There are many traditions and family rituals associated with Chinese New Year.
These customs, loyally passed down from one generation to the next, are an integral part of celebrations. They’re rooted in folk stories and ancient mythology, from the fireworks and firecrackers that are exploded on New Year’s Eve that are symbolic of driving away evil to the red envelopes known as ‘hongbao’ containing money originally given to children to protect them from sickness and ill health.
It is traditional for families to clean their houses and the areas surrounding before the start of the new year. The word ‘dust’ in Chinese is a homophone for ‘old’, thus cleaning the house is symbolic of driving away the bad luck of the previous year to allow for a new start.
Spring Festival couplets
In Chinese poetry, a couplet is a pair of lines of poetry which adheres to certain rules: both lines must have the same number of Chinese characters, the tone of one line must be inverse to the other, and the meaning of the two lines need to be related, with each pair of corresponding characters having related meanings too. The custom of attaching couplets to doorways, often written in calligraphy on red paper, before Chinese New Year can be traced as far back as the Later Shu State (934-965), a thousand years ago, where people would hang a piece of peach wood in order to protect against evil. In the Song Dynasty, the couplets would be written on the wood to express people’s good wishes.
It is customary across China to eat dumplings during this celebratory time. In the northern provinces of China, the jiaozi, a dumpling made with flour and often stuffed with coins, peanuts or sweets symbolising different blessings, is enjoyed at midnight on New Year’s Eve, while tangyuan, sweet glutinous rice dumplings, are eaten in southern Chinese provinces such as Guangdong. Jiaozi signify wealth and prosperity; their shape resembles the ancient Chinese ingot, a currency used up until the 20th century, while the roundness of the tangyuan dumplings represent family unity and reunion.
The colour red
Red is an important colour in New Year celebrations as it symbolises a bright and happy future. It is a significant colour related to Chinese folk stories, such as the Nian in which red banners were displayed in houses to scare away the monster that would visit every Chinese New Year.
During the Qin Dynasty, the elderly would thread eight coins with a red string and give them to the children in their family. These coins were often referred to as “money warding off evil spirits”, or ‘ya sui qian’, and was believed to protect the person from illness. These coins were replaced in later years by red envelopes. The red envelopes nearly always contain money, varying from a couple of yen to a couple of thousand. The amount of money in the red envelopes is always even as odd numbers are associated with money given at funerals. The number eight is considered lucky as it sounds like the word for ‘wealth’, as is the number six as it can also mean ‘smooth’, and symbolises having a smooth year.