Happy Chinese New Year
This year the Chinese New Year begins on February 3rd, and people all around the world will be ringing in the year of the rabbit.
Scaring away the beast
Chinese New Year is a fifteen-day celebration beginning on the second new moon after the winter solstice and ending on the full moon fifteen days later.
During the ‘Spring Festival’, Chinese people 过年 (guo nian), or ‘pass the new year’, but like many Chinese words, the term guo nian can carry an alternative meaning, and this particular term was indeed used very differently in years gone by.
Legend has it that a hungry beast, the 年兽 (nianshou), used to emerge from hiding during springtime and attack all in sight. The Chinese word for ‘year’ is based on the arrival of this beast, and as such 过年 (guo nian) can also be interpreted as ‘the passing of the beast’.
The custom of pasting up red paper and letting off fire crackers at the New Year started as a means of scaring away the beast, or nian. Today, people have long forgotten why they are doing all of this, but there is no doubt that the colour and the noise all adds to the excitement of the occasion.
Another ubiquitous feature of the New Year’s holiday is food. On New Year’s Eve all family members come together and eat 饺子 (jiaozi) or dumplings, boiled in water.
Like guo nian, the term jiaozi also has multiple meanings. Jiao can mean ‘across’ and zi can refer to the period of time between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., so one meaning of jiaozi is ‘across midnight’. This explains why Chinese people usually prepare jiaozi before midnight on New Year’s Eve, and eat it afterwards.
An entirely different interpretation has jiaozi meaning ‘to sleep together and have sons’, representing the importance traditionally placed on the birth of a boy. Surely the most auspicious possible start to the New Year…
On New Year’s Day itself everybody makes sure to pepper their speech with words and phrases that carry positive meanings. Nothing unpleasant should be uttered. This idea is carried through to the food that is served on the day. Every delicious dish will bear a name that in some way symbolizes health, wealth or glory.
Popular treats include fish, because 鱼 or yu (the Chinese word for ‘fish’) sounds like 余 or yu (the Chinese word for ‘abundance’) and sticky rice cake or nian gao (年糕), which is considered good luck because it echoes the New Year’s greeting 年年高升 (niannian gaosheng), or ‘may you do better and better year on year’.
According to Chinese tradition, the Rabbit brings a peaceful year in which you can catch your breath and calm your nerves. This is especially welcome after what is usually a tumultuous year of the tiger. So lick your wounds, forgive and forget, and if you haven’t got things right first time around in 2011, well a happy new year to you all over again!
To see Chinese characters correctly you may need to install Asian language fonts – please visit Microsoft for information on how to enable East Asian languages for Windows. (If you have Windows XP, you may simply need to adjust the settings at the Control Panel under Regional and Language Options.)
The opinions and other information contained in the Oxford Dictionaries Online blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of OUP.
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