Chinese New Year Festival Traditions
When the Chinese New Year is around the corner, everywhere you go in China, you should be able to find hoards of decorations, including Spring couplets, images of the Chinese character "Fu" for luck and happiness, paper cuts, Chinese tassels and red lanterns. Moreover, these sights will dazzle your eyes in whatever direction you may peer, from doors and frames, windows and walls, ceilings and eaves, shops and offices.
This wealth of imagery is no surprise though, since decorating the home has long been an important task during the Spring Festival season. Indeed, the period before Spring Festival is an extremely hectic once, with shoppers scurrying around to buy that must-have red stuff needed to usher in the Lunar New Year.
I've bought some New Year's Paintings. I hope that these paintings will bring fortune to my home and happiness in the new year.
I've bought a pair of Spring Couplets. The head reads 'Safe and sound with everything proceeding well in the New Spring', while the tail reads 'Congratulations for the Festival and may your family be blessed with auspiciousness and wealth'. By this I hope my family will be healthy, happy, lucky and prosperous in the new year, and that all the best things will come to us."
"I want to make this Spring festival a jolly one, so I'm getting some lanterns, and Spring couplets to make my family safe and sound in the new year. I've also bought a 'Fu' character to make the new year a happy new year."
"I also bought some window paper-cuts. They'll make my room livelier. I'm going to paste different patterns in different rooms, so that happiness and good fortune will come to our house from every direction."
While the importance attached to these decorations reflect people's natural wishes for a happy new year, they also hold up a mirror to extremely old cultural traditions. As a first example, the red Spring couplets are an interesting variation on an old Chinese custom. Here's Prof. Duan Baolin, vice-Secretary general of the China Folk Artists Association.
"Red Spring couplets are intended to scare off the monster Nian. They evolved from "peach wood charms," which reputably had the power to scatter evil spirits when hung on door frames in earlier times. Later, painted door gods replaced these peach wood charms. Subsequently, more and more people these days use Spring couplets to replace these door gods. Spring couplets are a congregation of many cultural elements, such as calligraphy, poetic art and meaningful language. A couplet is made up of two lines of verse, which are called the "head" and the "tail" respectively, and which should correspond with each other phonologically and syntactically, word for word, phrase for phrase."
As one of the main forms of Spring Festival decoration, couplets are Chinese good luck sayings written in black on red paper, often with gold trimmings thrown in. These verses usually dwell upon good fortune, longevity and happiness. In choosing such topics, they cater to the different needs of a varied demographic, suggests a retailer at one of Beijing's markets.
"Couplets like 'Everywhere you go, important people will help you out in times of trouble; from every direction, money and treasure will gather to your threshold'- these are most favored by business oriented families. Meanwhile, couplets like 'Good year, good luck and good fortune; more money, more happiness and more auspiciousness' - these find favor with more senior buyers."
However, couplets do not have a complete monopoly in the market of achieving luck through decoration. As one of the characters that best epitomizes Chinese culture, the word Fu, meaning happiness, luck and fortune, is also a mandatory part of the Spring Festival. Written on a square piece of red paper, Fu can be pasted normally or upside down, since in the latter case, the character implies that "good fortune has arrived". In this way, these paper squares also represent the "arrival" of a prosperous year.
Chinese tassels are another favorite adornment during Spring Festival. Like paper-cuts, they mainly serve a decorative function, although they also possess underlying meanings of auspiciousness. Here's a seller showing off his collection to potential customers.
"Owning China knots at home during Spring Festival will fill your house with a happy mood. This one here has a small cloisonné vase weaved into its pattern - it signifies safety all year round. We've also got auspicious knots, lucky star knots, safety and fortune knots. Meanwhile, those fish, corn and peanut patterns represent good harvest."
Red couplets, red lanterns, red 'fu' characters, red paper-cuts, red tassels; seemingly all the decorations for this festival are red. Vice secretary general of the China folk Artists Association, Duan Baolin, explains the Chinese fascination with this color.
"Firstly, Chinese people love the color red because it represents bright future and prosperity. However, another reason for this special favor towards red relates to the legend of Nian, a kind of monster, which came at the end of every year to eat human beings and animals. Gradually people found that this monster Nian was afraid of three things, all relating to fire, that is, light, the sounds of explosion and the color red. From this discovery comes the custom of letting off firecrackers, lighting red lanterns and pasting red couplets. If people passed the year's end without being hurt by this monster, then they'd say that they had passed the Nian, or passed the year."
With all these decorations complete, Chinese people can settle down to their lively new year celebrations. Yet having said that, they still have to pay attention to avoid certain taboos, otherwise all their previous work will have been in vain. Therefore, if you're not very familiar with Chinese traditions but currently live here, you should pay special attention to professor Duan Baolin, as he explains the dos and donts of Spring Festival:
"The Spring Festival marks the beginning of a new year. In Chinese people's minds, a trouble-free, happy day signals that the whole year will be smooth and easy, while any mishaps indicate a turbulent year ahead. So on this very first day of the new year, people avoid using scissors and knives; this expresses their hope for peace and also symbolizes that those who have labored all year long will not have to work as hard in the new year. Also on this day, you should refrain from saying anything inauspicious, such as 'death' or 'bad luck' while any quarrelling should certainly be avoided. Obviously, you should also take care not to break household items such as vases and cups, as this would be regarded as a very unlucky sign. However, if you do happen to break something, then you should say 'Safe and Sound Year after Year' to ward off any bad luck. Finally, do not sweep the floors or throw out rubbish on the first day of the Spring Festival, because you may unwittingly sweep your fortune out of the front door as well."
Nowadays most people no longer pay serious attention to these taboos. On the other hand, many of them are still followed, since, as people like to say, they certainly do no harm, and certainly make Spring Festival a lot more interesting.
Author: CRI Date: Feb 5, 2008