Get Ready for the Chinese New Year!

Pimsleur Approach • ChineseComments (0)

While for many people New Year’s Eve is long gone, some of us are still impatiently waiting to enjoy an exciting celebration to say goodbye to the old year and welcome the New Year. The Chinese Year of the Snake will begin on February 10, 2013!

The Chunjie 春节 or Spring Festival is the most important event of the Chinese year and can last up to 15 days. Not just a mainland China event, it is celebrated in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Mauritius and Macau. Of course, no Chinese people would ever skip such a festival, so events will be organized wherever there are Chinese all around the world!

As you can imagine, such an important festival has its own beautiful traditions, from food to gifts, from lucky objects to colors.

The Chinese Zodiac (Image via Wikipedia)

It’s Written in the Stars

First of all, to understand what’s going on you need to know that the Chinese New Year finds its foundation in the Chinese horoscope and calendar, which is quite different from the Gregorian one. Even though both systems are characterized by twelve characters (be they animal, human, or mythological creatures), the Occidental zodiac is based on a solar calendar, and its signs change every solar month during the year. In contrast, the Chinese zodiac is based on a lunisolar calendar of both moon and sun; its signs change every year following a precise order. This is explained with a tale involving the Buddha or Jade Emperor and all the zodiac animals plus a Cat in a challenge to see who will arrive first to see the Emperor. In the tale, the Cat arrives late because of a prank pulled by the Rat, and this is why the Cat doesn’t belong to the zodiac. The Rat comes in first by hitching a ride on the Ox and then jumping off in front of him at the finish line. The arrival order is traditionally said to be Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.

The Chinese Elements
The Chinese Elements (Image via Wikipedia)

It Lives in the Elements

Things get a bit more complex, since each sign is either Yin or Yang and is paired to one of the five traditional elements—Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth, which are in turn connected to a planet, a body organ, a color, a season and one of the four main directions.

With all the possible combinations of Yin and Yang, elements and animals, 60 years is the smallest amount of time needed to complete a whole cycle. The current cycle started in 1984 and will end in 2044.

So, according to the lunisolar calendar, the New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice of the Chinese calendar. This means that the exact date changes on the Gregorian calendar from year to year, but it’s usually between January 21 and February 20.

Hongbao (red envelopes)
Hongbao (Image via Wikipedia)

Luck is the Thing

People get ready for the New Year’s celebrations with all things lucky!

Red is considered to be the luckiest of colors, so you will see a lot of red all over. Red clothes, red ribbons, red lanterns, red everything! Red decorated envelopes known as hongbao 红包are one of the traditional gifts given to children as a symbol of prosperity; relatives and close friends put fresh banknotes in them, usually in an even number. (Number four is avoided though, as its pronunciation is similar to that of “death” and it is considered to be a very unlucky number! People also avoid white items because white is connected to funerals.)


Chinese New Year's Poetry
New Year’s Poetry (Image via Wikipedia)

Important Preparations

On the days leading up to the New Year, the house is thoroughly cleaned in order to sweep away any bad luck hanging around the area. On the days following the New Year, no cleaning is allowed, thus avoiding sweeping away good luck. Sharp objects are put away to prevent them from cutting away good fortune. Traditional poetry, paintings and paper cut-out decorations are affixed to the walls and doors to give the house a beautiful and cheerful appearance and to call in luck. For this, a scroll with the character “luck” is typically hung upside-down. The Chinese word for “upside-down” is a homophone to “arrive” so it’s a luck-beckoning tradition. Buddhist rituals include a good sweeping of the domestic altar, which is decorated with fresh flowers, fruit and other ornaments (the old ones will be burned). Sweets made of glutinous rice are offered to the God of the Kitchen, Zao Jun 灶君(also known as Stove Master), who is in charge of reporting to the Heavenly Emperor all the good and bad deeds of the family members. The sticky rice will glue his lips, so he will either say sweet words or he will not be able to speak at all, thus not going against the family!

New Year is a good excuse to purchase new clothes. Everyone likes to be elegant when the New Year arrives! Clothes and little shoes adorned with tigers will be given to children in order to scare away any demon that could want to harm them.

Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year: Time to Feast and Celebrate

Time to Feast and Celebrate

You can expect family gatherings and big dinners with plenty of lucky and scrumptious treats! Dumplings called jiaozi 饺子are a favorite, as their shape is similar to that of ancient gold ingots—they will bring wealth! Niangao 年糕is a rice cake that is very popular in this time of the year, because its name is a homophone to “high year.” It’s a lucky treat to eat and to give as a gift. Do not forget to offer tangerines, oranges and pomegranates to your friends, holding the fruit with both hands! Also, prepare very long noodles, to have a nice long life, and don’t forget the octagonal tray with eight (lucky number!) symbolic snacks, such as melon, kumquat, longan and peanuts, known as a “tray of togetherness.” A whole fish should be served to attract abundance and to symbolize a good end (the tail) and a good start (the head).

New Year’s celebrations would just not be the same without fireworks! Their loud bangs and brilliant colors chase away the bad spirits. During the celebrations, Chinese people enjoy the Lion Dance, a very ancient art, in which two men share the same huge, shiny lion costume, dancing and jumping around following loud music. The Dragon dance is similar, but requires many dancers as the Dragon is a long beast!
People also like to visit mountain temples like the beautiful Hanshan Temple in Suzhou to wait for the first toll of the bell, which is believed to chase bad luck and demons away while bringing a cheerful sound that attracts good fortune.

We wish you the happiest, luckiest Snake year! 新年快乐!Xin nian kuai le!

Featured image photo credit: kennymatic via photopin cc

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