Tag Archives: chinese new year

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.