Sunday, January 29, 2006

Woof! Woof! Happy Lunar New Year—Part 1: Introduction to Origins and Symbols

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

There are many tales on the origins of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday. My favorite version is the one that describes the man-eating dragon Nian. He would terrorize the villagers once a year, but they soon realized that he feared the color red and loud noises—they used firecrackers and red objects to drive him away. The story is often told to young Chinese children and it is the basis for many of the Lunar New Year traditions we see in Chinese communities around the world today.

Lighting firecrackers was the way for the Chinese to send off the old year and bring in the new one. Today, fake firecrackers decorate shop windows of Chinatowns all over the world (some even imitate the explosive noises).

Chinese believe the color red can keep evil at bay and bring in good fortune. That is why everything is red during Lunar New Year—sometimes even the food! Oversized red lanterns decorate restaurant interiors, businesses will paste auspicious poem couplets on red paper along their doors, and everyone tries to wear as much red clothing as possible.

The first day of the Lunar New Year is today, January 29th, 2006. It is the Year of the Dog, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Those born in 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, or 2006 are all under this sign and their personality characteristics are loyalty, generosity, honesty and compassion.

Much of the traditions surrounding Lunar New Year in Chinese culture are based on homonyms, using the sounds of Chinese characters and applying the meaning to similar sounding words.

For example, the word for “fish” (yu) sounds similar to the word for “abundance.” Hence, a family will serve a whole fish for the Lunar New Year Eve meal to encourage abundance for the family in the coming year. I found these decorative red fish hanging along the vendor stands of the New York Chinatown Lunar New Year Flower Market on Friday. Now that leads me to the next example…

In the Chinese language, the word for “flower” (hua) sounds like the word for “fortune.” In Chinese culture, flowers are said to bring luck and prosperity into the New Year and therefore traditionally many families will buy flowers to decorate their homes for the festivities.

Certain flowers (and fruits) are favored for specific auspicious symbolic values. Peach blossoms signify longevity and happiness. Narcissus implies good fortune and prosperity. The kumquat tree is a sign of wealth, luck, unity and perfection. I found many real and fake varieties on the streets of Chinatown as well as in the Flower Market, which is organized annually by MoCA, United East Athletics Association and the Asian American Arts Alliance.

Fruit is another important element in the traditions and symbols of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Families often buy oranges and tangerines to give to their guests—they represent abundant happiness. Pineapples are also auspicious symbols as well and you can find a fake gold one in the picture at the top of the post. Do you see it?

For the last two weeks, piles of citrus fruit have been on the street vendors carts. I’ve spotted grapefruit and loads of kumquats on a walk through Chinatown on Friday. Tangerines can be found in tin pans because they’re offered as such in Buddhist and Daoist temples as well as to the Kitchen God. More on the religious influences of Lunar New Year in a few days.

In the meantime, please come back tomorrow for Part 2: The Edible Sweet Treats of Chinese Lunar New Year.

In the spirit of this year’s zodiac and to put in my effort for SweetnicksWeekend Dog Blogging, here’s a new pic of D in her brightest New Year colors:

* Much of my information are sources from tour guide materials provided by MoCA.


Blogger Kalyn said...

Wow, what an incredible post abou the Chinese New Year. I'm enjoying learning about this on the food blogs.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Crystal said...

Beautiful photos! I'm about to head to a Chinese New Year parade in about an hour, and it's great reading about this Asian Holiday.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Rose said...

Kalyn: thank you! I hope I can convey all I want to say about the Lunar New Year in the next few posts

Crystal: *blushs red* Thank you! I thought the photos could actually be better considering all the colorful things I saw on the streets--I'm really trying hard to make my photography better. I hope you can find some of the symbols in the parade today!

12:33 PM  
Blogger Mona said...

I love the informative NY post. Thanks so much! I had no idea about the red's significance (funny it's my favorite color and never knew why) or tangerines. How cool! I am the year of the goat...what are you?

12:38 PM  
Blogger FJK said...

Came to this post through food scool. I have do lots of eating, celebrating and more for the Lunar New year for ages and appreciate this series for helping to fill in the blanks.

Here's a first for us, my oldest son's marching band will appear in SF's parade this coming Saturday.

3:33 PM  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

This is so nice.
(Cranky's out buying the turnip cake now!)

5:38 PM  
Blogger Rose said...

FJK: I'm glad I can help you (and others) better understand the symoblism behind chinese new year. Best of luck to your son! I hear SF has one of the best CNY parades.

cookiecrumb: Turnip cake has lots of New Year symbolism post is coming soon on it!

7:05 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I was on Mott St. in NYC's Chinatown for the Lunar New Year on Sunday. I'd never seen it before up close, but I was amazed by a dangerous dragon dance on these hight posts set into a platform on the street. It was stunning, especially in the rain. Towards the end of the performance, some assistants "fed" the dragon oranges (which you explained above) and heads of iceberg lettuce. What's the deal with the lettuce?

11:32 AM  
Blogger Rose said...

Mona: whoops, missed you there. I love the color red too and it is a very very important color to the chinese. Its the color of good fortune and everything else auspicious. Traditionally a bride will marry in a red qipao (with the mandarin collar) dress. Today, most brides wear that for the reception and go for a white dress during the ceremony-although white is the color of deat :-(

I'm year of the horse myself! And giving my age away in the process :-)

Andrew: I'm so glad you got to go to Mott street and see the festivities!!! I haven't been there in ages and this year I went home to my parents place for LNYear dinner. The dragon dancers are usually done by martial arts groups so they're really flexible and acrobatic.

The lettuce is a symbol of prosperity and good fortune (i swear just about everything is an auspicious symbol :-) I don't know if you notice this, but the dragon/lion actually GIVES back the lettuce--symbolizing that the community will be prosperous in the new year.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Rose said...

Andrew: do you have a blog? I can't seem to connect to it.

1:45 PM  
Blogger FJK said...

I mention this series of postings and give a link to you in my blog, Blog Appetit (
for info on the Lunar New Year as part of an article on my adaptation of spring rolls.

Thanks for the info.


2:30 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

Thanks for the information - I'd like to link to this page. I only have a little about food on my Chinese New Year blog.

4:31 PM  
Blogger fooDcrazEE said...

nice! Good info. Any story for the Red Envelope.

Heard a version when Nian comes and steals children's soul. Until a mother place a red packet on the kids pillow and she was fine. Then the news spread and all over China starts doing that.

3:31 AM  
Blogger Rose said...

fjk: Thank you for mentioning me on your blog. I'm glad you could use the info.

robin: another thank you for the link!

foodcrazee: Wow, what a wonderful myth you have about the red envelopes. I never heard that one before. I just know about their importance and symbolism in giving children luck (by the way of money) in the new year. I'm going to discuss red bao tomorrow I hope! thanks for visiting!

2:18 AM  

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