In the run up to Chinese New Year, I asked myself a few questions about my knowledge of this red and gold... and very loud festival. Short of coming to terms with not receiving any more red packets (利是 or 紅包); it's been about 10 years since I last legitimately got one). Most people know about Christmas and the story of Jesus and the wise men. Having grown up in London in the 80s/90s - who didn't take part in the nativity play? It's great that children are taught the origins this huge festive period, whether you believed it or not. I appreciate Christmas has been overtaken by commercialism but nevertheless, people generally know the story and why Christmas is celebrated.
Let's turn to Chinese New Year. So, my questions are as follow: What is the difference between this new year and the western new year?; what are the twelve animals/signs of the zodiac (十二生肖)?; what was the 'race' about? is there a story behind Chinese new year that I should really teach my child?; finally what are those red signs with the four character well wishes called?
Naturally, I found the answers in a book, general asking around and (i'm not going to lie) Wikipedia. I appreciate many of you will know this or have a take on it but if I have helped fill in a bit of a gap in your knowledge then, great. So, in a nutshell:
The difference between 'Western' New year and Chinese New Year is the western new year follows the Gregorian calendar which determines that a year is approximately 365 days and there is a rule for leap years; basically everything you ordinarily know about time and days applies. Chinese new year follows the lunisolar calendar and it marks the beginning of a new year (obviously). Trying to understand how a lunisolar year works requires more brain cells than I have, so I am going to end it here on this subject. Only to say that we usually call it 農曆新年 because of the heavy influence on farming in our culture, hence it is also called 'Spring festival' because of the celebration of incoming warm weather and planting of crops.
The Twelve Animals 十二生肖
So we all know there was a race between 12 animals. Apparently all animals were invited to the race but only twelve bothered to turn up. Why there was a race seems to be conflicted but anyhow, this link gives a nice take on the story: https://wehavekids.com/education/Chinese-Zodiac-Story
The video is long but it's in Cantonese and is another take on the same story.
This was completely new to me until I read the book that I recently reviewed on Instagram. It tells of a monster called 年 and every start of the new year, he would terrorise a village and eat the children. The villagers realised that the monster was scared of the colour red and loud noises. In an attempt to prevent the monster from returning, every year they would decorate everything in red and let off firecrackers (炮仗). Hence, the reason why we let off firecrackers and have everything in red. I remember in 1989 going to Hong Kong for the first time during Chinese New Year and having SO MUCH FUN with firecrackers in the village. I might be wrong but it seems it has been banned, or at least, it cannot be played with in the same way as we did as kids. My mother told me once that when she was young, she and her friends set alight firecrackers in cow dung. I will leave the rest to your imagination.
Red signs and well wishing
This part should help every young adult whose Chinese is a little bit dodge but needs to impress the elders in order to get some red envelopes.
The red signs with four characters (usually) are called 揮春 (fai1 ceon1) and often seen on walls of a Chinese household. The most common one is the one character 福 (fortune) which is usually turned upside down so fortune is directed into the household.
Here are some common phrases to use when it is Chinese New Year:
恭喜發財 - General use
新年快樂 - General use
生意興隆 - Use if adult is in business - wishing them prosperity in business
龍馬精神 - 'Spirit of a dragon or horse' - use with any adult
心想事城 - Wishing accomplishment of the heart
萬事如意 - Wishing that all things you would like will happen
身體健康 - Wishing good health
Anyway, there is always so much to talk about with Chinese New year, such as the lovely task of cleaning your entire house, buying flowers and plants and displaying that box of snacks (which I have never liked). However I love having 年糕 and 蘿蔔糕. So I hope everyone has a great new year celebration and enjoy everything that makes Chinese New year (and being Chinese) great!
Happy New Year!!
Things of interest
In my quest for bi-lingual excellence (although I fail quite often), I have found a few resources that may be of interest.