Tag Archives: Chinese festivals

Chinese New Year

This is a transcription of an interview with a friend from high school, identified as A. In this piece, I am identified as IC.

IC: So, tell me about Chinese New Year. Where does it come from?

A: Lunar New Year is something that happens at the beginning of every calendar year and so it’s also often referred to as the spring festival. There are 12 animals that represent each year and how this myth came to be is that there were these animals who were basically told to engage in a race to determine who would be symbols for each year. The twelve animals in order are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig. The rat is first because it rode on the ox’s back and cheated.

I heard about a variation that the cat was tricked out of the race by the mouse which is why they hate each other. I forget exactly how the cat was tricked out, but this supposedly also explains why cat chases the mouse so much.

IC: What does your family does to celebrate? Like what do you eat and what activities do you do?

A: And so one of the things that we eat every year is this thing called 年糕 (nin gou) which translates to new year cake and so it’s this It’s like not really a cake it’s like a slice of it’s like glutinous. We also eat 蘿蔔糕 (lo baak guo) which is like a radish cake and it’s my personal favourite. Then there are traditions associated with it and the most popular with children at the very least is the giving of the red package.

IC: Yeah, I remember those.

A: Yeah, so it’s married couples, and only married couples, give away red packets to the younger generation.

IC: Why is it red?

A: It’s a symbolism of colour because red a lucky colour in Chinese culture and that’s why you see in Chinese brides wear red during weddings, simply because it’s a very lucky colour. So, by giving red package, the deal here is that you’re helping give them luck for that year.

IC: How much money is in the envelope?

A:  That depends on the person giving the envelope. So usually newlyweds give less because they won’t have as much money and also, they don’t want to build high expectations. But the tradition is called拜年 (bai nian) and first you go to your father’s grandparents place to pay respects for the new year and then you go to your other grandparent’s place. I think that’s the order but I’m not really particularly sure about that because my dad’s parents live in LA, so I usually just go to my mom’s side of the family for that. It’s just going there spending time with your grandparents and like wishing them well for the new year.

IC: Are there any specific things that you’re supposed to do to pay respects or is it just like talking to them and spending time with them?

A: Well, this applies to the whole festival in general actually but there are a lot of four-word sayings that you say.  They are blessings that you say to people. Some examples are 年年有餘 (nin nin yau yu) which means “may you be prosperous every year” and 快高長大 (fai gou zheung dai) which means “grow up well”. The main one is 恭喜發財 (gong hei faat choi) which means “happy new year”.

IC: Yeah, I remember that phrase. Are there any other foods that you eat? Like aren’t you supposed to eat fish or something? That’s what I remember from Chinese class in high school.

A: Are we? I don’t know… I don’t think we do that.

IC: Oh, okay. I mean, I guess it’s different for everyone. Like you don’t have to eat everything you’re supposed to.

A: Oh, there is this one thing where Chinese households have a candy box during New Year. I don’t know why but there’s a box of candy and sweet stuff in every household.

Background:

My informant is 23 years old and she is my friend from high school, which was in Hong Kong. Though she is American, she went She went to New York for college and graduated last year. She is currently working in Hong Kong. She knows about this tradition because her family is from Hong Kong and celebrates Lunar New Year.

Context:

I asked her about this tradition because I vaguely remember learning about Chinese traditions for Lunar New Year during Chinese class in high school. I thought it would be interesting to ask someone who comes from a Chinese/Hong Kong background to ask about the specifics since I don’t know much about it. All I knew was from textbooks designed for speakers learning it as a second language.

Thoughts:

Hearing my friend talk about how her family celebrates it and the traditions that she knows about was interesting to hear as different countries celebrate it differently. It was informative to learn about some foods that she eats and sayings other than the popular phrase that means happy new year.

七姊誕 (cat1 zi2 daan3), The Annual Meeting of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl – The Chinese Qixi Festival

Item:

H: 七姊誕 (cat1 zi2 daan3), I don’t know like, um, July 7*.  Oh I know, 七姊誕係 (cat1 zi2 daan3 hai6) um, the girl is- she’s- she’s number seven so 叫七 (giu3 cat1) and um, loves the boy and the families not, like, agree to- they are marrying so they build the bridge.

[Translation: The Qixi Festival, I don’t know like, um, July 7*. Oh I know, the Qixi Festival is for, um, the girl is- she’s she’s number seven so she’s called 7 and um, loves the boy and the families not, like, agree to- they are marrying so they build the bridge.]

Q: Is it the same story as the one where the boy and the girl can only meet once a year?

H: Mhmm.

Q: Oh, ‘The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl’!

H: Yeah, 牛郎織女 (ngau4 long4 zik1 leoi5)!  牛郎織女係七姊誕 (ngau4 long4 zik1 leoi5 hai6 cat1 zi2 daan3)

[Translation: Yeah, The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl!  The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl is the Qixi Festival]

Q: 點慶祝七姊誕 (dim2 hing3 zuk1 cat1 zi2 daan3)?

[Translation: How do you celebrate the Qixi Festival?]

H: 七姊誕通常人哋會帶 (cat1 zi2 daan3 tun1 soeng4 jan4 dei6 wui5 daai3) seven… different things. Yeah, 你拜七姊拜七樣嘢 (lei5 baai3 cat1 zi2 baai3 cat1 joeng6 je5), but usually buy fruits. Yeah.

[Translation: For the Qixi Festival, people will seven… different things.  Yeah, you pray to the seventh sister with seven different things, usually buy fruits.  Yeah.]

 

Translation and Additional Notes:

The Chinese characters are again followed by the Jyutping Romanization in parentheses, but they will also be followed by a transliteration and a full translation.

 

七姊誕 (cat1 zi2 daan3)

Transliterated: Seventh Sister Birthday

Translation: Qixi Festival

The English name for the festival comes from the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of the holiday. The characters are 七夕旦 (Mandarin Pinyin Romanization: qi1 xi1 dan4; Transliterated: Seven Night Day; Translated: Seventh Night Festival).  Alternate names is the Seventh Night Festival or the Double Seven Festival

 

牛郎織女 (ngau4 long4 zik1 leoi5)

Transliterated: cow young man weave woman

Translation: The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl

The story of ‘The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl’ is the narrative on which the Qixi Festival was founded upon.

 

*July 7: The informant was referring to July 7 in the lunar calendar commonly used by the Chinese to mark their holidays, rather than July 7 in the Gregorian calendar.  Usually, this date will correspond to August 7 in the Gregorian calendar.

 

Context:

I learned this piece from a Cantonese-English conversation about Chinese culture and traditions.  The informant, denoted by ‘H’ above, can speak Cantonese fluently, but chose to speak with me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding.  The informant is Chinese and was born and raised in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens.  She brought up this story when I inquired about when people pray in Chinese culture because the day that this festival lands on is when she prays and sets out seven different fruits as she described above.  Though she had a general knowledge of the plot, she could not recall any more details about why the festival occurs or where she first learned about the story beyond the fact that this story is the basis for the festival.

 

Analysis:

When the informant described the general plot of the story, as seen in the exchange above, I was able to recognize it as ‘The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl’ because of the bridge.  I actually knew of this story before I spoke with the informant, and also knew that it may have originated from legends about the location of two constellations in the sky that are separated by the Milky Way.  These constellations were named the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, and numerous pieces of authored literature were written based on this story.  The version of the story that the informant knew, with the two lovers separated by family disapproval might be reflective of the tradition of arranged marriages. At least, it seemed as if that was the underlying message of that version of the story because the family disagreement was what the informant recalled first.  Women typically married up in Chinese society, and the wife chosen by the male’s family may be dependent on a number of factors including beauty and health.  In a different version of the story I have seen, more emphasis was placed on the reunion of the lovers itself, focusing on the romance and endurance of true love.  As such, with this particular story and many others, the plot may remain generally the same but the details may change depending on what message is being conveyed.

In regards to the festival, there seems to be a great emphasis on the number seven.  The weaver girl is the seventh sister, and the meeting of the lovers is on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.  People praying on this date set out seven different fruits.  Furthermore, the various names of the festival include the Seventh Night Festival and the Double Seven Festival.  Since this is the day that the two lovers reunite, and the focus is on their reunion rather than their separation, I believe people may celebrate it to ensure eternal love in relationships.  By extension, people may pray on this day for longevity in their relationships as well.  This is also supported by how seven is seen as a lucky number for relationships in Chinese culture because the pronunciation resembles that of the word “even” in Mandarin.  As such, the seventh day of the seventh month may have been deliberately chosen as the date the lovers unite, to represent harmony and a good relationship, and the ritual celebration of this day may bring good luck in relationships to those who partake in it.

 

Annotation:

For a poem written based on the legend of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, please see “Immortal at the Magpie Bridge” by Qin Guan on pages 136 and 137 of Songs of the Immortals: An Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry translated and versified by Xu Yuan Zhong.

Zhong, Xu Yuan. Songs of the Immortals: An Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. Penguin Books, 1994.