Tag Archives: chinese new year

Chinese New Years Attire

Informant: N.N

Nationality: American

Primary Language: English

Other Language(s): N/A

Age: 19

Occupation: Student

Residence: Burbank, CA

Performance Date: 04/26/2024

N.N is 19 years old and is from Burbank, CA. I am close friends with his brother, so N.N is an acquaintance of mine. I asked him if there are any festivals or rituals he participates in regularly. He tells me about a specific dress code / costume his family wears every Chinese New Year. 

“Every Chinese New Year, it’s all about wearing red in our family. It’s a tradition that’s been around since I was born. We did this because red meant good luck. As a kid, all I thought was “Damn, I gotta find red,” haha. My mom taught me early on about this ritual—it’s supposed to ward off bad luck and bring prosperity. I personally don’t believe in the effects of this ritual but I don’t mind doing it either.”

Wearing red for Chinese New Year is deeply rooted in cultural and historical beliefs about prosperity and protection. I believe his family started this to ward off bad luck, specifically negative energies and misfortunes. This tradition also reflects their value of family importance, since everyone comes together in a shared practice to start the year positively. I interpret this custom as a beautiful way to wish for the best for your family while looking forward to a hopeful future.

Chinese New Year Festival Foods

Context: AT is a 22 year old student at USC. Her family is Taiwanese, and they celebrate Chinese New Year by cooking a variety of specific foods. AT listed these for me, along with the reasons behind why.

Text: “For one, we eat fish, because in Chinese, there’s a lot of words that sound the same and fish sounds the same as wealth. There’s a saying that every year you get more fish, you get more wealth. We also make this like fortune? cake? Or prosperity cake? It’s called fa gao, you can look it up. We make it because the word for fortune sounds like the word for rise, like bread rising. It’s really good! There’s also sweet rice cake, because it’s sticky, and the word for sticky sounds the same as the word for year. Oh, and of course, dumplings, because they look like the old fashioned coins or like ingots of gold they used to use. Let me think… oranges too, because one of the ways to say the fruit orange sounds like the way to say good luck”

Analysis: AT gave me a list of foods, all that are made and eaten due to a perceived relationship with something they sound or look like. The choice of food seems very sympathetic-magic based, specifically homeopathic magic based. Since the word for the item of food sounds like the word for another preferred item or outcome, engaging with that imitation is thought to produce said item/outcome, in this case, producing fortune in the form of money or in the form of luck. Making a food that either sounds or looks like luck/fortune is equated to making luck/fortune for oneself.

Lunar New Year Origins

Context: the informant is a 21 year old USC student with two Taiwanese immigrant parents. She told me that this was the story behind Lunar New Year. I was unable to record her exact words, but I was given permission to paraphrase.

The story goes like this: a long long time ago, there was a village that was attacked on the same day every year by a monster named Nian, which is the Chinese word for year. Year after year, people would die and they couldn’t do anything about it. Somehow, the people found out that Nian was afraid of fire, and so before he came to attack the village that year, they hung up red lanterns, tapestries, and banners outside their doors, hoping the monster would mistake the red color for fire and leave them alone. That year, when Nian came, he saw the decorations and was frightened away; that was the first year that nobody died. Every year after that, on that specific day, they would put up red decorations, hang red lanterns outside the walls, and set off firecrackers at night to make sure that the monster would never come back. During the day, children would also be given red envelopes to put under their pillows for protection. After that first year Nian was driven away, he never came back, too scared of the red colors that he thought were fire. Now for Chinese New Year, everyone wears red and puts up red decorations as a tradition, but this is the way it started.

Analysis: From the definitions we work off of in class, this would be classified as a legend because, while it’s an origin story, it’s an origin story for a tradition rather than a people or a land. It’s clearly set in our world and isn’t necessarily sacred, so if anything, it would be a legend, considering its veracity cannot be verified and it seems like something that, though supernatural, has the potential to be true.

Considering the red is supposed to mimic fire, it seems in theory very similar to some points that Francisco Vaz da Silva made about chromatic symbolism. He argues that the use of the black/white/red tricolor symbolism was “part of a general encoding of cultural values in sensory based categories” and while his argument was in relation to womanhood, I would say that some of might still apply. Red, in his example, was more of a sign of blood or maturation in Europe, but he goes on to reference a paper on African color symbolism that considers red as associated with activity or life-giving, much in the same way that blood might function.

Here, it represents similar concepts — red is a marker of life-giving in the way that it is a symbol of protection and its presence means the continued existence of life. Fire, and by extension, red, are both connected to the idea of life, resulting in an association of fire with vitality. Fire also brings light, driving away darkness and fear, creating another association with life-giving and continued success/safety.

Fire is also among one of the first things children are taught about (usually in the context of safety) and considering few things in nature are that color, I wonder if there’s more association of red with fire rather than blood for children who grow up hearing this story.

Chinese New Year Traditions

Text: “On Chinese New Year, we wish for good luck for the rest of the year as well as health and mental health. Something considered bad luck is cutting your hair before the new year and cleaning before the new year. In terms of food for Chinese New Year, something that my family likes to do is make handmade dumplings. We wear qipaos, which is a traditional form of dress.”

Context: The informant is Chinese-American. Her parents immigrated from China but the informant grew up in the United States in Southern California. The informant is 20 years old and she currently attends the University of Southern California. The informant celebrates Chinese New Year every year with her family. The informant also discussed that she gets a lot of money during this holiday because all of the older family members give the younger people money. Since the entire extended family celebrates this holiday together, the informant usually gets a lot of money. The informant described that she only wears qipaos on this occasion. She also stated that they only make handmade dumplings on this holiday to preserve this tradition. Chinese New Year is based on the Lunar Calendar but it usually starts in late January or early February. 

Analysis: Chinese New Year seems to be similar to the traditional American New Year in the sense that people wish for good luck for the rest of the year. I think the Chinese New Year has more of an emphasis on wishing for good health. We don’t have the superstitions of cutting hair or cleaning before the new year as my friend described. I appreciated the informant telling me about both her family’s individual culture such as making handmade dumplings as well as her telling me about the broader culture associated with the holiday such as the qipaos and the focus on wishing for good health.

Holiday meal: Dried Oyster and Black Moss

My informant E is from Hong Kong, China and there is a traditional dish that is eaten during Chinese New Year with dried oysters and black moss. E said that “Dried Oyster and Black Moss” is a Southern Chinese dish that is eaten on Chinese New Year because everyone wants to start the new year with health, prosperity, and wealth, which is what the dish translates to phonetically in Cantonese. They explained how “ho see” (dried oyster) sounds like the word for good deeds and “fat choy” (black moss) sounds very similar to the word for wealth and prosperity. As this dish relies heavily on the phonetics of Cantonese, E told me that it is not a very common dish outside of Cantonese homes.

Growing up in Eastern China, I had heard of this dish before, but I never had the pleasure of trying it. However, I have had dishes that have those ingredients in them as they are very popular and common vegetables in China. Dried oysters and black moss can be found in almost every Chinese market or grocery store and most families had them stored in their fridge or pantry. In Eastern Chinese culture, it is common to eat hotpot on Chinese New Year. “Hotpot” is a dish where you have an electric heating pot (hotpot) that you cook soup stock in and add in a variety of ingredients to cook like thinly sliced meats, vegetables, seafood, basically anything that cooks fast, in the stock and pull out when they are cooked and ready to eat.