USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘chinese new year’
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Rituals, festivals, holidays

Goodluck Dumplings

My informant shared a piece of Chinese culture she practices with her family during the Chinese New Year:

Informant: Ok so for Chinese New Year, we make…the tradition is to eat Dumplings…and then we will hide one coin in one of the dumplings and whoever eats that dumpling will have good luck.

Context:

I was talking with a group of friends while we were working on a class project and some of the group members wanted to share pieces of their traditions with me. It was a very casual setting and the performance took place in front of three other individuals.

Background:

The informant is from Hong Kong, China, but attends school at USC. This practice is something she normally does with her family during the Chinese New Year.

Analysis:

I found this really interesting because it reminds me of how in New Orleans, the baby is hidden in the Mardis Gras cake. Whoever finds the baby will receive good luck for the year. While these two traditions use very different foods and tokens to spread luck, they are surprisingly similar.

Adulthood
Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Red Envelopes and Lucky Money on Chinese New Year

Main Text

Subject: So…I think the idea is that…the rule that my family uses is, if you’re still in school…you receive. And once you have a job, like a full-time job, then you give. Um. And then so, when we were kids, like, each set of parents would usually give an envelope to each kid. And I think when we were younger it was like…just like, pocket money, like, maybe five bucks, 10 bucks. And like, as we got older, maybe 20, 40.

Um. And then I think for…for all of us I think when we graduated high school it was like, a bigger sum?

Background

The subject is a 22-year-old Taiwanese-American woman in her fourth year at USC. Her parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and celebrating Chinese festivals have been a family tradition since childhood.

The interviewer is a 21-year-old Taiwanese-American student in his third year at USC. As someone who is from the same folk group, he is familiar with most major Chinese festivals.

Context

The subject was describing a ritual associated with the festival of Chinese New Year, called red envelopes (紅包), which contained lucky money (壓歲錢).

The subject additionally describes two contexts where lucky money was given. The first is a situation involving a family friend named Annie, who had been working this year and stated she wouldn’t be accepting any red envelopes. However, the subject’s parents still brought Annie a red envelope, causing “a little bit of conflict.” Annie ended up taking the envelope anyway. The subject reflects on the absurdity of the incident, thinking about her own future as a grad school student. She wonders if, by that point, the decision rule would still continue to make sense, given that she will probably be in school until the age of 30.

After the interviewer mentioned that there were lawsuits going around for children suing parents who had taken their lucky money, the subject laughed, and brought up an instance when her dad took her lucky money. During the sophomore summer year of high school, her family went to visit Taiwan for the first time in a couple of years. Her grandma on her dad’s side had given her a really big sum, supposedly for college. When her grandma gave the money to her, her dad told her that she had to turn over the sum of money to him, and afterwards, she “never saw a dime” of it.

Interviewer Analysis

These two contexts illuminate the purpose of red envelopes with relation to Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is one of many festivals that celebrate the passage of time. In the instance of Annie, the red envelope serves as a rite of passage. One demonstrates that they have grown up, by demonstrating they have earned enough money to handle the financial obligation of giving red envelopes to the children who haven’t. The conflict for Annie arose because even though Annie had believed she had earned the right to play the grown-up role in the red envelope ritual, the subject’s parents disagreed, and still put her in the position of being a child receiver. The fact that Annie still ended up taking the red envelope shows her lower status with regards to the more established adults in the ritual.

The second instance in Taiwan further shows the purpose of red envelopes as a coming-of-age ritual. Parents, like the subject’s father who took her red envelope money for college, have reasonable anxiety over whether children have the financial responsibility to handle large sums of money. They feel that as adults, they have the duty to safeguard that money. Safeguarding the money is not only a financial practicality—it is a social signal. It demonstrates to other adults that the parents are fulfilling their social duties as financially responsible adults, and it also teaches children about their cultural status: adults are higher than children, and the way to attain that height, is through practicing financial responsibility.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chinese New Year Doll (Tu’er Ye)

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:

“This is also about Lunar New Year. Lunar New Year like spans for two weeks. By the end of that… this is specific to Beijing… you’ve got something called Tu’er Ye (in Chinese: 兔儿爷). Basically, this means uhh… ‘lord rabbit’… Um, so essentially, it’s like a little doll made from porcelain… a porcelain doll… and the tradition is that you are supposed to get one at the beginning of the year and get rid of it at the end of the year. Essentially, it is still like a paganism folklore thing that is supposed to serve as protection for your family. I remember that in the traditional folklore, you needed to like break or shatter the doll at the end of the year, but we don’t really do that anymore, we just get rid of it and get a new one. We would never really do this as a family, you would sort of just know it was there. It’s always the same chubby rabbit who is like riding on a tiger. It’s kind of weird, but people still do it. I think people would break the doll to represent kind of breaking all the bad fortune from the previous year, and you get a new one to have a fresh start.”

Thoughts:

I found it interesting that the tradition involved breaking the glass/porcelain doll to dispel bad fortune. In a lot of other folklore that I have seen, the breaking of something as fragile as glass is considered bad luck. One example of this is the folk belief that breaking a mirror will result in seven years of bad luck, a popular belief that I heard numerous times as a child. Doing a little more research on this topic, I found that Tu’er Ye is actually related to moon worship, and he is considered to be the moon rabbit of the goddess Chang’e. The keeping of a porcelain doll visible in the house all year reminded me of various scary stories involving dolls that came to life. Because the Tu’er Ye doll is supposed to represent, or shield from, the family’s bad fortune, I can see a slight connection behind the horror story dolls being an embodiment of evil.

Earth cycle
Foodways
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chinese New Year

Context & Analysis

The subject and I were eating lunch together and I asked him to tell me about any traditions he shared with his family. The subject told me he doesn’t have a strong connection with his parents, which I think underscores the great importance of Chinese New Year for him; the fact that he travels to convene with his family while not being intimately close with them shows how much the tradition matters to him. The subject gave me a general overview of the traditions associated with Chines New Year but did not elaborate on specific details.

Main Piece

“For Chinese New Year’s it’s a huge deal for our family so we’ll have a meal together, but, like, it’s supposed to be a time where everyone goes home, so I try and do that as well. And, um, there’s a lot of Chinese cultural traditions associated with that: like the types of meals you’ll cook, how you eat them and like getting money from elders.”

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chinese New Year

“So for Chinese New Year, the date changes every year because of the calendar, but some of the things we do, because the culture’s really superstitious, is we take three oranges and put them on a plate in a triangle, and then you take a third orange and put it on top of the three to make something like a pyramid.  You make a few of these orange sculptures and put one in each major room of your house, like the living room, bedrooms, bathrooms, you know.  So on actual Chinese New Year when my family goes out to dinner, we leave every single light on in the house because it’s supposed to let the light wash out all the spirits from last year and leave the house open to new ones and what’s ahead.  I don’t remember exactly why we do the oranges, but the lights wash out the spirits, so at least I know that.”

ANALYSIS:

This annual ritual is really interesting to me because I was never familiar with the customs surrounding Chinese New Year, so I found this really enlightening.  It’s super fascinating to see what parts of the customs the informant knows the meaning behind and what parts have just become arbitrary to the informant.  The idea of washing away the old spirits and leaving room for the new ones is something I find really interesting and poetic, and now I just wish I knew why the oranges are a part of the custom, but because the informant didn’t know, everyone the informant tells, including me, won’t know either.

Customs
Holidays
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Money Burning Ceremony for Chinese New Year

Informant is a Chinese-Cambodian American from San Jose, California, an area known for its large population of people of Asian descent. This tradition is a part of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, which is usually a week of festivities in late January.

“So, on the last Saturday of the week of Chinese New Year, um, my family, including all of my uncles, aunts, and cousins gather around a big metal Chinese pot container thing that is lit up by a flame. We sit around it in silence and say prayers to our ancestors, and wish everyone around us good health and fortune for the new year. Once everyone is done doing that, the oldest family member hands out small stacks of fake paper money with Chinese characters and images on them. We each take turns throwing bills of money into the pit, and doing so is supposed to give our ancestors wealth and fortune in the afterlife. This is supposed to help bring good luck to their living descendants. Then, following the burning of the money, there is a feast for the family, but first some food is set out in front of an altar as an offering to the ancestors. That’s about it.”

How long has your family been doing this tradition?

“At least since I was born. I’ve done it almost every year, and my family from out of town will all come together and go to the temple to pray and perform the ceremony. It’s a very distinct memory from my childhood.”

 

Collector’s Comments:

Being from an Asian-American from San Jose as well, this tradition seems very familiar to me, yet at the same time it is different from the traditions that my family practices. The Lunar New Year celebration is a very big deal in San Jose, and involves a week of prayer at temples, decorations and parades, and feasts to honor the ancestors and bring in the New Year. However, there are many variations in the celebrations, especially between the different ethnic groups. This is an example of one of the many ways in which the holiday is celebrated.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Chinese New Year’s Shoes

Barbara is a Chinese-American who graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from the University of California, Riverside. Her parents are from Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States, before giving birth to her in Baldwin Park, Los Angeles. She recently received her Master’s in Clinical Psychology and is currently working at a clinic in downtown Los Angeles. Her hobbies are baking, exploring hipster cafes or restaurants, and reading thriller novels.

Original Script

So, um, for Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year, there’s a tradition that my family likes to follow. In addition to giving red envelopes to the youngsters who have not married yet, um, every year we like to, um, get some new clothes for the New Year, new shoes of course. And, the morning of Chinese New Year, we do a little ritual where we put on the new shoes and we kind of stomp around to step away all the bad juju and all the bad people or bad luck that will come our way for this year. And we just keep stomping, and during that time, we would chant, “Chai-siu-yurn!” Literally, it means like, “step away all the little people—the little people go away.”

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

Ever since she could remember as a little girl, she performed this ritual with her family on every Chinese New Year’s. She enjoyed stomping on the ground and making a lot of noise for the sake of having good luck.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

Many Chinese people believe that purchasing and wearing a new pair of slippers on Chinese New Year’s would expel the negative energy from their household. By stomping on the ground of their homes, they are metaphorically stepping on the bad luck and the people who have treated them badly.

My Thoughts about the Performance

I was surprised to hear of this superstition, because my Chinese parents told me it is unlucky to buy a new pair of shoes on New Year’s Day. They said new shoes would bring me unluckiness and invite evil spirits to plague me for the coming year, since “shoes” in Cantonese is a homonym for “rough” and it sounds like the word “sigh.” Since the informant and I both have Cantonese backgrounds, I find it interesting how we have different superstitions regarding purchasing new shoes on Chinese New Year’s Day.

Legends
Narrative

Zhong Kui

Sophie is an international student from Taiwan. She is pursuing a B.S. in Computer Science at the University of Southern California. She hopes to find a career in computer security and plans to stay in the United States, specifically Los Angeles, to work. She enjoys watching anime and learning; from USC-sponsored workshops, she has learned how to code and create chatbots.

Original Script

There’s this guy in ancient China in Tang Dynasty. Actually, um, he’s a really smart guy and he went through this test to be a government official, and at that time, the test was taken in pen. So, um, they don’t know how the guy look like when he takes the test, and then the person grading test assigned the guy to be in first place. And then he went to the emperor and the emperor saw him and the emperor thought the guy was so ugly. He couldn’t be a government official because he was so ugly. And then the guy was really sad because he was so smart, but because he’s too ugly, he got rejected to be a government official so he killed himself in front of the emperor. And then the emperor felt sad too because he killed a guy by calling him ugly. So, the emperor put the guy’s face and everything on chūnlián, which is the red paper we put in front of temples and houses in New Year’s, so the guy could scare off bad spirits with his ugly face.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant read about this legend from a book when she was small. She remembered the story of Zhōng Kuí because she found it very amusing. Both the emperor’s reaction to Zhōng Kuí’s suicide and the fact that the man’s hideous appearance was the cause for the tragic end to his life were so ridiculous to her that it was funny.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in a study room at Parkside IRC.

Zhōng Kuí is a legendary figure in Chinese mythology. He is widely regarded as a vanquisher of evil who commands a force of 80,000 demons. His image is often publicly displayed on household entrances for protection, due to his disfigured appearance and fearsome reputation.

My Thoughts about the Performance

Although I knew about the legend of Zhōng Kuí, I was surprised to hear from the informant that many Taiwanese people place Zhōng Kuí’s face on red paper to repel evil spirits on Chinese New Year’s. In contrast, most Chinese attach ménshén, or door gods, to entrances to protect themselves from evil. However, both countries plaster chūnlián on walls for luck and protection on New Year’s. Even though China and Taiwan share some similarities, I find the many cultural disparities or variations between the two very interesting.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Bath of Pomelo Leaves

Daniel is an immigrant from Hong Kong who immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities and a better life for both him and his family. Living in a poor family with seven other siblings, he immediately went to work as a police officer after receiving his high school diploma in Hong Kong. Once he moved to Los Angeles, he worked as a computer technician, and subsequently, changed his career to a funeral counselor.

Original Script

In our Chinese tradition, we believe the pomelo leaves can clean up all the dirty, evil stuff. Okay, so uh during the uh New Year Eve night, most of the Chinese, they will like to—I am talking about the Asian ones, the old ones—they will boil some pomelo leaves with a whole bowl of water, so all of the water will turn into green after boiling it. And then they will use the pomelo leaves to take a bath during the New Year Eve in order to clean up all the dirty, evil stuff from them. So they said they will cause them lucky for the coming year.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant performed this tradition with his family ever since he could remember as a child. He continues this practice with his wife and children every year on Chinese New Year’s. Although he does not believe in its ability to grant luck anymore, he maintains this tradition because it is a custom he was raised with as a child.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant at his house.

A longstanding tradition of the Chinese for Chinese New Year’s is bathing in pomelo leaves. By cleaning their bodies in water boiled with these leaves, they believe that they are washing away the dirt and casting away evil spirits from the previous year. This tradition follows the Chinese principle of “cleaning” and starting anew for the coming year.

My Thoughts about the Performance

There are many traditions during Chinese New Year’s, such as eating sweets to ensure one a “sweet” year and opening windows or doors to bring in good luck for the coming year. Considering what the pomelo fruit represents to the Chinese—abundance, health, childbearing, prosperity—I find this custom befitting for this holiday.

Customs
Holidays
Legends
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chinese New Year’s Monster

Daniel is an immigrant from Hong Kong who immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities and a better life for both him and his family. Living in a poor family with seven other siblings, he immediately went to work as a police officer after receiving his high school diploma in Hong Kong. Once he moved to Los Angeles, he worked as a computer technician, and subsequently, changed his career to a funeral counselor.

Original Script

This legend is talking about the New Year’s Eve. A lot of Chinese, they like to light the firecracker during the New Year’s Eve because they believe, actually the legend said that there will be a monster coming out during that time. They light the firecracker in order to scare away the monster. I think that this tradition is still used in most of China.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant performed this tradition with his parents and relatives ever since he could remember as a child. He continues this practice with his wife and children every year on Chinese New Year’s. Neither him or his family believe in the existence of the monster, but they continue this Chinese custom because it is an enjoyable opportunity to bond as a family. His children enjoy this custom especially, because they can run around freely, lighting firecrackers and making a lot of noise.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant at his house.

According to Chinese mythology, the Nián, whose name means “year,” is a beast that would appear every New Year’s Eve to consume humans and animals alike. However, an old man from Peach Blossom Village eventually discovered that the monster had three main weaknesses: the color red, loud noises, and firelight. Many New Year traditions, such as the firecrackers and the Chinese Lion dance, have originated from the legend of the Nián.

My Thoughts about the Performance

In many cultures, people generate a lot of noise and light during festivals, believing that the sounds and brightness would scare away evil spirits. When I was small, I never wondered about the reason why the Chinese let off firecrackers on Chinese New Year; I merely thought it was for fun. After learning about this legend, I found it fascinating how the Chinese came up with a tool possessing three different features to combat the mythological creature on Chinese New Year. This tool—the firecracker—utilizes the color red, bright firelight, and loud blasts to scare off the Nián.

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