Beyond Words - Language Blog

Year of the Tiger: Happy Chinese New Year!

新年快乐, xīn nián kuài lè, 過年好, guò nián hǎo, or Happy New Year!

Yesterday marked the first day of the Lunar New Year and all around the world people celebrated by feasting, wishing each other peace and prosperity for the year to come, and by setting off firecrackers. As the longest and most important holiday during the Chinese Lunar year, Chinese New Year is celebrated in areas with significant Han Chinese populations (the dominant people group in China, representing 92% of the country’s population) including (but not limited to) Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. While not an official holiday in Australia, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere, significant celebrations occur in the countries’ various Chinatowns and in homes everywhere.

The date of the New Year differs from year to year and is determined by the lunisolar Chinese calendar (the calendar indicates both the lunar phases and the time of the solar year). According to the Gregorian calendar, the new year falls on a date between January 21 and February 20; according to the lunisolar calendar, it occurs during the eleventh month, generally on the second new moon after winter solstice. Each year is marked by an animal of the zodiac—rat (鼠), ox (牛), tiger (虎), rabbit (兔), dragon (龍), snake (蛇), horse (馬), sheep (羊), monkey (猴), rooster (雞), dog (狗), and pig (豬)—along with a ten year cycle of the heavenly stems—the five elements of Chinese astrology: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The five stems are alternated yin and yang (yang wood, yin water, yang metal, etc.). This year, 2010, for example, is the yang metal tiger, and it happened to fall on February 14, Valentine’s Day.

Chinese New Year Traditions:

Some of the traditions associated with the New Year holiday include a thorough cleaning of one’s house. The act of sweeping away dust and dirt is believed to sweep away the bad luck of the previous year and readies the home for good luck. Once the broom and dust pan is put away, good luck cannot be swept away. The color red is also associated with the New Year, and many cut out paper symbols of luck and prosperity and decorate their homes with them.


Food, of course, plays a large role in the celebrations, and some common dishes include some form of fish (the pronunciation of fish, 魚 or yú is a homophone for surplus 餘 or yú), Jau gok (油角, yóu jiăo), Jin ju or mandarin oranges (金橘, jīn jú), noodles (which represent longevity), and a Nian gao (年糕) which is the Chinese New Year Pudding and whose pronunciation is a homophone for “a more prosperous year” (年高). The half-moon shaped Jau gok is the main Chinese New Year dumpling and is one of the more well known dishes served. Originally found in Cantonese cuisine and originating in the Guangdong Province in China, the fried dumplings are made of a glutinous rice dough and filled with variations of pork, Chinese sausage, and black mushrooms. A sweet coconut version called 甜角仔 is also made and consists of dried coconut and sugar.


Another important tradition is the exchange of red paper packets or envelopes commonly filled with money. Known as lai sze or 利是 in Cantonese, ‘hóng bāo’ or 红包 in Mandarin Chinese, the red envelopes are 壓歲錢or Ya Sui Qian, literally translated as “the money used to suppress or put down the evil spirit.” In Western countries, dollar amounts of $8 are common because eight is considered a lucky number (its homophone is wealth). In other countries, the amount varies, but only even-numbered dollar amounts are considered proper, but odd numbered amounts are associated with funeral cash gifts, and the envelopes are given by married couples to unmarried friends and family members.


Other traditions and elements include the setting off of firecrackers at nighttime to drive evil spirits away, the lighting of red, oval lanterns, and dancing the dragon dance or lion dance. The dances along with their accompanying drum beats and cymbal clashes are believed, like firecrackers, to ward off bad or evil spirits. Gathering with one’s extended family and practicing 守岁 or Shou Sui (reminiscing about the past year and predicting the year to come) the night after the reunion dinner on Chinese New Year is another common event.

Although the first celebration day of the New Year was yesterday, the holiday extends up to fifteen days and includes traditions such as visiting relative members in other areas, eating more dumplings (Jiǎozi or 餃子) on the morning of Po Wu (破五), and celebrating yuán xiāo jié (元宵节) which is the fifteenth day of the New Year and features tangyuan (汤) dumplings, a sweet, glutinous rice ball dumpling eaten in soup. On this last day of the New Year celebrations, candles are lit outside of homes to guide wayward spirits home.

So, Happy New Year and may you find peace and prosperity in the year to come!

Photo by Twonggg