A good friend of mine ” Sameer ” recently commented that this series of post on the Chinese New Year seems to be never ending. I figure some explanation may be in order. It seems that way because unlike in the west the Chinese New Year is a full 15 day long event. I will try and explain a bit of what I have learned here in what will be my last post on this subject for 2012.
In the Chinese tradition each new year is associated with an animal form which coincides with the months of the year and repeats on a 12 year cycle. This year the 1st day of New Years is on Jan 23, and is considered the 4,709th Chinese year. For those paying attention thats a reallllllly loooooooong time : ) 2012 is a dragon year and more specifically a Black Dragon or Water Dragon. The Dragon is a very powerful spirit to the Chinese and thus this year has a lot of power associated with it, we will see a huge increase in births due to parents wishing to have a lucky child.
Most people know a little bit about the Chinese Zodiac which among other things relates a persons birthdate with one of the 12 animal forms. The Animal form imparts certain personality traits much like in the Western Zodiac. There are even more variations whereas a person like myself might be born in the year of the dog but depending on when and how the actual birth took place I could be a metal, fire, water Dog etc…
I am told to know where you fit on the scale takes a person who specializes in interpreting such things, so I am happy just to know my sign.
Below is a graphic I made showing the different signs and some information, obviously I am no expert so if there are mistakes please forgive…
The Chinese are still following the Lunar calendar which is one of the ancient ways that all people observed time until the invention of the Modern Gregorian calendar in 1582. Its interesting to note that the Gregorian calendar only differs from the much older Solar Year by 26 seconds. Below is a beautiful picture of a solar calendar I found online. I have no idea how you would read it but it is interesting nonetheless…
In Taiwan like on the mainland at this time people are very conscious of the spirits of the ancestors and of specific places. Businesses and communities will erect small alters to make offerings to these entities. This is in addition to the frantic activity at the many temples found everywhere. This is a small offering I saw last year in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at, I am certain if I was to return there now I would find it again. I believe it is to thank the spirits of the building and or the land the building sits on and to ask for continued blessings into the coming year.
I have seen this type of thing before in Native American ceremony back in the states. I would guess the similarity is due to the extreme age of this culture which would also relate to the ancient traditions.
Firecrackers are an integral component of the festivities both to celebrate the new year and to scare away bad sprits. The original ones were made from sections of Bamboo. These Chinese crackers are strung in long lines by the hundreds and can make a deafening roar when ignited. .
The Chinese invented gun powder long before their western cousins but unlike popular belief they did use it as a weapon very early on to propel fire arrows. It was also used in primitive hand grenades, poisonous gas shells and other assorted nastiness. Some say even the first artillery cannons were built by the Song Dynasty almost 2oo years before the Europeans.
This is very interesting when you reflect that the Europeans were able to easily subdue China in spite of this seemingly huge head start. I think this was due to China’s isolation and the fact that they were relatively unchallenged at home for very long periods. Compare that to Europe’s history of almost constant warfare and it makes sense that the Chinese didn’t stand a chance.
Some typical decorations are like giant fire crackers and usually are hung in pairs at the doorway.
Chinese Lanterns are also have a big part to play and the final day of the Lunar New Year is actualy known as the Lantern Festival. In Taiwan there is a beautiful ceremony where flying lanterns are released to carry the prayers of the people up to Heaven. I have yet to see it but plan to next year.
We actually included this concept as part of a show design for China Mobile by BRC Imagination Arts during the Shanghai 2010 Expo. I didn’t realize until the next year that what I illustrated does not even happen in Mainland China, but only in Taiwan.
Another Iconic scene is that of the Dragon or Lion dance. The drums and the dancing Dragons serve to expel evil spirits. This is a dragon dance we saw at Taipei 101 last year.
As everywhere in Asia huge crowds are a common thing but at New Year this is compounded to a great degree.
More decorations, The color red is predominant as it is considered good luck and like the fire crackers it strikes fear into the evil spirits. On new years many people will also dress wearing red for this reason.
This is the ” God ” of wealth or Zhao Gongming next to some paraphernalia from Taiwan’s recent presidential election. The Blue party won, which I am told is a good thing… Taiwan has 2 main political parties the Blue and the Green. The Blue party is that of Chiang Kai-shek and would most likely be considered as Conservative. The Green party is the minority party and considers itself to be the ” Local Taiwanese ” thus seeing the Blue party as having invaded from China.
There is some truth to this in that Taiwan ROC was founded by the remnants of the legitimate Government of China in Exile after the Communist revolution. I will write some on the history of Taiwan in other post as it is a fascinating story…
Ah the Red Envelopes.
It is traditional at New Years for gifts of money to be given inside these red envelopes. Usually the envelopes will be given from elder to junior but also from children to parents. Its a bit confusing so I leave this part up to Fanny…
Envelopes for sale. I know the envelopes almost always contain money and usually in even denominations .The Japanese have a similar tradition called otoshidama but the envelopes are white.
There are specific foods that should be eaten at the New Years Dinner. I wont try and say what all they are as I do not really know, but I do know that you should eat what is offered as it is all part of the tradition.
One example would be a whole fish which represents plenty or an abundance of food in the coming year another would be the dumpling whose shape represents the ancient Chinese money.
Below is a lunchtime meal prepared in the home. We have Fanny’s mother’s famous beef noodle, Tea eggs, various vegetables and a type of Kim Chi. My picture here does not do it justice as it was extremely good!
Like Mom used to make
On the day before New Year people will clean the entire house and leave the doors and windows open to allow free travel of the spirits. This also represents cleaning out the old year. On the New Years day all brooms and dustpans are put away so the new luck cannot be swept away.
On the night of the New Year it is traditional for the entire family to gather and share a meal either at home or in our case out at a local restaurant. The reservations must be made well in advance as more and more people are going out this route. The meal consist of many dishes which everyone shares while talking and drinking around a large round table. During the meal it is customary to offer individual toast to all the adults present, usually starting with the eldest.
In the case of Fanny’s family this meal is paid for by the parents while on later days they are treated by their children. It is also customary for the older children to give envelopes to their parents to thank them for all they did for them in the past.
While at dinner Jason, Fanny’s eldest brother’s car was run into by one of the many scooter drivers who obviously didn’t want to stick around and explain his actions. Typically the police do not even ticket people right now as it would be a bad start to the year.
After dinner we head back to the parents home to visit and and wait for the midnight fireworks. Gambling at Majhong
will be involved of course as well as a lot of very strange ( to me ) television specials for new years. The family did play a funny gambling game which one bets on the outcome of dice throws called Yabao, the game is simple but extremely fun as the whole group is involved.
Below ” is not ” an example of the fireworks we saw, next year I want to go out and see the huge display at Taipei 101.
Before midnight the ” kids ” go out in the rain to set off the fireworks. I am not sure but I believe technically they are banned in Taipei but…
Here is a lil video of our amazing fireworks display. I cut off the part at the end where it falls out of the tree onto someones bicycle but you get the idea : )
In conclusion Chinese New Year is a lot of fun and I have enjoyed sharing it with Fanny and her family. It can seem pretty confusing to the western mind and I know that I have only scratched the surface. It should be noted that the traditions vary from family to family and country to country as CNY is celebrated all over the world. There is also much complexity added due to the mingling of Buddhist and Taoist religious practices. From what I gather it seems like many of the people do not even know what the traditions mean or even where they come from anymore, I guess this is what happens when your culture is literally thousands of years old.