MANDY LIM BEITLER delves deeper into the origins of Chinese New Year and discovers that there is much more to the festival than collecting hongbao (red packets) and tossing yusheng (raw fish salad).
Despite the adoption of the Gregorian calendar – along with its New Year on January 1 – by China since 1912, Chinese in their homeland, as well as its diaspora around the world, continue to celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year. Also commonly termed the Spring Festival, it’s observed from the first to the fifteenth day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar (usually between mid-January and mid-February) and remains the most important social holiday and cultural festival for ethnic Chinese everywhere.
How it began
The legend goes that there was once a terrifying monster called Nian who attacked villages every year towards the end of winter when prey was scarce. Storytellers each have their own version as to how Nian was conquered – one says a wise old man advised the villagers to beat drums, light firecrackers and hang red scrolls and banners on their doors to scare the beast away, as it was afraid of loud noises and the colour red.
Another variation tells of how a lion defeated Nian, so to protect themselves from the vengeful monster’s return, the villagers created a lion costume and scared it away by performing what has since evolved into the ritualistic lion dance we know today.
However it happened in mythology, on the anniversary of the (lunar) date of that victory, the Chinese mark the “passing of the Nian”, now synonymous with celebrating the Chinese New Year.
The big spring clean
The days leading up to the New Year sees Chinese families spring-cleaning their homes, often giving it a new coat of paint, before decorating it with items bearing auspicious symbolism. Apart from lanterns – sometimes in the shape of pineapples (the Chinese word for pineapple sounds like the term for “luck arrives”), red paper cutouts of the word fu (prosperity) or ji (riches) – other popular choices involve depictions of one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac for that particular year. The idea is to sweep and wash away all the negative energy of the past year and prepare their homes to receive good luck.