by CHASE STEWART
NANJING — “Hurry up and shower!” she shouted from the kitchen.
“Later,” I responded.
“You have to wash away the old year and be clean to welcome the New Year,” she said, exasperated.
“But its been 2015 for almost two months…” I grumbled to no avail.
This was the start of Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, 春节(chūn jié), as it is known in China. I was in southern China, near Guangzhou, spending my first Spring Festival with a Chinese family (my girlfriend’s). Luckily, this was not the first visit, as the combination of meeting them for the first time AND Spring Festival would have been too much. Imagine meeting your significant other’s family and extended family for the first time on Christmas, and then repeating that everyday for the next week.
Spring Festival is a fifteen-day holiday. Workers usually get seven days off and most shops close for three days. Spring Festival Eve is called 团圆 (tuán yuán), which means reunion. Many families watch the five-hour Spring Festival Gala on TV. In fact, there were 800 million viewers this year. The recent Super Bowl, the most watched TV event in U.S. history, had only 110 million.
Another custom is to replace the red decorations on their doors with new ones for the new year. The character 福 (fú, wealth) is hung upside down because 倒 (dào, inverted) sounds like 到 (dào, arrive). It is believed that by hanging the character for wealth upside down on your door, you are inviting riches into your house.
We had dinner at my girlfriend’s paternal grandmother’s house. Among other dishes, we ate fish and lettuce, highly symbolic foods. The phrase 年年有余 (nián nián yŏu yú) means “have abundance year after year.” In the past, farmers always hoped to have food left over from the harvest and as the word for fish (yú, 鱼) and the last word in the phrase have the same pronunciation, people eat fish during Spring Festival. The Chinese word for lettuce, 生菜 (shēng cài), sounds the same as 生财 (shēng cái), “make money.” Therefore, eating lettuce during Spring Festival supposedly brings lots of money in the new year.
Traditionally, families spend the first day of Spring Festival at home. No washing your hair, cleaning, or taking out the trash as all of these things would wash away your new luck for the year. In addition, one should wear red underwear because there is a monster, named Nián (年), who comes out once a year and is scared of the color red. Nián is also scared of loud noises, which explains all the fireworks.
The second day is called 开年(kāi nián), “open the new year.” Families go to visit relatives and I went to my girlfriend’s maternal grandmother’s house for lunch (more fish and lettuce). The next few days are known as 拜年 (bài nián) and are spent continuing to visit family and friends and giving and receiving 红包 (hóngbāo). The literal translation for hongbao is “red pocket” or “red envelope,” and they contain money. Unmarried Chinese receive hongbao; married Chinese give them. A married couple must give two hongbao, one from the husband, and one from the wife. Also, it is unlucky to give an odd number of gifts.
In addition to food homophones, there are a number of number homophones in Chinese. The luckiest number is 8 (八, bā). Since it sounds like 发 (fā), receive money, getting a gift of 88 yuan is seen as very auspicious. The unluckiest number is 4 (四, sì) because it sounds like 死 (sĭ), death. Like the number 13 in some Western countries, 4 is avoided in China. Therefore, a gift of 44 yuan is very undesirable. Though the hongbao I received were small, I was grateful for the gift.
The last day of Spring Festival is元宵节 (yuán xiāo jié), or Lantern Festival. According to Chinese legend, this was the only day when young, unmarried girls could leave their houses. They would go out, admire the lanterns, and hope to fall in love. Nowadays, it’s a kind of Chinese Valentine’s Day, especially in Hong Kong, and young couples often go out to eat tāng yuán (汤圆), a type of sweet dumpling, together. I was already back in Nanjing at this point, but I had my fill of dumpling while still in Guangdong.
Spring Festival is a time to be with family, eat, relax, and eat. There was no shortage of food and I left more in love with Cantonese cuisine than when I arrived. There are many customs and rituals associated with gaining or losing luck. I hope that I did everything right so I can end the year of the Ram with lots of cash!
Nooz Phlannel was kind enough to contribute some of his photos to this story. More of his work can be found at: displate.com/noozphlannel.