- New Year in the Middle Kingdom
Chén jié (中国春节) Chinese Spring Festival is the time in China when nearly the entire Chinese nation heads towards railway stations, airports or bus depots. Most of them, who are away from their ancestral homes for education or jobs, return home to celebrate the festival with their parents and other loved ones in a befitting manner.
Spring festival commences with the Chinese Lunar New Year and marks the departure of the outgoing year and welcoming the New Year. The history of this festival is over 4,000 years and is the most important annual festival for the Chinese. Festivities commence from the first day of the first month of the Chinese Lunar New Year and continue till the 15th. According to traditions, preparations for celebrating the festival commence from 23rd of the last month of the outgoing year. Governmental organisations and offices observe a week’s holidays, while educational institutions enjoy a month’s vacations as spring festival holidays. This traditional festival is the time to visit your parents and elders and enjoy the festivities with them just like in the west Christians rush home for Christmas or in the Muslim world, the faithful endeavour to go to their ancestral home for Eid holidays.
Demographic statistics of China indicate that its population comprises a majority of Hans and 55 ethnic minorities, who celebrate the spring festival every year with traditional zeal and enthusiasm. Since earlier the majority population of China was pastoral and was engaged in agriculture, hence spring festival coincided with the harvesting period, which called for celebrations.
Spring festival is also known as Nian (年兽). According to folklore, during the rule of the Song Dynasty (17-11 Century BC), in the mountains, there lived a horrible demon creature named Nian. Every year, on the first day of the year, the creature would awaken and descend upon the village. He would eat all the grain and livestock. Thus, every New Year day, people would try to frighten Nian away with fireworks and red colour. Traditionally, the Chinese decorate their homes and hearth with red, wear red dresses and use fireworks to frighten Nian away.
Every year, in the last week of the outgoing Chinese Lunar year, preparations for the spring festival commence. Children and women prepare red dresses. Delicious food items are prepared. Homes are cleaned inside out, and doors and windows are decorated with red paper cut flowers, dragons and animals. The Chinese are traditional people and remember their ancestors. Special prayers are held to bless the souls of the deceased after placing their pictures prominently. All preparations are completed by the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is known as Choshi. Any Chinese who is unable to reach home for the spring festival remains sad.
On New Year’s Eve, the entire family sits down to enjoy the reunion dinner, for which preparations were being made for weeks. Various traditional dishes and delicacies are offered. There are red envelopes for the children containing monetary gifts. It is known as Hóngbāo. Special dumplings are also prepared and served as part of the New Year’s Eve dinner. In some dumplings, coins are placed. Anyone who finds the coin is considered very lucky.
The whole family waits for midnight, when the old year terminates, and the New Year begins. People come out in the streets to enjoy the festivities. Fireworks light up the sky. While people rejoice at the commencement of the New Year, simultaneously, they recall the achievements and losses of the past year, including the loved ones who departed to the next world.
In Southern China, people prepare a special dish on New Year’s Eve, known as Tāngyuán (汤圆), which is a Chinese dessert made from glutinous rice flour mixed with a small amount of water to form balls and then either cooked and served in boiling water or sweet syrup (sweet ginger syrup, for example), or deep fried. It is supposed to signify togetherness.
Every year, in the last week of the outgoing Chinese Lunar year, preparations for the spring festival commence
In northern China, Jiaozi is served which is a dumpling and typically consists of ground meat and/or vegetable filling wrapped into a thinly rolled piece of dough, which is then sealed by pressing the edges together. Finished jiaozi can be boiled (shuǐ jiǎo), steamed (zhēng jiǎo) or pan-fried (jiān jiǎo).
Another delicacy favoured on New Year’s Eve in northern China is Nian gao sometimes translated as Chinese New Year’s cake. It is a food prepared from glutinous rice and consumed in Chinese cuisine. Eating nian gao has the symbolism of raising oneself taller in each coming year (年年高升 niánnián gāoshēng). It is also known as a rice cake. This sticky sweet snack was believed to be an offering to the kitchen god, with the aim that his mouth will be stuck with the sticky cake, so that he can’t badmouth the human family in front of the Jade Emperor.
In modern China, especially in urban centers, most Chinese instead of cooking traditional Chinese cuisine at home, visit restaurants to celebrate the Spring Festival and enjoy New Year’s Eve dinner.
People offer special prayers for the New Year. Numerous colourful festivities are organised on New Year’s Day. Flower exhibitions, traditional Chinese dances like the fan dance, dragon dance, and lion dance. People visit friends and relatives to wish them on the New Year. Emails, Tweeter, SMS and We Chat messages have prevailed in the modern era.
Gong hei fat choy is the most common Chinese New Year greeting in Cantonese, which is spoken in parts of southern China and Hong Kong. It directly translates to “wishing you great happiness and prosperity.” In Mandarin, the same greeting is gong xi fa cai (pronounced gong she fa tsai).
Yuán Xiāo Jié: Lantern Festival (元宵节元宵节) is observed on the fifteenth night of the first month of the Chinese Lunar Year. Closely connected with the Spring Festival, the Lantern Festival is the first grand celebrations following it. The day is not a public holiday since the events related to the Lantern Festival are held at night. It is also known Yuán Xiāo which is a traditional Chinese dish and will be discussed in detail later.
On the night of the Lantern Festival at the stroke of midnight, since it is the 15th night of the moon, there is moonlight everywhere. The Chinese people light their lanterns and let them rise in the sky. Within minutes, the whole sky is lit up with gaily coloured lanterns of all shapes and sizes. People amass outside their homes in droves to enjoy this beautiful scene.
The tradition of Lantern Festival is also more than two thousand years’ old. On this night, the Chinese celebrate and participate in numerous activities. According to tradition, besides lighting lanterns and setting them free in the sky, there are fireworks, people solve riddles, there are cultural events of song and dance and people partake of the delicacy of Yuán Xiāo.
There are numerous folktales regarding the origin of the Lantern Festival. According to one legend, some hunters caught and killed an animal belonging to the Jade Emperor. Upon being informed of the incident, the emperor got furious and ordered the whole town to which the hunters belonged to be burnt to the ground. The princess heard of this and wittingly devised a rescue plan. Unable to defy her father, she went to look for the army general in charge of the garrison in the town. As the general also came from that town, he was grateful to be involved in the conspiracy. Together, they rounded up the villagers and told them to hang lanterns everywhere. The general went back to the palace and told the emperor he had set the town on fire. The emperor saw the flickering lights swaying in the distant and was tricked into believing that the town was already on fire. The ploy had worked and till today, the Chinese honour the kind-hearted princess by hanging lanterns on this day every year. They also gather in gardens to admire lanterns and solve riddles associated with these handicrafts. The brightest lanterns were also symbolic of good luck and hope.