[TOP 7] Do you know the origins of this Chinese New Year Traditions? |Being Lost On Greatness


Tuesday, 20 January 2015

[TOP 7] Do you know the origins of this Chinese New Year Traditions?

Chinese decoration along China Town in London. Image: Epic Fireworks 
恭喜发财!! (Kung Hei Fat Choy) This 4 Chinese characters which means congratulations and be prosperous is the most used greeting during Chinese New Year. I would highly recommend adding another 4 characters 红包拿来 (Angpow nalai) to it if you are unmarried. It not only rhymes but also elevates the 4 characters into 8 characters which is an auspicious number for the Chinese :) Having lived in Malaysia all my life, i have already experienced 3 complete cycles of the Chinese zodiac (the Chinese astrological calendar). Each zodiac kicks-off with the Chinese New Year Celebration - just like how the western world celebrates New Year every 1st of January.

Just like every festival, there are reasons behind it. Do you know them all? If you don't, i've GOAT you covered!  Let's take a look at the Top 7 Chinese New Year traditions and the stories behind them.

1. Fireworks / Firecrackers
Almost every celebration is graced with fireworks. I recently attended an engagement ceremony that featured cakes firework (multi-shot aeriels) too! When looking at these wonderful designs in the sky or closing your ears watching a 10-feet firecracker being lit, have you ever pondered why is it done during the Chinese New Year? Let me share the significance of these loud devices as told in the Chinese legends.
Fireworks illuminate the skyline of Guiyang in Guizhou Province, China. Image:Telegraph.co.uk
Many many many years ago, an ancient Chinese legend tells of a man-eating predatory beast called Nian. It is described to be extremely fierce, with a long head and sharp horn. This creature lived deep in the sea the whole year long, but on every Chinese New Year eve it would climb onto the shore to devour livestock and harm humans in a near-by village (i wonder how it survived eating only once a year and know exactly when the year starts!lolz) Therefore, every Chinese New Year's Eve, all the villagers would take their old and young deep into the mountains to hide from Nian. When they returned on the second day, they will usually find all their houses destroyed and livestock dead.

One Chinese New Year's Eve a grey haired man appeared in the village. He asked permission to stay for the night and assured everyone that he would chase away the beast. No one believed him. In addition, the old man steadfastly refused to go to the mountains to hide. Seeing that he could not be persuaded, the villagers departed without him. When the beast arrived at the village to wreck havoc as usual, it was met with a sudden burst of exploding firecrackers. Startled by the noise, the flashes of light and red banners flying about, it hastily turned and fled!
 Wow..This must be the startled look on its face!
The following day, as the people returned from the mountains, they found the village intact and safe. The old man had left, but they found the remains of the three precious items he had used to chase the beast Nian away. They all agreed that the old man must be a deity who had come to help free them of the beast.

From then on, every Chinese New Year's Eve, families would hang red banners, set off fire crackers, and light their lamps the whole night through, awaiting the Chinese New Year. The custom spread far and wide and became a grand traditional celebration.

Now that you know, go grab some to scare away the evil-spirits and evildoers...The louder the better! (Note: If it is illegal where you are, go watch a pyrotechnic event nearby instead)

2. Giving out red packets
An angpow is a long, narrow red envelope that contains money. Why specifically red you may ask. Based on my observation, Chinese love the colour red. This is true for the colour of the clothes worn during new year, the colour of the fireworks, the colour of the lion dance costumes and guess what, even China's flag is red! Hahaha. :)  This is because red is revered as a protective colour, representing auspiciousness, prosperity, and with the power to exorcise evil spirits.. Sending red packets is a channel for sending good wishes and luck. Traditional envelopes are usually decorated with Chinese characters that symbolize happiness and wealth. Modern day angpows come in various colours, designs (still waiting for one with the iron man design!) and logo of the company handing them out. Some companies also include vouchers or gift certificates inside.

Cartoon themed angpows. Image; Californiahome
Did you know that the significance of red packets is the red paper, not the money inside. Wrapping money in red packets is hoped to bring more happiness and blessing to the receivers. Hence, it is impolite to open a red packet in front of the person who gives it to you. Hmmmm, this shows that the modern designs do not truly stick to the real significance behind the angpow. The next time i get a angpow that is not red, i'm going to accept it but politely explain the significance of the red angpow :)

Next, who gets a red envelope? The simple answer would be everyone! The traditional answer would be it is given by the married to those who are unmarried, usually children. It is also a common practice for married couples to give their parents angpow as a sign of respect during the new year.

Oh yes, never never put money in a white envelope when given during festive or auspicious occasions if the recipient is Chinese. Money wrapped in white envelopes are given when the occasion is sombre, like during funerals, when a gift of money is given to help with the funeral costs.
Unique angpow designs

Wait...before we move to the next tradition, anyone knows when was there first angpow given? :) You don't? No worries. Read on to find out.

The story of ang pow dates back to the Sung Dynasty in China.There was a scary dragon-like demon that was terrorising a little village called Chang-Chieu.  Not a single soul dared to defeat it, not even warriors or statesmen.

However, a young orphan, armed with a super sabre inherited from his ancestors, took on the evil dragon and eventually killed it. (This sabre must be the eastern version of Excalibur!)The villagers were overjoyed and the elders presented the brave boy with a red packet filled with money for his courage in saving them.

Since then, the angpow has become a part of traditional Chinese customs.

3. Lion Dance
The Chinese lion dance is often mistakenly referred to as dragon dance. An easy way to tell the difference is that a lion is normally operated by two dancers, while a dragon needs many people. The Chinese respect and revere the qualities and characters of the lion. For the Chinese, the status of a lion is at par with the symbolic dragon, phoenix and Qi Lin (the "Chinese unicorn).  On the left is a picture of a Qi Lin of the Qing dynasty in Beijing's Summer Palace.

Here's something you did not know (i didn't know either).

"There were no lions in China. Lions came to China from India though the spreading of Buddhism. From the historical record, lion dance was started during the Han Dynasty. His Majesty Han Wu Ti made commercial ties with the West trough the Silk Road to China. Cultural interaction by means of functions in the palace in welcoming the guest from the West, like dances and songs were performed. During the performance, the dancers were wearing the mask of animals so as to entertain the guest. The guest later discovered that there was no mask of lion. They were told that there was no lion in China later, the traders from the west who were using the Silk Road to China to trade, brought along lions as gift to China." Source: History of the Lion Dance
This is a dragon dance :) Image: hellokids.com

It isn't known exactly how lion dancing came into existence, but from my research on the net, there are countless stories about it.  Below are my favourite 2:

i. Out of an emperors dream
One of the most popular legends has it that a Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) emperor awoke from a dream in which a strange looking animal had saved his life. At his council meeting the next morning, he described this beast to his ministers. One well-travelled old gentleman told the emperor that the description sounded like an animal he had seen in the West — a lion. Since the lion had saved the emperor's life in the dream, it quickly became a symbol of good luck throughout China. Lions, it was believed, were able to chase away evil spirits and very soon lion dancing was born.

ii. The story of Nien the beast
The tale takes place in 2697 BC during the reign of the fabled Yellow Emperor. A small village was being plagued by a beast named Nien (seems like the same beast under the sea that got scared by the fireworks). Nien preyed not only on the villages animal, but on the people as well. He was so fierce that not even the tiger or the ox could kill him. In desperation the villagers asked the lion for help. The lion agreed and, rushing out to meet his enemy, "expanded his chest, raised his mighty head, shook his mane" and wounded the creature, who "went running off with his tail between the legs." But in true bully fashion, as he fled he turned to shout, "This isn't over! I will return to take my revenge!"

When the tales of the lion's bravery reached the Emperor, the lion was brought to the Imperial City to guard the palace (you can still see lions guarding the gates of buildings to this day). Then, a year later Nien returned to the village. By this time, the lion was so busy with his new job, he couldn't come to the village's aid. So the people took cloth and bamboo sticks and fashioned a costume to look like the lion. Two men got into the costume and when Nien appeared, they jumped at him howling fiercely, while the villagers banged on drums, cymbals, and gongs. Needless to say, the commotion was so frightening that Nien didn't wait around long enough to see it wasn't the lion attacking him.
My company organized a lion dance performance for CNY last year! Hoping for another one soon :)
4. Cleaning
Sweep out the old in order to usher in the new” is an expression often heard just before the Lunar New Year begins. The Chinese tradition is to clean before the new year begins, and many people believe that it’s best not to sweep again for a few days after New Year’s Day, so as not to sweep away the good luck. Even after the new year day, there are instructions on how to sweep! Beginning at the door, the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlor, then placed in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day. Wow...and apparently if you carry the garbage and dust through the front door, as it may result in death or estrangement of a family member!!

The act of cleaning is good and practiced by all before celebrations (its better if done more often through the year) but the reasons behind this is purely superstitious. I'm not sure how this superstition started but i managed to compile a list of Top 7 superstitions during Chinese New Year for you below(excluding cleaning):

Superstition One
No Ghost Stories - According to Chinese beliefs, what happens on the New Year's Eve sets a precedent for the rest of the year. Foul language and unlucky words are a taboo on the first day of the New Year. Since ghost stories essentially involve mentions of death, children as well as elders are not allowed to tell stories related to spirits, zombies or the undead.

Superstition Two
No Washing Hair - Though you are encouraged to get a hair-cut on the first day, you're not supposed to wash your hair to ensure that good luck is not washed away.

Superstition Three
No Shoes - Shoe shopping is restricted on the first day because shoes is a homonym for rough in Cantonese.

Superstition Four
No Crying - Crying is also a strict no-no on New Year's Eve which is why children are spared from spanking or punishments on the first day.

Superstition Five
No Sitting in Bedroom - It is unlucky to meet anyone in their bedroom on the New Year's Eve, which is the reason why everyone, including infants, elderly and even those who are sick, are made to dress up and sit in the living room.

Superstition Six
No Sharp Objects - Handling sharp objects is considered bad omen on the first day of the New Year, as they may cut off good fortune. It is recommended to put away knives and scissors the previous day.

Superstition Seven
Songbirds are Good - The first person you meet on the New Year's eve holds great significance on how lucky you would be throughout the year. It is considered lucky to see or hear songbirds, red-colored birds or swallows on New Year's Eve.

5.Reunion Dinners
The New Year's Eve Reunion Dinner is a "must do" dinner with all the family members getting together.Certain foods are eaten during the festival because of their symbolic meanings, based on their names or appearance.

Fish is a must for Chinese New Year as the Chinese word for fish () sounds like the word for surplus. Eating fish is believed to bring a surplus of money and good luck in the coming year. It is also common to have yee sang during the reunion dinner (Prosperity toasting). There are at least 10 ingredients mixed together for this toss. Below is an explanation of each ingredient from Wikipedia:
  1. Fish symbolizes abundance and excess through the year. 
  2. The pomelo or lime is added to the fish, adding luck and auspicious value. 
  3. Pepper is then dashed over in the hope of attracting more money and valuables. 
  4. Oil is poured out, circling the ingredients and encouraging money to flow in from all directions. 
  5. Carrots are added indicating blessings of good luck.
  6. Then the shredded green radish is placed symbolizing eternal youth. 
  7. After which the shredded white radish is added - prosperity in business and promotion at work. 
  8. Peanut crumbs are dusted on the dish, symbolizing a household filled with gold and silver.
  9. Sesame seeds symbolizes a flourishing business. 
  10. Yee sang sauce, usually plum sauce, is generously drizzled over everything. 
  11. Deep-fried flour crisps in the shape of golden pillows is then added with wishes that literally the whole floor would be filled with gold.

A memorable yee sang session with some good friends. Image: Thanks to Sharon
My nephews first yee sang!

Another traditional Chinese New Year food is Chinese dumplings. Because the shape of Chinese dumplings looks like silver ingot - a kind of  ancient Chinese money, Chinese people believe eating dumplings during the New Year festival will bring more money and wealth for the coming year.

Some of the other dishes served are tang yuen (glutinous rice flour balls), new year cake (solid cake made with glutinous rice flour together with some sugar), longevity noodles (uncut egg/flour noodles), spring rolls and for this year (year of the Wood Goat) , San Yang Kai Tai (three goats bring wealth) is a must have! This dish is a goat and radish stew, whose main ingredients are goat meat, cabbage, radish, green onion, ginger, salt, and water.

6. Pineapples or Mandarin Oranges
Ever wondered why this 2 fruits can be seen everywhere during the season? Chinese like playing with words and symbols. Often homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings) are used. Names of dishes and/or their ingredients which will be served sound similar to words and phrases referring to wishes expressed during the Chinese New Year. The names of this 2 fruits sound like "gold" (kam) and "fortune comes" (ong lai). The pronunciation may differ for the various Chinese dialects but they all do agree these are auspicious fruits. The shape and colour of the orange fruit is also said to resemble wealth (golden and round). If you didn't know, the Chinese regard round as money (maybe that's why they say a round tummy and a bald head means prosperity..lolz)

Don't forget to stock up on ong lai tarts during the festive season!

7. Lanterns
If you didn't know, Chinese New Year is celebrated over 15 days (yes...you can collect angpow until the very last day!). The Festival of Lanterns, marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations and it is the first night to see a full moon. A variety of lanterns are lit throughout the streets. Some are small, colourful ones that are attached to a bamboo stick while other are Kongming lanterns with wishes written on then that light up the sky at night.
Kongmin (Sky Lantern) lighting up the sky in Taipei. Image: Zacktravel
In one of the legends, long time ago, there were many fierce wild beasts and birds that greatly affected local people's lives and safety. In order to protect themselves, people had to kill those wild animals. One day, a sacred bird in heaven accidentally got lost and fell on the mortal world. However, an ignorant hunter thought the bird was kind of fierce animal and killed it. The heaven emperor was very angry and ordered his soldiers to set fire and burn everything on the fifteenth day of the first month. The daughter of heaven emperor was very kind and did not want it to happen. So she secretly came to the mortal world and informed the people. People were scared and tried to think of a solution. An old man came up with an idea. He told every family should light up lanterns and fireworks on the 14th, 15th and 16th day of the 1st lunar month. Maybe the heaven emperor would think that everything has been burned out.

Everyone agreed and was busy preparing for that. On the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, the heaven emperor looked down, and there was red fire and thundering cracks everywhere, for three nights. He thought the folks had been punished; therefore people got to keep their lives and property. From then on, people light up lanterns and fireworks on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, in order to celebrate the success.

With that, i hope this blog would have given you something extra to talk about during the reunion dinner....Wishing all my readers a Blessed Chinese New Year 2015! :)


  1. my favorite CNY tradition- Reunion Dinners with the whole family.. and of course receiving red packets from parents and grandparents hihi! :)

    1. yeaaa....my fav too...food and red packets! lolz!

  2. I like Chines Traditions specially their foods, cloths, organizations

    1. yeaps...every traditions do offer something unique...and in Malaysia we are fortunate to have various cultures and traditions :D

  3. Hey melvin,i was kind of confused reading the beginning of the article.Every zodiac cycle in china means new year celebration?
    Besides it was a really informative article. Chinese culture and tradition is really interesting.

    1. hie...yeaa..just like how we have 365 days in our Gregorian calendar, theirs is based on the Chinese Calendar...and every year represents a different zodiac. With that being said, Chinese New Year does not fall on the same date each year (like Christmas/Western New Year does). It is decided on the Chinese calendar and then mapped to the English calendar.

  4. is the shoe shopping restriction only for 1st day? i was told it's the full 15 days! and i've never heard of no sitting in the bedroom either.
    thanks for sharing!

    1. i think it is strictly a "No" for the first day but it much relaxed for the remaining days although some may hold back their purchase until the end of CNY :) Glad you enjoyed it!

  5. I was in KL the weekend before Chinese New Year and I have to say - everywhere I go, it was soooo festive. CNY is also celebrated here in the Philippines. In fact it's now part of our holidays and it's something I look forward to each year. PS. This is the first time I've heard about the shoe superstition. Interesting.

    1. yeaaa.....it is usually celebrated very grandly in KL - with the decorations, sales and fireworks! Would be great to see a post about CNY in Phillipines... :)

  6. I know the firecrackers, ang pow and lion dance. But I have not heard of those 7 superstitions before. Interesting read, btw.

    1. Thanks! Glad that i could enlighten you on the 7 ;)

  7. Great to know about the origin of Chinese New Year. Here in Davao City, Philippines we don't have Fireworks and Firecrackers because we have an ordinance in our city to banned FIREWORKS and FIRECRACKERS. But instead of FIRECRACKERS and FIREWORKS we have Lion Dance and Festival of Lanterns.

  8. i didnt know the origins! interesting read. I'm not superstitious and wasn't brought up in a traditional chinese household so i don't believe in those

    1. yeaps...not everyone believes these and it really depends on the family you grew up with :D

  9. I had no idea about all of this so it was good to read. I've only been to one CNY celebration and that was last year and we all had a good time. Good to know a bit about this.

    1. Happy that this entry could teach you something new...The next time you experience a CNY celebration, you will have something to share with them :D

  10. This is an interesting post to read at this point of time, because CNY have past for quite sometime. I know most of them, as I'm a Chinese but I thought some of the superstitions were only applicable in other occasions!

    1. yea...i think some of it maybe used for other occasions as well.. :)

  11. My family and I have been celebrating CNY eve reunions ever since I can remember and we've never had Yee Sang. We did have fish dishes though, done in another way.

    1. Fish in any way is good as because of the way it is pronounced in Chinese (Yu)

  12. Thumbs for the very interesting Chinese New Year trivia. Learned much for today.

    1. Thanks! Happy that you learnt something new :D

  13. Interesting.. Most of us really dunno about the origin of those traditions.. :)

    1. yeaps...we tend to forget the reason behind the traditions ;)

  14. It's nice to know the story behind the traditions on Chinese New Year. It's also a big event here since we have a very large Chinese Community.

  15. Interesting. This is a very informative post. Obviously, this celebration is something that has some pagan roots.

  16. Good stories. I have read and heard a lot about its origins and this is interesting too.

    1. Yes...every culture has something interesting!

  17. These are some amazing facts and origins that you've listed out. Thanks for sharing :)

  18. These are amazing facts to learn about Chinese culture and tradition.

    1. Happy that you enjoyed these facts :)