Chinese New Year. Photo: Paolo Camera, Creative Commons.

Why is Chinese New Year celebrated for 15 days?

The Chinese Calendar is lunisolar, and so influenced by both the sun and the moon. Chinese New Year celebrations begin on the first new moon of the year (usually the second new moon after the winter solstice, so toward the end of January) and end on the first full moon, fifteen days later.

Why isn’t my favourite animal in the list of Chinese years?

The story goes that a long time ago in China, the Jade Emperor decided that there should be a new way of measuring time. On his birthday, he announced there would be a great race, with the first 12 animals to finish having a year of the zodiac named after them. The rat came first, followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

I know what you’re thinking: the ox beat the horse and the dragon? Those ancient bookies must have had a heart attack.

Why is yee sang so messy?

Yeesang (also known as yusang, lo hei or Prosperity Toss) is a Teochew style raw fish salad comprising strips of raw fish mixed with shredded vegetables and a variety of sauces and condiments. The dish is reported to have originated from mainland China and was brought to Malaya by Chinese immigrants in the early ’20s.

Each ingredient represents something, based on their names in Chinese: for example, carrots represent good luck blessings, shredded radish represent eternal youth, and sesame seeds represent good business. The ingredients are then mixed and tossed into the air to represent the rise of fortune: the higher you toss, the higher your fortune!

Why is red considered lucky?

According to the ancient Chinese theory of Five Elements (Wu Xing), each of the five standard colours (black, red, white, yellow, green/blue) corresponded with one of the five elements.  Red, corresponding with fire, symbolizes good fortune and joy.  Additionally, the sound of the Chinese word for “red”, “hong”, also sounds like the word for “prosperous.”

Another legend holds that the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called the Nian, which would come on the first day of New Year to terrorize villages. Fortunately, the Nian (clearly not a Manchester United supporter), backed off after it saw a child wearing red. Therefore, when New Year came about, villagers would put on red clothes and hang red lanterns on windows and doors.

Why do people give each other oranges?

The Chinese words for ‘orange’  sounds similar to the word for ‘wealth’, therefore having lots of everyone’s favourite citrus fruit around guarantees prosperity. If they have leaves, all the better: that represents longevity. But don’t group them in fours: the Chinese word for that number sounds dangerously similar to the word for ‘death’.

Mandarin oranges. Photo: Gary Stevens, Creative Commons.

Is it ok to clean your house during Chinese New Year?

In the days before the festival,  Chinese homes will all be cleaned and spruced up thoroughly, to clear bad luck and make space for the good fortune. On the first day of the New Year however, all brooms and dustpans are put away, in fear one could accidentally sweep their luck away.

Any hair cuts also need to be done before the New Year, as cutting hair on New Year is considered bad luck. The word ‘hair’ sounds like the word for ‘prosperity’, and cutting hair would be similar to cutting off your good luck. Businesses are also expected to pay off all the debts outstanding for the year before New Year Eve, extending to debts of gratitude.

There are no lions in China – so what’s with the lion dances?

According to traditional Chinese beliefs, lions represent courage, stability and superiority. Lion dances, therefore, are performed to bring luck and chase away ghosts and evil spirits.

The dramatic climax of the Lion Dance is the “Cai Qing” or ‘Picking the Green’. There a ‘lion’ reaches for some vegetable leaves hung above the doorway of a house or shop, and then ‘chewing’ and ‘spitting’ them out. This is a symbolic act of blessing, with the spitting out of the leaves signifying there will be abundance in the coming year.

Why do only married people give red packets?

According to Chinese beliefs, as soon as one is married, one has sufficient money and hence can share it. Giving red envelopes or ang pao to unmarried members of the younger generation means passing your best wishes and good luck to them.

Terence Toh