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By Elaine Dunn, February 2021



Typical couplets pasted on doorway for Chinese New Year

     Feb. 12 will be start of the Year of the Ox, which, according to Chinese tradition, is a symbol for wealth.  So … here are a few tips on how to ring the year in the Chinese way.

Clean your house!  This is symbolic of sweeping out the bad luck and preparing for a fresh start for the new year.  Pay special attention to the kitchen so the Kitchen God will not be offended!  He is an emissary of the Emperor of Heaven to visit and report back on what the family has done during the year.  Many kitchens used to have a picture of the Kitchen God and families would place a bowl of sticky rice in front of it.  The idea is if the Kitchen God’s mouth is full of glutinous rice, he can’t speak!  Also, glutinous rice balls served in a bowl of sweet broth is also put out to bribe the Kitchen God to say good things about the family. After his “dinner,” the Kitchen God’s picture is burnt to send hm back to heaven.

New Year’s Eve is big-family reunion time for Chinese.  That’s why all the trains, planes and roads in China leading up to New Year’s Eve are all jam-packed with people trying to get home.  It is one of the world’s largest human migration on display.  Billions of domestic trips are taken before and after the holiday.  Families gather for a reunion dinner and at midnight, the younger generation would show respect to the elders.  In return, the elders would gift hong baos (red packets filled with cash) to the younger generation(s).  Even little kids are encouraged to stay up past midnight – old wives’ tale is that the longer the kids stay up that night, the longer the parents will live!

Then comes the firecrackers!  The fireworks serve more than just as entertainment.  Their loud explosive noise is believed to drive away evil spirits.  So, set them off, the more the merrier.  Unfortunately, owing to Beijing’s campaign for cleaner air, the age-old custom of this explosive fun has been curbed recently.  More than 139 cities have banned fireworks entirely, and hundreds more have imposed strict limits.  One will no longer be hearing firecrackers going off at all times of day (and night) anymore.

This next item will be dear to Nancy Reagan’s heart: wear red!  Wear as much red as you can – socks, underwear, sweaters, dress, caps, coats … as red is considered one of the luckiest colors in Chinese traditions.  It symbolizes loyalty, success, happiness, wealth and good fortune. Not only is one to dress in red, one also should decorate one’s home in red as well to ward off the mythological monster Nian.  There are special open air and night markets leading up to New Year’s Eve where people would go and buy lanterns, couplets, flowers (plum blossom branches are especially popular) and fruit plants to decorate their homes.  Red paper couplets expressing good wishes are pasted around the front door.

Share your wealth!  This is where the little red packets, hong bao, come in.  The money in the red packets is supposed to “anchor the year” and represent good luck.  How much to give?  Northern Chinese favor whole numbers.  People in southern China stick with the “lucky” numbers of six and eight.  And, the closer the relationship, the larger the amount.  Of course, we all know who our chintzy friends and relatives are – they’re the ones who pass out “skinny” packets at New Year!  Finally, where I came from, only married folks need to pass out red packets.  So … stay single if you’re miserly!

Pay off your debts!  Yes, don’t let your debt carry over to the new year.  Pay it off so you can start with a clean slate.  It’s a good feeling.

Eat up!  Dumplings, fish, candied fruits, sweets and watermelon seeds all have symbolic meanings!  Why dumplings?  On New Year’s Eve, the round glutinous rice tong yuans filled with black sesame, red bean or peanut paste are eaten because the round shape represents togetherness and union.  The savory variety, jiaozi, usually is eaten on New Year’s Day because their shape resembles ancient gold or silver ingots, therefore, wealth!  Traditionally, home-made dumplings may include a coin hidden in one of them (much like plum pudding in the UK!) and the person who eats that dumpling can expect good fortune in the new year.  (Details on other auspicious foods eaten around Chinese New Year are available in previous issues of China Insight:  2018-2, p.6;  2016-2, p.5; 2015-1, p.8.)

Now, for the fun stuff!  What you should NOT do during Chinese New Year.

Stop cleaning and doing laundry!  Sounds good to me!  On New Year’s Day, do not sweep the house or wash your hair!  Otherwise, you’ll clean away the good luck.  For the first two days, do NOT do laundry as you will offend the Water God.  In Cantonese, water is a colloquial term for wealth.  If you pour water outside the home or let water flow from your home (as in doing laundry!), you’re letting wealth escape!

It follows that if you cannot clean or sweep, you need extra care in handling any breakables as it is very bad luck to break a bowl, plate, glass, vase or mirror because that means a loss of money and/or family splitting up.  However, should you do break something, pick up with and wrap the pieces in a red cloth, and only throw the lot out on the fifth day of the New Year. 

Don’t use bad words!  Well … this should be year-round, but especially critical around New Year.  Do not use negative words (breaking, running out, death, ghost, killing, sickness, pain, losing and poverty).  And cursing someone out is absolutely taboo!  As is starting a quarrel!

Stock up on books before the new year as the Cantonese word for “book” is a homonym for “lose.”  Therefore, if you buy books during the 15-day Chinese New Year observance, you’re asking for bad luck.  Likewise, do not give anyone a book during that period either!

No napping in the afternoon on New Year’s Day as it is believed that would cause laziness the rest of the year. Besides, when there are visitors on that day, it is impolite for the host to be asleep.

Lending and borrowing should be avoided at all cost!  Do not lend or borrow anything on New Year’s Day, especially money. Lending money is an unlucky omen, which signifies economical loss, so people should not offend friends or neighbors by borrowing something from them. And, not only is asking for return of debt owed around the New Year bad form, it is also a Chinese New Year taboo.

Avoid using scissors the first lunar month as its use is viewed as an omen for possible quarrels with others and severing of relationships.

No haircuts during the first lunar month for it indicates the death of one’s mother's brother.  I have no clue why this is so, why this particular relative is singled out, or how this came about, but that’s the story I’ve been told.

Do not let the pasta jars, rice barrel or goods in your pantry go empty or even reach low levels.  It’s a sign of inability to replenish, of poverty.  Keep them filled and full, especially just before the New Year.

This probably is only a fraction of the many customs/superstitions surrounding Chinese New Year.  Yes, some or all of these may sound absurd, but most people are glad to abide by them for fear of finding out first-hand whether they are true or absurd!


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Gold ingot and savory dumplings

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Typical Chinese New Year Tray of Togetherness with six or eight sections filled with candy, melon seeds, chocolate “gold” coins and other treats

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Smoke and debris from setting off firecrackers



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