It is 3000 years ago. Imagine how the sun sets in a tangerine haze over the golden fields; farmers are coming together to give thanks for the harvest and pray to the gods for another plentiful year. Out of a starry night, a new sun rises in a brand-new year, and all the way to today, lanterns glow, dragons and lions dance; families reunite, and feasts are eaten; dreams are born, and hearts are warm, as we say ‘新年快樂’ (Xīnnián kuàilè): “Happy New Year!”
Contemplation and celebration
Chinese New Year - also known as the Spring Festival - marks the beginning of the new lunar year (the time for the moon to travel around the Earth). Although it is not a religious festival, many take time to visit the temple to make an offering to the Buddha or the gods, for blessings for a prosperous new year. Ancestors are honoured in the home with incense, flowers and candles. Some might pray to the Kitchen God, who watches the family in the home; the Jade Emperor, the most important god in heaven; the God of Wealth; and the Door Gods, two fierce warriors who frighten away evil spirits (pictures of them are sometimes pasted on doors).
Chinese New Year is celebrated all around the world. People of all backgrounds unite to see the soul and tradition of the Chinese people come into full flow. For instance, in London’s Chinatown, the streets come alive with a parade of lion dances, elaborate dragons and stilt-walking. In Rangoon, Burma, many bring offerings to the temple, light incense and unite in prayer for harmony and good fortune. Dazzling oceans of technicolour lights flood the roads of Singapore in its Annual Chingay Parade. Last year, I was moved by a Chinese music festival, an incredible feast for the eyes and the ears. Its soundscape of traditional folk instruments such as the erhu, hulusi, dizi and sheng left me speechless, but more striking still was how it brought Chinese people together, their humanity like some infinite bloodstream, with the soul of their cultural identity running deeper and stronger than ever.
A storytelling nation
There are fascinating traditions behind this age-old festival. Seeing the spectacular dragon dances is a must. In ancient China, the dragon was considered a helpful beast bringing longevity, fortune and rain. Along with gongs and heartbeats of drums come the sounds of firecrackers. Legend says that long ago, there was a monster who terrorised people at the end of the year. The people discovered that it was frightened of loud noises, bright lights and the colour red. Partying away, they frighten away the monster for the whole new year to come. The lucky colour red is everywhere, especially on special envelopes in which parents and grandparents give money to their children on New Year’s Eve; this is called Ya Sui Qian: ‘suppressing age money.’ One festival superstition is to avoid using knives or scissors, as they can ‘cut away’ luck. Food at Chinese New Year is all about bringing families together, sharing and gratefulness. Some traditions include fish on New Years’ Eve and leaving some over, in the hopes for a plentiful harvest. Also, one should never flip the fish onto its other side, as this symbolises bad fortune in tipping over a fisherman’s boat.
The Chinese Zodiac
The Chinese zodiac links twelve animals to a cycle of twelve years. Each animal has its own personality, personified in those born in their year. One story of how this came about was that long ago, the Jade Emperor invited all the kingdom’s animals to his New Year celebration. He held a competition, testing the animals’ intelligence and physical skill, with an elephant as the judge! The winners were announced: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig. And this became the order of the Chinese zodiac. This year is the year of the dog. Those born this year will be loyal, caring, and fearless in fighting injustice.
How are you celebrating Chinese New Year? Whatever the traditions, feasts or parades may be, the most important thing is the coming together in harmony, and the thankfulness for the year past, the new opportunity, and the people who are always there with you on this one, incredible journey.