USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘chinese lunar new year’
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Cutting Hair for Chinese New Year

[The subject is MW. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

ME: Can you tell me about a Chinese New Year tradition?

MW: Chinese New Year, or Chinese New Year eve, we will put the whole table. Mother cook, or have the servant cook, all kinds of goodies, but we cannot eat first. But they still put the wine and the chopstick, and the whole table, but that’s let the ancestor come, ancestor, I mean we don’t see them- the people already pass away like my grandma, or grandma, you know? My mother always, we cannot- the kids eat later, just have to let them, still, put the best food, all warm, but we cannot touch the chair. It’s grand-grandpa, and grand-grandma, let them eat first. And after the time, bring the food back to the kitchen, and then bring it back and then we can eat.

And then also, in Chinese New Year, we have to go to have a haircut, the kids all have to go have a haircut.

ME: Why is that?

MW: It’s like for a new year, then you have to clean up the whole thing. And the next day, we have to go to, for our auntie, and grandma, those kowtow. And then they give us a red envelope.

Context: MW is my grandmother, who was born in Shanghai and then lived in Hong Kong later on in her youth. She moved to San Francisco as a young adult and has lived in the Bay Area for the last six decades. She is a native Mandarin speaker, but is also fluent in English. I sat down with her and asked her to talk about some traditions and stories she remembers from living in China.

Thoughts: I am half-Chinese and have lived in the United States for my entire life, so while the tradition of eating a big dinner on Chinese New Year is familiar to me, but the less common tradition of getting a haircut for the new year was not. I believe that this tradition could be associated with Frazer’s concept of homeopathic magic, because the chopping of the hair seems to represent chopping off what you no longer want to hold onto from the last year, and creates good luck going forward.

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Origin of Chinese New Year Fireworks

Informant:

M, a 21-year-old, Chinese male who grew up in Beijing until he turned 17 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, California, and attends the University of Southern California with his girlfriend who is from Southern China.

Background info:

M’s first language was Mandarin. His family spoke Mandarin and he only learned English before moving to the United States. Because he grew up in Beijing, he believes himself to be fairly knowledgeable about the folklore that every day people participate in. This is one of the Chinese traditions in their household.

Context:

This is a Chinese tradition that M’s family would participate in during the Lunar New Year in Beijing. Because he was close with all his family, he and his younger sister would often have to do these traditions twice a year, once with their mother’s side of the family and again with their father’s side. This was told to me during a small get-together at his house. The following is a transcript of the piece as told by M.

Main piece:

“Lunar New Years is a big deal in China, so my grandmother… my grandmother on my mother’s side… has three daughters, and each other my cousins all come back for Lunar New Years, so we are all pretty close. So… traditions, right? Lots of people know that China does fireworks during the Lunar New Year celebration, but like here and Japan people get together to watch the fireworks that are like set up by some organizations. Uh, in Beijing, people set up their own fireworks, and everyone in the city participates, so it sounds like the city is in the middle of a war. Millions of fireworks go off from like midnight until like five in the morning and you won’t be able to sleep. So, the folklore behind firing off fireworks is that in Chinese stories about Paganism, there is a monster that is called Nian, which has the same sound as the word year. Nian, year, New Year, you know? So like this monster goes around eating people and stuff and the people don’t know what to do. They decided that they are going to launch explosive fire-powder into the sky to scare it off. It worked, and now that is why we call a year a year, because it is named after Nian the monster. Now, it has become less about that and more people do fireworks because they are fun, but my mother would always tell us that before we could go out and light them. We had to know that there was a reason to like play with explosives.”

Thoughts:

I like that his parents would make sure that the kids knew why a tradition exists before allowing them to participate in them. I think that it is interesting that they place a lot of importance on the folklore behind this tradition, while in the United States, the average parent does not explain why we celebrate the fourth of July. Kids learn about it in school, but that almost takes away from the tradition because it is taught institutionally, rather than organically. I was most intrigued to learn that the word year in Mandarin is pronounced the same as the creature in the story. It shows just how much society takes from folklore.

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“Ya Sui Qian”

So there is a tradition in China: Elder generations will give lucky money to younger generations during the Chinese Lunar New Year. The reason why parents choose to give their offspring lucky money come from a story as follows:

A long time ago, there was a monster named “Sui.” It came out every New Year’s Eve to touch little children’s heads when they were in deep sleep. Whoever being touched would had a fever the next morning, and would become idiots when the fever had gone…

There was a family who got their only son in their late years. So both of the parents loved their son a lot and were afraid that “Sui” would came to their son on New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Eve, in order to prevent “Sui” from coming to their house, parents decided to play with their son till very late. They gave their son a piece of red paper and eight coins to play with. The boy wrapped the coins and unwrapped them, until he was tired and went to sleep. Later that night, “Sui” came to their house eventually. Wind blew out the candle, and “Sui” was about to touch on their son’s head. The moment when “Sui” extended its arm, the bronze coins in the red paper shone with brilliant light, and “Sui” was so scared that it escaped out of the house faster than the light. Other villagers learned the story, and they chose to follow the same thing that the family had done. No single child was touched by “Sui” and got fever thereafter, and that’s why Chinese people now still keep the tradition to give their children “Ya Sui Qian”–literally meaning the money to prevent “Sui” from coming during the Chinese New Year, which is also called “lucky money.”

 

How did you come across this folklore: “When I was in the elementary school, my Chinese teacher tried to explain what “Sui” means in Chinese, which means “one year.” Then she expanded the word with some phrases and Chinese traditions to help us better understand the meaning.”

Other information: “And this story was part of her explanation of “Sui” –marks one year in the Chinese lunar calendar with all kinds of related folklore.”

Lucky money is clearly a protective measure… in this story used by parents to prevent their children from becoming idiots. But as a whole, this story also represents the way that one word (“Sui”) can encapsulate not just a direct translation, but an entire story and is strongly tied to a tradition.

 

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