Based on the lunar rather than the Gregorian calendar, Chinese New Year (CNY) begins on the first day of the new moon, which appears any time between January 21 and February 20 each year. Also known as Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, this celebration dates back thousands of years and it is steeped in myth, legend and folklore. Chinese communities all over the globe celebrate CNY and it’s a major holiday here in Hong Kong (February 12 to 15 this year). During the festivities, we get together and welcome the new year through ancient customs that are believed to bring good fortune, prosperity and happiness.
The Jade Emperor’s race
If you’re familiar with the Chinese zodiac calendar, you’ll know that it has a cycle of 12 years, and each year has an animal as its symbol – and you’ll know the folk tale that explains how these animals came to be. It goes like this… Once upon a time the Jade Emperor called a race, decreeing that the first 12 animals to swim across a fast-flowing river would each have a year named in their honour. Thirteen animals lined up on the riverbank – the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig and Cat. The Cat was pushed into the water by the Rat, and excluded from the race. The Rat reached the opposite bank first, by riding on the Ox’s back, which is why he is the first of the 12-year cycle of animals in the Chinese zodiac.
The animals always come in the same order – Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. So, 2021 is the Year of the Ox, 2020 was the Year of the Rat and 2022 will be the Year of the Tiger. The last Ox years were 2009 and 1997.
Monsters and demons
Have you ever wondered why on Lunar New Year’s Eve, we decorate our homes in red and wear new and festive red clothing? Well… it all goes back to ancient times when there was a monster named Nián, who lived at the bottom of the sea.
Nián walked the land once a year, on Lunar New Year’s Eve, to terrorise villages and feast on animals and humans. One year, a beggar came to seek shelter when everyone was hurrying away to hide out in the mountains. An old woman took the beggar in and, in return, he promised to chase Nián away. While the villagers fled, the beggar decorated their front doors with red paper scrolls.
At midnight, Nián lumbered into the village but stopped short when he saw the bright red decorations. He was afraid, and when the beggar started setting off firecrackers, he became even more afraid. When he saw the beggar, jumping up and down, dressed in red, laughing at him, Nián became so terrified, he ran away.
The villagers came back the next day to find their homes intact and Nián vanquished. Since then, it’s become traditional to decorate our homes and doors in red on Lunar New Year’s Eve and to set off firecrackers (or attend firework displays).
Over time the custom of hanging red paper scrolls at CNY spread since they were believed to provide protection not just against Nián but also from the many other demons who wander the Earth at night. These demons must return to the underworld at dawn, the entrance to which is under a giant peach tree. Two gods guard the entrance, and it is their job to feed any demons who have harmed humans during the night to the tigers.
To safeguard their homes, people began to carve the gods’ names into peach-wood tablets. Placing them outside their doors was enough to scare the demons away. Nowadays, you can see these scrolls on the doors of nearly every household during CNY.
Lucky red packets
The origin of lai see giving harks back to a time when an evil sp named Sui would appear at children’s bedsides on Lunar N Year’s Eve. If Sui patted the heads of sleeping children three times, the children would get a terrible, often terminal fever.
Fortunately, one couple happened upon a remedy. On Lunar N Year’s Eve, their daughter had been playing with some gold coins and when she fell asleep, they placed the coins on red paper a left them by her pillow. When Sui appeared, the coins flashed a frightened him away. This is why we give money wrapped in red paper (lai see) to children on Lunar New Year’s Eve.
Gifts from the gods
Hanging scrolls emblazoned with the 福 character [fú], meaning happiness or good fortune, is another important tradition at CNY. What can we expect of 2021, the Year of the Ox? Importantly, the Ox is strong and robust, he is considered one of the most naturally healthy animals in the Chinese zodiac, so we should be in a good place to combat COVID-19. The Ox is hardworking, methodical and self-disciplined – if we follow his lead, we can expect good things. The Ox brings stability to relationships and casts a favourable eye on long-term financial investments.
But you’ll rarely see the character hung upright. Why? Well, here’s another story for you… One CNY a very long time ago, the Emperor ordered every household to decorate their homes by pasting the character 福 on their doors. On Lunar New Year’s Day, he sent his soldiers to check that he had been obeyed. The soldiers found that one illiterate family had hung the character upside down.
The Emperor ordered that the family be put to death, which is when the Empress stepped in. The Empress realised that hanging the character 福 upside down was in fact highly auspicious. This is because the character for ‘upside down,’ 倒 [dào] is a homonym of the character for ‘to arrive,’ 到 [dào]. So, by hanging the character 福 (good fortune) upside down, we are saying that good fortune is arriving.
The explanation made sense to the Emperor and he set the family free. From then on, it’s become customary to hang the character 福 upside down at CNY, both for good fortune and in remembrance of the clever Empress.
Another way that we attract good fortune at CNY is, of course, through the lion dance ceremony. The lion dance brings good fortune for the coming year to everyone who watches or takes part in it. But have you ever wondered why?
Well, it all goes back to a dream the Emperor had one night after a day in battle. He dreamt of a fierce, strange-looking beast, playing. It was larger than a dog but smaller than a horse. The next day, the Emperor sent for his advisers and asked them about the beast. They told him it was a lion.
That very evening, after another victorious battle, the Emperor had the same dream again. In the morning, he went to his most experienced advisors and asked them what the dream meant. They explained that the lion was a gift from the gods. Since there were no lions in China, the gods had given one to the Emperor – they wanted him to have everything.
Believing that the lion empowered his army, the Emperor ordered his advisors to make a replica of the beast out of paper, cloth and bamboo. It was so big that two men could fit inside it, making it appear to walk. When the Emperor next went into battle, the lion came too and the army was again victorious. The lion was seen to bring good fortune, and this is why it remains a symbol of happiness and prosperity to this day. Kung Hei Fat Choy!
Tags: chinese new year, cny, gods, legends, monsters, myths