USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘chinese new year’
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New Year’s, New Things

In China, there is a superstition where you cannot start a [Chinese] new year without new clothes and a clean house. Whatever you do on the first day of the year will be an indication of how your fortunes would be for the rest of the year. So people would try to look their best on the first day. They would make sure they get haircuts before the year ends because they don’t want to cut anything at the start of the year.

The practices the informant mentioned are traditional customs that are practiced every year during the Chinese New Year festival (which some may argue is a misnomer, because several places celebrate the same holiday). Having grown up in China, the informant practices this every year.

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The Nián Monster

Every year on the eve of the Chinese New Year, the nian monster (年獸; nián shòu) comes out from hiding and eats people. I was told as a child to behave, or the nian monster would catch you and eat you. It has the head of a lion but the body of an ox. After all the chaos it causes, the people find out that the nian monster is afraid of loud noises and the color red. That is why we set off firecrackers every new year, because the firecrackers are red and the explosions scare the monster away. For the same reason, we wear red too, and give out red envelopes of money. If we put the red envelopes under our pillows, then we would avoid the nian monster and we would have good fortune for the rest of the year.

The practices the informant mentioned are traditional customs that are practiced every year during the Chinese New Year festival (which some may argue is a misnomer, because several places celebrate the same holiday). It is interesting to note that the nian monster is named after the Chinese term for “year”, as if the coming of a new year could be something symbolically destructive or at least menacing.

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Yusheng for Chinese New Year

Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major.  She is a junior at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.  Her family is from China but she has lived in Southern California for nearly all of her life.  Her dad spends lots of time working in Shenzhen.  She speaks fluent Mandarin and English.

 

Context: I was talking with the informant about traditions and rituals her family has.

 

Item: “For Chinese New Year my family usually gets together.  Traditionally, ever since I can remember, the adults have given kids red envelopes filled with money, and, we always have specific foods that translate to specific proverbs like good fortune and good health.  An example would be, having, um fish, because “Nian nian you yu” means abundance throughout the years, but the last word ‘yu’ means abundance but also means fish.  They are two completely different words but have the same pronunciation.  And, a couple of other things we would say is, “Gong Xi Fa Cai” which means ‘congratulations for your wealth’, “Wan Shu Ru Yi” which means ‘may all your wishes be fulfilled’.

 

Sometimes our family does follow this tradition but we don’t follow it too strictly, but there should be a placing order in how you bring the different foods to the tables.  You’re also supposed to say phrases with the addition of each ingredient such as pepper or lime or oil.  Uh, some of the themes touch upon wealth, luck, youth and business success or advancement.  That’s basically one specific dish but there are other flourless cakes that basically expands as you cook it.  It kind of symbolizes growth for kids especially.  Our family also hangs specific square red banners that has the word “Chūnmeaning ‘spring’.  We’d flip it upside down because when you flip it it means ‘dao’, or ‘it is here’ like ‘spring is here’.  We also do that with ‘fu’ which means prosperity, so prosperity it is here”.

Analysis: Chinese New Year really seems to revolve around luck, prosperity and happiness for the new year.  The props used – which vary from clothing to food eaten to the number of dishes served all are meant to be congruent with Chinese lore and beliefs.  The number 8 means good luck so things are done in eights, the color red is lucky so red is shown often and new, clean things are seen as ushering in good luck for the coming year.  There is a cyclical nature in Chinese/Eastern thought that we do not have here in the West.  The coming of the new year, though celebrated here, doesn’t truly entail the “reset” that it does in China.  This may be in part due to the fact that the Chinese civilization has been around for over four millenia (most of which they were relatively isolated), so they’ve seen a much longer time span of existence than most other cultures.  As such they’ve seen empires rise and fall, other warring worlds, and geographies change but still remain, which may contribute to their more cyclical way of thinking as opposed to the U.S.  There also seems to be very set things that are done in a precise process each new year celebration.  This is in contrast to many of the U.S. informants I interviewed who admitted a much more diverse and relaxed understanding of rituals and traditions.

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Chinese New Year in a Taiwanese-American home

“It’s just my nuclear family that’s here in America. So it’s my mom, my dad, sister, and me. So ‘family’ constitutes as, you know, those four and then just anyone who’s Taiwanese that we see, they’re considered family. So for Chinese New Year gatherings, we would gather together with like–probably like six other families, and we would do Chinese things.

So what we do as Taiwanese Americans… Normally you get together with every part of your family–like, mom’s, dad’s sides. But again, we’re just the four of us. So we just gather with these other families who are also just here by themselves. Um. So we all get together in one of our houses, like every year, we go to a different person’s house.

And, uh…there’s really no structure to it. Because I was a kid, so you know, you sit at the kids’ table, and then, um… So there’s food, there’s a lot of food. My family’s vegetarian…that’s–that’s the whole Buddhist part. So there’s…we go for the vegetarian option. But then the other families aren’t all Buddhist, so um…they…usually order take out. So part of it they cook, the other part is like, ‘too lazy, might as well just order.’

Um. And so, we usually just go and get food. And then the adults hang out upstairs and we hang out in the basement–like the lounge slash TV–wherever the TV is, the kids gravitate towards. So we play, like, video games.

And then there’s the transition after dinner, like when most people are done eating. Then we take turns, family by family, where you sit–the mom and dad on chairs, like in the lounge. And then you have the kids kind of sit and bow in front of them, and they kind of like–this is where you, like, ask for the red envelope. Where you have to earn it.

Which is–so, in Chinese New Year culture, you have the parents–I don’t know why we do this–the parents give a gift of monetary value in the form of a red envelope to the children. Um. Oh God, I don’t even know why. It’s probably–it’s a sense of good luck, and fortune. It means–it’s a metaphor for something. I don’t know what it is. I’m sure there’s a whole ritual for it, in China or Taiwan, but it’s like distilled down into, like: ‘Okay, the parents sit here. Okay, uh, ask for your red envelopes. In Chinese! In the broken Chinese that you have.’

And so you do that. And then there’s some hugging. And then, like…Asian families are a lot less vocal, about their emotions. It’s like, the love is just insinuated, like, “Oh yeah, I make food for you every night. I love you.” But here, it’s like, kinda awkward. You kinda wanna say it, but then it’s like… So. That happens. It’s, like, awkward. And, like…yeah.

So then each family does that. Oh, and when we were really young? They had us perform before that. So, like, there’d be a violin performance, and then another violin performance. And I think that’s about all we did. And then as we got older, it was just–go straight for it. Everyone just got too lazy.

And then after that, we would go back to eating and playing video games. And then cake. Because we would meet, like, once a month. So it was like, ‘Okay, all the–the January birthdays!’ and there would be a giant cake with candles on it. And you’d blow that out, and then we’d eat cake. And then play video games until our parents told us we had to go.

And that was Chinese New Year.

And all the other holidays seemed to be the same basic structure. Video games, some awkward ceremony…and cake.”

My informant moved to the US when he was five years old. He belongs to a Taiwanese-American Buddhist family, and he was very adamant about the fact that they were neither Taiwanese nor American, but a combination of the two. Because of this, he seemed unsure if the way that his family celebrates the Chinese New Year was “traditional” or bore any resemblance to the way other families celebrate the holiday.
The combination of the traditional (the red envelope ceremony – red for luck) and the modern (the kids all playing video games) seems to be the norm for many immigrant families. In my informant’s description of his Chinese New Year, it is evident that, as he explained, his family is both Taiwanese and American.
I found his aside about the way that his family shows love very interesting. They are tight-knit and obviously love each other, but as he describes it, it is much more demonstrative than stated outright. After all, what can be more loving than feeding your kids every day?
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Dressing in Red for Chinese New Year

Interview Extraction:

Informant: So like, so like say, so like say I’m born in the year of the monkey for example, so in the year of the monkey on Chinese New Year, I have to wear all red, like red clothes, red underwear even. I think it’s because when it’s your year that you were born in, you’re supposed to have bad luck, but wearing red counters that so you’re safe.”

Me: “So have you ever dressed up all in red then?”

Informant: “No, no. We always, my family and I, we always say we’re gonna do it, but we never do.”

Me: “Do a lot of people in China do it?”

Informant: “I don’t know. I hear a lot about it in dramas, but I don’t actually know anyone that dresses up.”

Analysis:

Naturally, just because it is one’s birthday month or zodiac year, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will bring good fortune, but after celebrating the anniversary of birthdays so much, I did not expect that it would be bad luck to be in the zodiac year you were born in. I would have thought that it’d be the opposite, that if it’s the same year you were born in, that it would have been a lucky year for you. Yet, it’s just the contrary. Perhaps it can be because one’s personal zodiac sign has completed a whole cycle and is somehow vulnerable to bad luck entering the new cycle. Hence, protection is needed to ward off the negative energy or demons that can get in. One would envelope him or herself in red, used commonly in Chinese culture to ward off evil.

My informant does not live in China currently, so presumably, even when she is with her family, she feels no cultural mandate to follow this tradition. It appears to still be in vogue however, especially if television shows are referring to it. At the same, it can be somewhat difficult to find clothing and garments all in red, so while her family means to follow through with custom, it is understandable why they wouldn’t.

The color red itself is used extensively in Chinese culture, as a color of celebration and also protection. It is the color of the New Year celebration, and throughout the many facets of the holiday, red is always stressed. Coming from a European background where red symbolizes blood and usually has a negative connotation, it is fascinating to understand the different meanings the color can take, and the great cultural meaning it has as well.

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Chinese New Year Firecrackers

Interview Extract:

Informant: “So during Chinese New Year, there’s a fear of the evil beast coming. It’s called ‘Nian,’ which actually literally means ‘new year,’ so you’d say ‘oh new year is coming, the evil beast is coming!’ And um, he’s afraid of the color red, and he’s afraid loud noises. So then that’s why people use firecrackers, to scare off the evil beast. And the firecrackers are the kind that have a rope on one end and you light it, and then you have to hold it away from you and turn away like this (informant demonstrates) so it doesn’t blow up your face…And it’s really loud, and it’s really scary! It explodes and there’s like all these pieces of paper flying everywhere, and I hated them when I was younger. They were so scary.”

Me: “But I guess it was an important tradition, so you still had to do it and light the firecrackers?”

Informant: “Yeah, I did. And my parents would always try to take pictures of me while I was lighting one, but I really hated it. In modern times, though, they do have some where you just throw them on the ground, and it’s like a smaller explosion. It’s still loud though, so I don’t really like those either. And also, I hate them because boys, like teenagers, will throw them at girls’ feet, and like it would blow up and lift their skirts, and yeah, ugh, I hated it.”

Analysis:

This is a tradition that emphasizes red and noise as modes of protection. The color red is usually linked to dynamic tendencies and human vitality, while noise is an indicator of live presence. Both elements assert human life and agency, which is combined in the firecracker, thus enabling it to easily frighten off the evil beast or spirit, or anything nonhuman.

My informant did not particularly enjoy this aspect of the Chinese New Year, yet she was surrounded constantly by firecrackers during the celebration, showing that they are an extremely vital and crucial part of the holiday. Even if people do not necessarily believe in Nian, they will engage in the firecracker experience to demonstrate their excitement, or in the case of my informant, cultural and familial duty as her parents try to take pictures of her with the firecracker.

What was most intriguing in her narrative was the fact that boys would use the firecrackers to intimidate and possibly flirt with girls. This shows that the folklore is adapted in unique ways, depending on who is performing it, and has evolved. While it may not be polite or even safe to shoot the firecrackers at girls, it gives another dimension to the Nian-scaring tools and demonstrates that many elements of the Chinese New Year are being used in slightly different ways. The traditions may still be very strong and they way in which they are used can remain unchanged, but the same cannot be said for their meaning. My informant is proof of this, as she herself seems to cringe at the very word “Firecracker” and is likely not to use the original form, but a rather smaller and quieter firecracker in her future New Year celebrations.

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Red Envelopes

There was once a village that was terrorized by a monster at the same time every year. The monster targeted children. The townspeople could not defeat the monster and the monster would not leave them alone. One day, a young man with a red pouch went to battle the monster, but the monster ran from him. The man returned to the village, telling the townspeople that the monster was frightened by the color red. So, everyone in the village dressed their children in red. When the monster came to the village, it quickly fled, fearful of the color red. The villagers took the color red as a symbol of luck and gave the children red envelopes every year to ward away the monster and to bring good fortune to the child.

My informant has known this story as long as he can remember. His parents would tell it to he and his cousins around Chinese New Years. The monster described serves as a form of boogeyman, and the fact that the red envelopes given by the parents are needed to ward him away the monster allow for a form of black mail to make the children behave as the new year approaches, much as Santa does around Christmas time for Christians. It would be interesting to know if these traditions developed independently or if one inspired the other.

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Moon Cakes

The world used to have 10 suns, but a man took arrows and shot them down until only one sun was left. He had a beautiful wife that wanted to become immortal. One day, the wife found her husband’s medicine and ate it, turning into an immortal fairy. She flew away to the moon where all the fairies lived and the woman brought a rabbit with her. Even though the husband was angry, he did not shoot down the moon because he loved his wife so much.

Whenever my informants family buys mooncakes (the Chinese sweet cakes that are consumed on/around Chinese New Year), there is a picture of a lady included in the package. Neither he nor his family is quite sure how this story relates to mooncakes, but they all agreed that the lady in the image is the lady from this story. He first heard this story from his mother when he asked about the picture. Unfortunately, my informant did not remember many of the details from this story, so it is difficult to analyze it without explanations for why she left her husband, however it is worthwhile to note that this story serves as an origin story for the rabbit on the moon visible if you turn your head to the right.

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Red Packets (红包 or 利市)

During Chinese New Year, children are given red packets filled with money. In the past, the red packets were placed under the pillow for good luck in the New Year and to ward off evil spirits from invading the dreams. The money inside of the packets is always an even number like 8, 10, and 20 because good luck comes in pairs. The packets are red because red is a lucky number.  Only unmarried people can receive these and only married people can distribute it, regardless of age.

                  My informant has been receiving these packets since birth and was required to pass these out in Singapore since the 1960s. Most people in Chinese communities all over the world practice this particular custom. Most Chinese kids see it as a way to get money during the New Year season.  To get one of these red packets, kids need to greet their elders with auspicious phrases and wishing them good luck.

                  This is not just limited to the Chinese, but there are many other countries that have variations of this custom as well. The Malays also give money after Ramadan, during Hari Raya, but in green packet with odd numbers. The Vietnamese giver something similar to these red packets and the Japanese have white packets with the names of the receiver written on the outside. It’s interesting how customs like this are spread all throughout Asia because it is an example of diffusion and adopting customs.

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Legend – Hong Kong, China

Chinese New Year Story

“So, um, a long time ago, there was this really scary monster that lived on a mountain called… like, I guess you would translate it as Year Monster.  On the last day of every year this Year Monster would come down from his mountain to the nearby village and would terrorize this village… and so all the villagers were very scared every time it was new years eve.  And so.. on year, um, the villagers were, you know, getting ready to like run away from the village for one day in preparation for the coming of the monster.  But this old woman who could not move was left behind… and so she was really scared and so she was sitting in her kitchen and then at that time there was an old beggar who, in passing, asked the old woman for something to eat.  So this old woman gave him something and the beggar asked “why isn’t there anyone in this village? That’s really strange.” And this old woman told the beggar about the Year Monster and so after this beggar listens to her story, he laughs and says, “haha! Don’t worry! I have an idea” you need to prepare some red cloth and red paper to paste on the door and light as many lights as you can.” And so night fell and the Year Monster came to the village and the beggar sat in front of the door and burned bamboo canes which made piercing noises and the Year Monster was scared and he was rolling about on the ground and saw this red light that hurt his eyes and he cried, “oh this is so painful!” and he was so scared that he just went back to his home in the mountains.  The next day the villagers went back to the village and they were surprised to see the old woman still there.  The old woman told her what had happened and so in celebration of scaring away the Year Monster, everyone started calling the day that the monster was supposed to come down in the village, “passing of the  year.” And so since then as a tradition, every year people would set off fire works and paste red spring festival cutlets on their doors.

This is a story told to the informant around the time of Chinese New year when she was growing up in Hong Kong.  She said that both her grandmother told her this tale, and they were also read a lengthier version in school.  We can see from the telling above that there are moments of hesitation where the informant is trying to piece together the sequence of events and details of the story.  The informant is in a transitional stage of life where she has not quite reached the status to be a teller of the story, but also has not been young enough to have it told her for quite a few years.  She expressed an excited nostalgia when recalling this story and quickly recalled more details… “Oh and then after they would read to us, we would all make red spring festival cutlets! And we would decorate them and write our calligraphy on them.”

The Year Monster in contemporary form: Chinese dragon

The other pieces of the story also serve as an explanation for other traditional elements of Chinese New Year celebration. The essence of the burning bamboo canes clearly remains with the rampant tradition of fireworks.  The informant could not emphasize enough the prevalence of the fireworks, “they’re going off ALL the time.  Everyone just gets used to it, it’s like the sirens of the emergency vehicles in Los Angeles except ALL the time.” Although in the actual practice of lighting the fireworks, there is no longer mention of the scaring away of the Year Monster.  The Year Monster itself remains in the form of the dragon and dragon dancing that is also a traditional part of celebratory practices.

It is interesting to note the unlikely heroism in this story.  The old, disabled woman and the beggar seemed to me a very unusual pair to be in the business of warding off terrorizing monsters.  When I inquired about this to the informant, she was struck for a moment as she had never thought of this before but was eventually able to recall an interesting parallel in Buddhist culture, she explained, “yeah that’s strange isn’t it… yeah actually now that I think about it, I remember there is something about in Buddhist culture, the Chinese equivalent of… spirits? No I guess more like angels, come down and pretend to be beggars to test people and see if they were kind.”  It seems the philanthropy of this old woman serves as model Buddhist behavior, whether the beggar was an angel or not, he repaid her generosity by saving her life along with offering future protection to the rest of the villagers.

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