboos are no longer in effect, and all New Year decorations should be taken down. The Lantern Festival also marks the first full-moon in the Chinese calendar, marking the return of spring and symbolising the reunion of family.
In the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Emperor Hanmingdi was an advocate of Buddhism. He heard that some monks lit lanterns in the temples to show respect to Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. Therefore, he ordered that all the temples, households, and royal palaces should light lanterns on that evening. During the festival, ball-shaped dumplings made of glutinous-rice flour are made. The dumplings are called tangyuan — another pun, pronounced similarly to tuanyuan (团圆), which means the whole family gathering together happily; so the belief is that the round shape of the balls and their bowls symbolise wholeness and togetherness. Therefore, eating tangyuan on the Lantern Festival is a way for Chinese people to express their best wishes for their family and their future lives.
Customs and taboos
* Many believe that they mustn’t do any cleaning or wash their hair in the first three days of Chinese New Year; particularly sweeping, as that would sweep/wash away good luck. Then some of them moved into the tropics and, well, things got sweaty and stinky fast…
* The crying of a child is believed to bring bad luck to the family, so the young should be placated.
* To ask for a loan is a big “no-no”. In fact, it’s better to pay off all loans before the new year.
* Red is believed to ward off bad luck and misfortune and thus, red underwear is “lucky”. For those born in a year of the Monkey (1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004), red underwear is a must for 2016.
Photo: ING Images