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Chinese New Year: A Festive Time for Goodwill

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2000 – The Chinese New Year is a time for mingling, sharing stories, giving wishes of peace and happiness to family and friends and celebrating with plenty of special holiday foods -- a festive time, said Belkis Leong-Hong.

The Chinese New Year's greeting is "gong xi fa cai," which means "happy and prosperous New Year." This Lunar New Year, which begins on Feb. 5, is special for the Chinese and other Asians because it's the millennium or "Qian Xi" - "Year of a Thousand Happinesses."

Leong-Hong, former principal deputy director of the Defense Security Service, said in her household, "One of the must-have dishes is chicken, any way we want to fix it, and a lot of fruit like oranges, tangerines and apples. Other families must have fish."

The Chinese hold a family reunion dinner on New Year's Eve with more than enough food prepared to signify "nian nian yu," or "more than enough good things in the New Year." Bad language and unpleasant topics are discouraged, said Leong-Hong, who was born in Kwangtung, China. She came to the United States with her family in 1960.

According to the KQED Center for Education and Lifelong Learning, New Year's Eve dinner is usually a feast of seafood and dumplings, signifying different good wishes. Delicacies include prawns, for liveliness and happiness; dried oysters, for all things good; raw fish salad or yu sheng, to bring good luck and prosperity; Fai-hai, an edible hair-like seaweed to bring prosperity; and dumplings boiled in water, signifying a long-lost good wish for a family.

"After dinner, the family spends most of the night playing cards, board games or watching TV programs dedicated to the occasion," Leong-Hong said.

At midnight, fireworks light up the sky in many areas. A lantern festival marks the end of the New Year season, and afterward, daily life returns.

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, this New Year begin on Feb. 5 as "The Year of the Dragon." The Chinese lunar calendar is the longest chronological record in history, dating from 2637 B.C. with the introduction of the first cycle of the Chinese zodiac. One complete cycle takes 60 years and is made up of five arcs of 12 years each. The 78th cycle started on February 1984 and will end in February 2044.

The beginning of the New Year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February.

The Lunar New Year is the most important holiday for Asians around the world. In Japan, the Lunar New Year is called Oshogatsu. Many Japanese also celebrate Gantan, the New Year based on the solar calendar, which was adopted in 1873 when Japan adopted the solar calendar and dropped the lunar calendar. Many Japanese Americans celebrate both Gantan and Oshogatsu. Gantan means the first day of the first month. The celebration lasts for five to six days.

In Vietnam, the New Year festival is called Tet. Tet means the first morning of the first day of the New Year. A special ceremony called Le Tru Tich is held at the midnight on New Year's Eve. During Tet, Vietnamese families plant a New Year's tree called Cay Neu in front of their homes. A bamboo pole is often used as a Cay Neu. All the leaves are removed from the tree so it can be wrapped or decorated good luck red paper. According to legends, the red color scares away evil spirits.

The traditional New Year festival in Korean is Sol, the first day of the first month of the new year. Many Koreans celebrate New Year's Day on Jan. 1 of the Gregorian calendar, but the Lunar New Year is still popular. In many Korean communities, New Year's day is celebrated twice. In parts of Korea, people usher in the New Year with a ritual called Jishin Balpgi. Loud drums and gongs are played to scare off evil spirits of the old year.

The Chinese people celebrate Spring Festival. A Chinese proverb states that all creations are reborn on New Year's day. The Chinese New Year is a celebration - out with the old and out with the newoff evil spirits.

Each country celebrates the New Year differently, but they follow similar traditions.

The Chinese lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, which means the beginning of the year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. Western cultures date the years from the birth of Jesus Christ. For example, 1999 means 1,999 years after the birth of Christ, and thus approach the progression of the years from a linear point of view. In traditional China, dating methods were cyclical, meaning that the years repeat according to a pattern. The repetition is in increments of 12 years.

There are many legends about how Chinese New Year traditions and the lunar calendar started. An animal is assigned to each of the 12 years. According to legend, the Lord Buddha summoned all the animals of the world to come to him before he departed Earth. Only 12 came to bid him farewell. As a reward, he named a year after each in the order of their arrival. First came the rat, then the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar.

A second legend gives another version on the determination of the order of the animals. The 12 animals quarreled one day as to who was to head the cycle of years. The gods were asked to decide and they held a contest: whoever reached the opposite bank of the river first would be head the first cycle, and the rest of the animals would receive their years according to their finish.

All the twelve animals gathered at the riverbank and jumped in. Unknown to the ox, the rat had jumped upon his back. As the ox was about to jump ashore, the rat jumped off the ox's back, and won the race. The pig, which was very lazy, ended up last. That is why the rat is the first year of the animal cycle, the ox is the second, and the pig last. If one knows the animal of a person's birth year, the person's age can be known through calculation as the animals repeat every 12 years.

The Chinese believe the animal ruling the year in which a person is born has a profound influence on personality, saying: "This is the animal that hides in your heart."

Each lunar animal has different characteristics.

  • Rat: You are imaginative, charming and very generous to those you love, though you do have the tendency to be quick-tempered and overly critical. You will be happy as a writer, critic or publicist.
  • Ox: You are a born leader, and you inspire confidence in those around you. Be careful about being too demanding. You are also methodical and good with your hands. You will make a good surgeon, general or hairdresser.
  • Tiger: You are sensitive, emotional and capable of great love, but you tend to be stubborn about what you think is right. You will make an excellent boss, explorer or race car driver.
  • Rabbit: You are affectionate, cooperative and always pleasant, and people like to be around you. You can, however, get too sentimental and seem superficial. You will make a successful business person, lawyer, diplomat or actor.
  • Dragon: You are full of life and enthusiasm and a very popular individual with a reputation for being "fun-loving." You will make a good artist, priest or politician. This is the year of the angry dragon, so avoid impulsive behavior.
  • Snake: You are wise and charming. You are also romantic and a deep thinker, but you tend to procrastinate and be a bit stingy about money. You will make a good teacher, writer or psychiatrist.
  • Horse: You are an amazingly hard worker and very independent. Although you are intelligent and friendly, you can sometimes be a bit selfish. You will find success as an adventurer, scientist or poet.
  • Sheep: You are charming, elegant and artistic, and you like material comforts, but you also have a tendency to complain about things and worry a bit too much. You will make a good actor, gardener or beachcomber.
  • Monkey: You are very intelligent, clever and well liked by everyone. You will have success in any field you try.
  • Rooster: You are a hard-worker and definite in your decisions. You are not afraid to speak your mind and are, therefore, sometimes boastful. You will make a good restaurant owner, publicist or world traveler.
  • Dog: You are honest and faithful to those you love, but you tend to worry too much and find fault with other. You will make an excellent business person, teacher or secret agent.
  • Pig: You are a good friend because you are sincere, tolerant and honest, but you expect the same from others and may be terribly disappointed. You will thrive in the arts as an entertainer, or you may make a great lawyer.

There are many other traditions associated with the Chinese New Year. Some of them are: Houses are cleaned and decorated to prepare for the big day; debts are settled; prayers and offerings are made; new clothes are bought and plenty of food is prepared; and family members come from far and wide for the gathering.

"One tradition that children especially look forward to is receiving 'red envelopes,' which contain money, from their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles," Leong-Hong said. "In fact, all unmarried children are eligible to receive red envelopes, which are called 'Hongbao.' The red envelope is for good luck. And, of course, everyone knows children need to have lots of good luck!"

Red is one of the two favorite colors during Chinese New Year. Red symbolizes happiness, while the second color, gold, symbolizes wealth.

There are numerous Internet sites for Chinese recipes. Look one up, cook it up, and have a "gong xi fa cai" ("happy and prosperous New Year.")

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