Today (February 12 in 2021) is the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year — also known as the Spring Festival, which lasts for 15 days.
This is the Year of the Ox, the second sign of the Chinese Zodiac. Legend has it that when the Jade Emperor summoned the presence of a dozen animals, he declared that the one that arrived first would head the 12-sign Zodiac. The ox was kind enough to give the rat a ride, but the tricky rat hopped off to cross the finish line first. Thus the ox goes second.
According to the Travel China Guide, the ox is the symbol of diligence, persistence, and honesty, and people born under that sign are industrious, cautious, faithful and always glad to offer help — even to rats.
For baby boomers, ox sign years are 1949 and 1961. So we wish oxen readers an especially “happy niu year” (niu is cow in Mandarin) and a “bullish” year ahead!
Chinese New Year Customs and Superstitions
Chinese New Year is typically celebrated in Chinese communities around the world by parades featuring dragon and lion dances and fireworks, and, on the 15th and final day, a Lantern Festival featuring illuminated red lanterns.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, such celebrations will be vastly curtailed this year in many regions, including Chinatowns in the U.S. such as San Francisco and New York.
In a normal non-COVID year, Chinese families travel often long distances for week-long visits and reunion feasts (typically with the father’s relatives) on New Year’s Eve, but travel restrictions have also curtailed those this year.
In Malaysia, for instance, where one-fifth the population is ethnic Chinese, lockdowns are now quite strict, preventing anyone from traveling between states and even within districts of the same state. Reunion dinners of those living in close proximity have been limited to 15 people.
Nonetheless, many Chinese are observing traditional customs and superstitions surrounding the New Year — avoiding a number of taboos and embracing other must-do’s.
According to Chinese tradition, how you comport yourself during the New Year can determine your fate — for good fortune or bad — over the entire year ahead.
Here, then, with assistance from Travel China Guide, is my take on some things to either embrace or avoid during Chinese New Year:
Do: Eat egg rolls, dumplings, noodles, prawns, fish, abalone, and oysters.
Foods that are said to yield good fortune are all about symbolism — auspicious connotations for the year ahead.
The symbolism is based on similar sounds (homophones) in Mandarin and Cantonese. “In Cantonese, the word for prawn, ‘har’ sounds like ha ha, which means laughter and happiness, so the Chinese believe that eating prawns signify that you will be happy every day,” said Ricky Thein, executive chef at Lai Po Heen restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur hotel, in an interview with the Star newspaper in Malaysia.
Fish, in turn, stand for abundance. Fish (鱼) is called “yu” in Mandarin, and is pronounced the same as the Chinese word for abundance or surplus (余). Similarly, abalone stand for good fortune, and oysters for good news.
While eating seafood is mandatory among Chinese in Malaysia, and prawns are prized in China as well, mainland Chinese add egg rolls to the roster of must-consume dishes, because they resemble bars of gold.
Noodles are another important New Year’s dish there, because they symbolize long life. And the all-important dumplings (jiaozi), usually eaten on New Year’s Eve, are shaped like Yuanbao (a kind of money used in ancient times) and are believed to bring wealth in the coming year.
Don’t: Eat porridge or meat for breakfast on New Year’s morning.
According to Travel China Guide, you should avoid eating porridge and meat for breakfast on New Year’s morning because in the past, “poor people could only afford rice porridge, so porridge reflects a down and out life.” It’s also disrespectful to eat meat at that time, because Buddha was a vegetarian. And by the way, whenever you eat your noodles, don’t cut them, because that could cut your life short, too.
Do: Eat leftovers for breakfast on New Year’s morning.
Specifically, the leftovers from New Year’s Eve reunion dinner. This shows that people “always have more than they need,” says Travel China Guide.
Don’t: Let your rice jar get empty.
If the rice jar — which indicates your standard of living — becomes empty, you may face starvation during the year.
Do: Fill up your rice jar.
Filling up the rice jar before New Year’s Eve is a good way to assure healthy finances in the New Year, and, presumably, avoid starvation.
Don’t: Break a bowl, plate, glass, vase, or mirror.
If you break one of these items, it may result in loss of money or a split in the family.
Do: Collect the fragments or say “Sui Sui Ping An.”
If you accidentally drop a plate, vase, etc., Travel China Guide advises that you collect the fragments, wrap them in red paper or cloth, and scatter them on the fifth day of the New Year.
Alternatively, you can say, “Sui Sui Ping An,” which means “safe and sound every year.” Since the Chinese character for “Year” (岁 Sui) is pronounced the same as “Broken” (碎 Sui), the homophones will ward away bad luck.
Don’t: Take your medicine.
Unless you’re severely ill, don’t take any medicine or see a doctor until the Lantern Festival (15 days after New Year’s), or risk being sick all year round.
Do: Eat black moss and nian gao (a sticky cake).
Sea moss and Nian gao stand for prosperity. So when the Chinese say “nian nian you yu” (年年有余), it means you’re wishing for abundance every year.
Don’t: Say negative words.
Avoid uttering words such as “death,” “killing,” “ghost,” “sickness,” “pain,” “losing,” and “poverty” for the entire Spring Festival, or suffer the consequences, warns Travel China Guide.
Do: Use euphemisms if necessary.
If, for example, you need to say you’re in pain (and you can’t take your medicine), you might try, “I feel good enough to live for at least two more days.”
Don’t: Wash your clothes or hair, sweep the floors, take out the trash, or pour water outside.
Since the first two days of the Chinese New Year are considered the Water God’s birthday, you will offend the god by washing your clothes or hair at that time. If you do engage in these behaviors, you’ll be sweeping, dumping, or pouring out your good fortune as well (flowing water indicates movement of money).
If you must sweep the house on New Year’s Day, sweep from the outside of the house inward, which symbolizes collecting money.
Do: Clean your house before the New Year.
Cleaning up before the New Year is considered auspicious for the year ahead.
Don’t: Let your kids cry.
Since a crying child forebodes disease and misfortune — which may bring bad luck to the whole family — refrain from punishing your kids, advises Travel China Guide, “even if they make mistakes or are naughty.”
Do: Give your kids money.
It’s traditional for parents and any older or married members of a family to give red envelopes (hong bao) filled with money to children and young unmarried family members. The packets are given as a sign of good luck and prosperity.
Don’t: Give your kids money or anything else that features the number four.
The number four is the same as death (sei) in Cantonese.
Don’t: Get a haircut, especially with scissors.
If you get your hair cut during the first lunar month, it portends the death of your mother’s brother (i.e., your uncle). Using scissors only compounds the problem, since it signals you’ll be quarreling with family members or friends, perhaps over funeral arrangements for your uncle.
Do: Make sure your niece or nephew doesn’t get a haircut.
Don’t: Be a borrower or lender.
Don’t lend or borrow anything, especially money, on the first day of the New Year. Lending money is a bad omen, signifying economic loss, so it’s also taboo to ask to borrow any. Asking for return of debts owed is a big no-no as well.
Do: Hit the ATM before the New Year.
Don’t: Dress in rags or in black and white.
Avoid ragged or dirty dressing, which symbolizes poverty and misfortune. Dressing in black and white, meanwhile, is usually reserved for woefully dour occasions like funerals and mourning ceremonies, which makes it inappropriate at festival time. Perhaps needless to say, don’t even think about wearing black and white rags.
Do: Wear new clothes.
These indicate a brand new start.
Don’t: Wake anyone up or nap.
If you wake up anyone on the first day of Spring Festival, cautions Travel China Guide, the one awakened “would be urged to do their work all the year around, exhausted and nervous.” And if you take an afternoon nap on New Year’s Day, you risk becoming lazy all year round.
Do: Say “Xin nian kuai le” or “Gong Xi Fa Cai” when the person wakes up.
Those are two ways of saying “Happy New Year!”
And if the appropriate dishes are served, the house is clean, the debts are paid off, the number four is avoided, you dress properly, and you don’t get a haircut or take a nap, you’re bound to enjoy an ox-spicious New Year!
Thanks, Clark. Will do my best this year adhering to the ancient wisdom. I am not sure about being able to pass up the afternoon nap but will give it a shot. — SteveA
Special Note to Readers:
In the wake of the pandemic, assaults against Asian-Americans have spiked to an alarming degree in the United States over the past year. If you share my concerns and want to help stop Asian hate, please check out this recent piece from Rolling Stone. Thanks!