Chinese New Year Traditions

Chinese New Year Traditions
Chinese New Year Traditions

The Chinese New Year traditions are many and serve as strong links to China’s history and culture. Take the Chinese Dragon Dance, for example, which dates back to the Han Dynasty (180-230 AD) and has long been performed during major Chinese celebrations. Knowing more about this and other associated traditions and Chinese New Year symbols can go a long way when it comes to understanding China and its people. It can also prepare you for any festivities that you might have the privilege of taking part in.

Gods of Wealth & Prosperity

Gods of Wealth & Prosperity
Gods of Wealth & Prosperity

Chinese families traditionally display certain deities in their homes. It is also customary to display such symbolic figures in the office at work. Among the most prominently displayed deities are those who promise wealth and prosperity. A perfect example would be Tsai Shen Yeh. Often depicted wearing a dragon robe and sitting on a tiger, Tsai Shen Yeh helps to bring great prosperity during good times and serves as a protector from poverty when times are bad. Other examples of Chinese deities who can bring good fortune during the New Year, and throughout the years in general, include Kuan Kung and Maitreya. Kuan Kung ensures peace and harmony for all residents of the home, and Maitreya, or the Laughing Buddha, takes people’s troubles and problems away, replacing them with abundant happiness. Several other Chinese deities can also bring good fortune and happiness, and while many come in the form of a male god, there is at least one female goddess to consider. Known as Xi Wang Mu (Queen of the West), she symbolizes all life aspirations and encourages harmonious relationships. These deities are important Chinese New Year symbols. 

Festival of Lanterns

Festival of Lanterns
Festival of Lanterns

The Chinese Festival of Lanterns, or the Lantern Festival, is held on the last night of the China New Year period. This means that it also takes place on the night of the first full moon of the lunar New Year. There are many different stories relating to the origins of these Chinese New Year traditions, though one thing is for sure – that is the use of illuminated lanterns. A good majority of the lanterns reflect Chinese themes. They can also display riddles or depict many other things, such as the animals of the Chinese Zodiac or scenes from stories that relate to traditional Chinese values. Lending depth to the Chinese Festival of Lanterns is the aesthetic pleasure that the illuminated lanterns bring. It is interesting to note that similar festivals are celebrated in other Asian countries, with examples of such countries including Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Red Envelopes

The exchanging of gifts is one of the main Chinese New Year traditions. Among the more traditional gifts are small, red envelopes that are filled with money. These envelopes are given to children by their family and friends, and the money is often used by youngsters to purchase candy and other treats. The color red is used to bring good fortune, hence the color of the envelopes. This same color also helps to ward off the mythological beast Nian, so it is used for many different Chinese New Year symbols and decorations. Gold is also a popular color, as it represents wealth and good fortune.

Dragon

Dragon
Dragon

The Dragon is without question one of the main Chinese New Year symbols. It is also a major Chinese symbol in general. Among the things that it symbolizes are strength, supernatural forces, goodness, and good fortune. It is important to note that some don’t just see the dragon as a dragon. It can also be seen as a mythical combination of many different animals. Either way, it has established itself as an icon of Chinese culture and is widely exhibited through costumes and dress, especially during Chinese New Year celebrations and other festive occasions. The Chinese New Year Dragon Dance is a great example of the high reverence that the Chinese have for the Dragon. You will see this dragon in Chinese New Year parades not only in Asia, but in Chinatowns across the world, from San Francisco to New York City.

Traditional Foods

The Eve of the Chinese New Year is one of the most strictly observed periods of the grand holiday season. Kicking it off is a late night feast where family members gather and dine on traditional foods. Dishes of meat and fish are among the main features, with pork and chicken figuring among the meats of preference. The chicken is usually served whole to symbolize family togetherness. Noodles, clams, and spring rolls are other traditional Chinese foods that often make it to the New Year table. The noodles represent a long life, while the clams and spring rolls symbolize wealth. One of the more interesting things about the kinds of food that are consumed during the Chinese New Year is the way that their applicable names sound. The Cantonese word for lettuce, for example, sounds like the word for rising fortune, and "Yu," which is the word for fish, sounds similar to the words for wish and abundance. No discussion about traditional Chinese New Year foods would be complete without mentioning dessert. Sweet, steamed cakes reign supreme in this department, and they are often layered. The sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life, while the layers reflect the hope that the coming year will rise in abundance.

Top image: Matthew_Smith (flickr), CC BY-SA 2.0

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