This text has been adapted by author Xiang Yao, who has just released The Art of Chinese Living (HarperCollins), a love letter to Chinese culture, written for her adult children studying abroad, so that they could appreciate – and not forget – their culture while living far away.
Chinese New Year is the most important and joyous festival of all for Chinese people. Beginning with New Year’s Eve, the night before the first day of the lunar year, various customs and rituals continue right up until the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day. There are ceremonies of sacrificial offerings to gods and ancestors, and people thoroughly clean their homes and create colourful festive snack platters. Firecrackers are set off everywhere, while celebrants perform traditional Chinese dances and create stunning decorations. These include hanging New Year images, paper cuttings and red spheres of satin cloth, with couplets written onto traditional red vertical displays hung on either side of the front door. Read on to discover the rich traditions behind Chinese New Year.
What is the story of Nian?
An ancient legend tells of the Nian (which is also the Chinese word for ‘year’) – a beast as large as an ox that could eat humans. The Nian would open its huge mouth each year after the winter crops had been stored and come out to hunt, causing great fear. But humans gradually discovered that the Nian was afraid of three things: fire, loud noises and the colour red. So each year, just before the Nian was due to appear, every household would hang a red peach wood board in front of the entrance to their home and light a fire. New Year’s Eve, they would stay up all night making noises by striking and hitting things, to keep the Nian at bay. After daybreak, people emerged from their homes, congratulated one another for having entered the New Year safely, then share a celebratory feast.
These three ways to ward off the Nian gradually evolved into the New Year customs followed today: the red peach wood has been replaced by spring couplets, lighting a fire has been replaced by hanging large red lanterns and the loud noises are now made by lighting firecrackers rather than striking objects.
1. Red packets
Red packets containing money (representing good fortune) or gold-wrapped chocolate coins are given to children as gifts. One year I prepared 42 red envelopes, each with a gold-wrapped coin inside. I wrote the first half of various couplets on 21 envelopes and placed them on a tray. I wrote the matching halves of the couplets on the remaining 21 envelopes and placed these on each of the place settings on the table. Once people had selected an envelope from the tray and read the first half of their couplet, they had to locate the envelope with the corresponding second half to locate their place at the table, which created great conviviality.
2. Kitchen gods
Every home has a kitchen god, an official from the Heavenly Court who monitors the good and bad that occurs in every family. On the 24th day of the 12th lunar month, he returns to the Heavenly Court to report on the family. People make offerings to him in the morning, burning paper ‘cloud horses’ symbolising his chariot and providing sweet treats to enjoy on his way, hoping this will encourage him to say sweet things about them to the Jade Emperor, ruler of Heaven. In the kitchen god’s absence, the Jade Emperor sends other heavenly officials to monitor the human world so, on the following day, people carefully watch what they say and do. Taboos on this day include hitting or scolding others and hanging underwear out to dry.
One of the most popular cakes at Chinese New Year is year cake (niangao). It is both sweet and savoury, symbolising auspiciousness and good fortune. Year cakes are made with water-milled glutinous-rice flour, ground from varying quantities of japonica rice and indica rice, and are soft and sticky after they’re steamed. Niangao are enjoyed in many ways. In my region, they’re sliced and eaten cold, wrapped around pickled vegetables, pan-fried with minimal oil or dipped in egg or batter and deep-fried.
A ceremony called kaizheng is held on the first day of the New Year. To celebrate, families hang up lanterns and Chinese knot decorations, and festive foods are set out as offerings for Heaven and their ancestors. On this day, it is common to see special sweets placed on the offering table or on the coffee table of a friend or relative. Some of the more unusual sweets are winter melon candies, red beans and peanut candies. Winter melon candies are time-consuming to make and are only available during the New Year, making them very rare. Nanzao walnut cake is also popular, made of black and red dates. In recent years, nougat candies of various colours have become popular.
Many other customs are also followed on that first New Year day. One is xingchun, in which people attend a temple to burn incense and pray for blessings. Another custom is to make an outing in an auspicious direction to attract good luck, and this direction and time are different every year, according to the Chinese almanac calendar. After doing so, people visit relatives and friends and wish each other prosperity. It is absolutely taboo to say anything inauspicious or to do anything that would put someone in an unfavourable situation on this day. If you do, you will be plagued with misfortune for the whole year.
At this time, the main source of entertainment is people coming together to play games and to share colourful festive snack platters. The most popular New Year games are mahjong and pai gow. Fireworks are released at midnight, and families stay awake all night to see in the New Year, otherwise known as ‘guarding’ the year. This is said to guard the family against poverty in the coming year. Another belief is that the longer children can stay awake, the longer their parents will live.
6. New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve – on the last day of the 12th month – is the high point of New Year. There are many different kinds of New Year's Eve dinners, and a variety of dishes are eaten on the day, depending on where you live. Family members usually bring food to share what they have created at home. This tends to be a family night, rather than one spent with friends. It is our tradition that my family spends the evening with my husband’s family. My family brought a Yixing-style casserole, Shanghai-style steamed pork with preserved vegetables, a fish-head stew, pork meatballs, mullet roe, red-braised pig’s trotters and red-bean sponge cake. My husband’s family brought Hakka-style steamed pork with preserved vegetables, sushijin (assorted vegetarian delicacies), lumpia (uncooked spring rolls), lu rou fan (a local dish of braised pork and rice) and Taiwan-style savoury niangao and red-bean mochi,
A hotpot is a popular casual style of cuisine that involves cooking raw pieces of meat, seafood and vegetables in a pot of simmering stock, before flavouring with a variety of dipping sauces and condiments. The base soup can be as simple as a broth made with pork or chicken bones and served with coriander and thousand year eggs, or it can be as complex as a Mala soup base, made with spices and chilli. The Chinese term 'wei xu' originates from the ancient meaning of placing a fire under the table to keep everyone warm in winter. The fire must remain lit to represent the prosperity of the family. In modern times, most people place a hot pot on the table instead, so it is now very popular to have a hot pot for New Year's Eve dinner. It is a lovely symbol of prosperity and warmth.
8. Lion dances
Dragon and lion dances are performed for every important festival in the Chinese calendar. They signify a prayer for peace and prosperity for the nation, stability and timely weather, and they’re believed to bring good luck and drive away misfortune. Dragon and lion dances are always accompanied by the dramatic backdrop of gongs and drums, making them a high point of any festival programme.
Lion dances are almost always performed by two people: one manipulates the head, and the other the rest of the body. The most famous lion dance activity is ‘picking the green’, held on the fifth day of the New Year, when shops reopen for business. Green vegetables are hung up high, and the lion dancers must pass a series of obstacles – often wooden pillars – to reach them. The lion finally eats the green, then spits it out, signifying thriving business. Afterwards, the master of ceremony or the business owner gives the lion dancers a red packet containing money to express their gratitude.