Chinese Culture: New Years
Cantonese Culture Notes and Phrases

The Spring Festival, or Chinese New Years, is the most popular and important of Chinese holidays.  It is a time of prosperity, family, tradition, and good will.  The following information is centered around traditions and terms used by those in Hong Kong and Canton.

General Terms || Greetings || Gift Giving || Food ||
Legends || Traditions || Taboos

General Terms

The following terms are used in reference to Chinese New Years objects not covered in other sections of this lesson.

Gwo \Nihn\

New Years

過年

\Cheun\ Jit

Spring Festival

春節

\Nihn\ \S'aa\ Maahn

New Years Eve

年卅晚

\laih\ sih

"luck money"

利是


General Terms
|| Greetings || Gift Giving || Food ||
Legends || Traditions || Taboos

Greetings

The following greetings are used during Chinese New Years.  They often appear on the \fai\ \cheun\ that go up on people's doorposts as well.  During New Years Chinese greet one another in a friendly way.  While Chinese do not usually greet those they do not have a personal relationship with, Chinese New Years is an exception.

\gung\ /hei/ faat \choih\

"bless happiness, and prosperity"

恭喜發財

This is a greeting of prosperity reserved for Chinese New Years.
It is also the phrase required before gifts/lucky money is given by the host during New Years.

\san\ \nihn\ faai lohk

"Happy New Year"

新年快樂

This is a generic greeting used both during Western New Years and Chinese New Years.
It is appropriate as both a greeting and a parting phrase.

\san\ \nihn\ jeun bouh

"New Year's Progress"

新年進步

This is a greeting wishing progress in the New Year.
It is appropriate to use for any person, older or younger and of any relationship.

hohk yihp jeun bouh

"Progress in Studies"

學業進步

This is a greeting reserved for students, wishing them progress in their studies.
This is important for young students as well as more advanced students.

\saang\ yi \hing\ \luhng\

"Prosperous Business"

生意興隆

This is a greeting reserved for proprietors,  wishing them good business results.
It is normally said to those businesses with whom you have a personal relationship.

\jing\ \ling\ wuht puht

"Aware and Active"

精靈活潑

This greeting is reserved for children wishing them to be active and mentally astute.
This is not something you would say to older children, it is for those of the "Disney" age.

\luhng\ /mah/ \jing\ \sahn\

"Spirit of Dragon and Horse"

龍馬精神

This is a greeting reserved for the elderly,
wishing them the energy and longevity of the horse and dragon.

maahn sih \yuh\ yi

"10,000 Things According to Will"

萬事如意

This is a general greeting wishing that all things will go according to the wishes of the hearer.

\sam\ /seung/ sih \sihng\

"Accomplish That In Your Heart"

心想事成

This is a general greeting wishing that the person will accomplish the thing they dearly want.

General Terms || Greetings || Gift Giving || Food ||
Legends || Traditions || Taboos

Traditions

baai \nihn\

New Years visits

拜年

\jong\ \heung\

burn incense

裝香

\fai\ \cheun\

red lucky sayings

揮春

baai \sahn\

ancestor/god worship

拜神

/jou/ \sin\

ancestors

祖先

\tyuhn\ \nihn\ faahn

yearly family dinner

團年飯

There are a number of traditions associated with Chinese New Years, and these often vary from province to province and even from town to town.  A few traditions, however, are fairly universal to the Chinese people, practiced among at least most of the Chinese to some degree.

New Clothes. On New Years Chinese will wear new clothes.  It is common to purchase many new things and divest oneself of old things (after New Years) during this time.

Spring Cleaning.  Before New Years, the people clean their homes thoroughly.  For more information, look at the "legends" section.  During this time they also change the ritual decorations in their homes, such as \fai\ \cheun\, red paper with 4 character propitious sayings that are normally hung in pairs around the doorway.

Ancestor Worship/Veneration.  During New Years, offerings are dutifully offered to ancestors- particularly deceased parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents.  Offerings are also given to the various gods, particularly those given local jurisdiction.  However, not all people perform these rituals out of religious faith, it is also sign of love and respect for one's family members.

Family Dinner. On the night before New Years families eat a large meal together.  This is an extended family affair, where ideally the family will go to the oldest living patriarch (or matriarch if she is a generation older than the oldest patriarch.)  This is an important meal, and Chinese often travel large distances in order to be able to share this meal if it is at all feasible.

New Years Visits.  During the New Years holidays, people will visit relatives and very close friends.  During these visits gifts are exchanged, and sometimes lucky money is given out.

Lucky Money.  Lucky money, or \laih\ sih, is given out in small red packets.  Parents give them to their unmarried children throughout most of China.  In some provinces, lucky money is given out to extended family, or even to any unmarried friends.  Children or guests "eligible" to receive lucky money greet the host with the phrase "\gung\ /hei/ faat \choih\" clasping their hands in front of them and moving them up and down.

General Terms || Greetings || Gift Giving ||
Traditions
|| Food || Legends ||  Taboos

Gift Giving

Gift giving is an important part of Chinese New Years.  When visiting others during New Years, there are many occasions when gifts are given or received.  Handling these events in appropriate ways is important to proper cultural etiquette.

Giving Gifts

When baai \nihn\ you should not give too expensive of a gift.  The person receiving the gift may feel obligated to reciprocate with a gift of greater value, and if unable to do so will feel they have lost face.

Common gifts include fruit, tins of cookies or small candies, an appropriate item of ones own cultural significance of minor value, boxes of chocolates, or some small other small gift.  See the section on Taboos for gifts that you should not give.

Offer the gift with two hands.  If it is refused, continue offering until it is accepted.

Receiving Gifts

When offered a gift, make pretensions at refusing the gift, but never truly refuse it.  To truly refuse the gift can damage relationships.  It is better to err on the side of too easily accept the gift, but etiquette requires some effort to refuse.

Receive the gift with both hands, especially when offered with two hands.  Even if the gift is no bigger than a little red envelope.  See the section on "lucky money" in the Traditions section.

If you are the host, reciprocate with a gift of greater value.

General Terms || Greetings || Gift Giving || Food ||
Legends || Traditions || Taboos

Food

\luhng\ /ngaahn/

"dragon eyes" (fruit)

龍眼

\gwa\ /ji/

seeds

瓜子

\fuhng\

phoenix

Food is a very important part of Chinese culture.  Conversation and relationship building events are often centered around food related activities.  It's no surprise that there are many varied food based traditions surrounding Chinese New Years.  Most of these traditions involve obtaining the promise of wealth, luck, and prosperity in the New Year.

Many food dishes take on special, more auspicious names during the Spring Festival. For instance,  "chicken" becomes phoenix.  The fruit \luhng\ /ngaahn/ is an auspicious food, so it is often given to guests.

Seeds are especially important since they represent the harvest, which was anciently of central importance to an agriculture bases society.

The types of foods that are auspicious very from province to province.  The foods served during Chinese New Years are part of each places unique heritage.

General Terms || Greetings || Gift Giving || Food ||
Legends || Traditions || Taboos

Legends

There are many legends associated with the Spring Festival.  One such legend is that of the origin of the Spring festival itself.  The legend goes that many years ago the people of China were ravaged by a ferocious monster named \Nihn\.  Every year \Nihn\ would come around the same time, \Nihn\ would come around and devour a large number of people.  Because of the terrible losses, people would not count the birthdays of their children until after the monster had come and gone and how they would reckon their years.  In the end, the people devised a plan to rid themselves of the menace, which they did by using black powder to create loud explosions which frightened \Nihn\ away.  This legend is purportedly the reason why the Spring Festival is alternately called "Gwo \Nihn\" which means to have "passed through" or survived \Nihn\.

Another legend is that of the "Kitchen God."  Touh Deih (literally means "earth/land") is often referred to as the "Kitchen God" although "god of domestic affairs" would be more appropriate.  Among the pantheon of traditional Chinese gods, Touh Deih is a minor functionary, but he has a special function during New Years and a picture of him is often hung in the kitchen.  The night before New Years (\Nihn\ \S'aa\ Maahn) Touh Deih makes a report to the Lord of Heaven.  Hoping to get a good report, the people clean their homes thoroughly in the days before the Spring Festival and leave offerings of food and wine to Touh Deih.

Different provinces will have their own particular Spring Festival legends.  New Years often factors into Chinese literature in special ways.

General Terms || Greetings || Gift Giving || Food ||
Legends || Traditions || Taboos

Taboos

There are a number of taboos related to New Years.  Many of these taboos are present in Chinese culture year-round, but take on particular importance during the Spring Festival.  During the 10 days of the New Years celebration you:

Should Not Use Negative Words or Phrases.  This is a time of happiness and looking forward to prosperity.  Any sort of reference to death, misfortune, or hardship should be avoided.  In terms of language, this means avoiding even words that are negative even if put in a positive sentence.

Should Avoid the Number 4.  Four is pronounced sei, death is pronounced /sei/.  Instead of saying "4" of something, you can say "2 more than 2" of something.  When giving gifts, do not give anything in 4's.  However, it is best to give even numbers of things as gifts- just not 4 of them.

Should Not Throw Anything Away.  Particularly true during the first few days, you should not throw anything away.  New Years is a lucky time, and throwing things away during this time is akin to throwing away the good luck.

Should Avoid the Colors White and Black.  Both colors symbolize death in Chinese culture.  The colors red and gold are lucky, propitious colors that are seen in abundance during New Years.

Should Not Give Taboo Gifts.  Taboo gifts include clocks (escorting someone to the grave), green hats (mean infidelity), shoes (sounds like a sigh), pears (sounds like separation), handkerchiefs (used in funerals) umbrellas (sounds like closing), scissors, knives or sharp bladed objects (symbolizes cutting ties). 

General Terms || Greetings || Gift Giving || Food ||
Legends || Traditions || Taboos


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