Sleepless Nights and Endless Fire Power
Throughout history, family and food have been the basis of Chinese societies.
Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival (春节) is thus the perfect medley of the two. It is that one time of the year where families from far-and-wide gather, share stories, and usher in the New Year over a pipping hot meal. This year, I purposely decided to spend the Spring Festival with my host family in Beijing, China. Before I’ll walk you through my experience, let’s digress with a brief history lesson.
Legend of the Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year celebrations were born out of myth and fear. Legend spoke of the wild beast Nian (also the Chinese word for year), a foul beast, described to be very ugly and ferocious, with features closely resembling a mixture of a unicorn and a dragon. At the end of each year, Nian would come down the mountains to attack and to kill the villagers. Unable to defend themselves and not knowing what to do, the villagers would cower behind bolted doors. One day, a peddler came into the village asking for food. A village old lady obliged and as a reward, he told them the secret of defeating the Nian.
Villagers were instructed to wear and cover their homes in red. Additionally, they had to beat drums and gongs, burn bamboos, and light fireworks. In a nutshell, they had to be LOUD. For you see, as frightful of a monster Nian is, it’s actually afraid of loud noises.
So, obviously after all the raucous the villagers caused, poor Nian went fleeing back into the mountains, it’s tail between it’s legs. Hence, the birth of Chinese New Year. The methods the villagers used to scare away Nian became Chinese New Year traditions such as wearing red to indicate prosperity, setting off fireworks and hanging red couplets. Today, the 15-day New Year festivities are celebrated with a week of vacation in metropolitan areas of China.
Sonia’s Chinese New Year in Pictures:Disclaimer: Prepare to salivate
1:00 pm: We arrived at 姥姥 (lao3 lao)’s house. In English, a grandmother is considered as a person’s mother’s mom or father’s mom; but in Chinese, grandmother have different names depending on which side of the family they are on. 姥姥 refers to the mother’s mother, while 奶奶(nai3 nai) refers to the father’s mother. Thankfully, we can skip the complicated Chinese family labels in this post. Sorry, I digress, this shall happen a lot.
Upon arriving you’d notice that the door posts are decorated with Spring couplets or New Year couplets (春联: Chun1 Lian2). Spring couplets are paired phrases, typically of seven Chinese characters each, written on red paper in black ink. New Year couplets are filled with best wishes and is thought to keep evil away. It also acts as a nod to the legend of the Nian.
1:30 pm: Having greeted the elders, my host family and her relatives took down the old Spring couplets and replaced them with new ones as it is the New Year. Cleaning the house before the New Year is a tradition among the Chinese. The act of cleaning is representative with putting old things away, bidding farewell to the old year, and welcoming the new year.
Besides putting up Spring couplets, it’s also very popular to paste paper cutouts. The subjects and themes of paper cutouts are rich, and most of them are characteristic of rural life. Therefore, paper cutouts about farming, weaving, fishing, tending sheep, feeding pigs, or raising chickens are common. Paper cutouts sometimes depict myths and legends and Chinese operas. Also flowers, birds, and Chinese Zodiac creatures are popular paper cutout designs. As this is the year of the goat, we bought goat cutouts. To the Chinese, paper cutouts express the hopes of people looking forward to a better life, and they give a merry and prosperous atmosphere to the festival.
2:00 pm: My host mum poses as she pasted the Spring couplets. The 福 (fu2= prosperity) is hung upside-down to symbolize that good-luck and prosperity is arriving. The character for “upside-down”, “倒” (dao4), is a homonym of the character for “to arrive”, “到” (dao4). So this means that “福” (happiness, good fortune, etc.) is “arriving” when hung upside-down.
2:10 pm: As my aunt finishes decorating the door, a relative pasted a paper cutout on the window facing South. In the past, the Chinese pasted paper cutouts on windows facing South and North before the Spring Festival. So, this is to adhere to the tradition.
Decorating can get tiring, thankfully we had these to snack on, I devoured those Dove chocolates and am not ashamed to admit.
3:00 pm: Finally finished with the house chores, yet still too early to eat and prepare food, we decided to relax and enjoy some Chinese TV and snacks. The snacks consisted of sunflower seeds, peanuts and chocolate! And, boy, did I snack on those chocolates.Veni, Vidi, Vici, O’ Chocolate!
It’s a bit late but here is a picture of the hosts, 姥姥 (lao3 lao) and 姥爷(lao3 ye). They were so sweet and 姥姥 really enjoyed posing for pictures, which tickles me to the bone. I think she is just adorable.
4:30 pm: As late-afternoon hits, I was growing a tad hungry, so we ordered KFC. BAD DECISION. Never eat before a New Year’s meal. These families seriously know how to whip up a feast! I was a huge walrus by the time dinner was over. In fact, if circumstances persisted I could have easily rolled home.
5:30 pm: Commencing the New Year’s cooking extravaganza.
6:00-7:00 pm: Dish after dish was dished out by 舅舅 (jiùjiu, uncle). I was in awe of his cooking wizardry. This guy single handedly, somehow, managed to whip up 12 dishes under 90 minutes! That’s skills right there! I was told that 舅舅 was once a chef before having to close down his restaurant and pick up a normal job because of grandfather’s health complications.
On a more serious note, FISH is a must during every New Year meal due to the Chinese saying: 年年有余 (Nian2 Nian2 You3 Yu2, May every year end with ample surplus).
Based on the Chinese language, the character “余” (yu2, surplus) shares the same pronunciation with “鱼” (yu2, fish), thus making fish a must-have dish on Chinese dining tables every new year.
7:30 pm: The long awaited feast and the highlight of the New Year is finally done! To the Chinese, the reunion dinner, also known as 團年 (tuan2 nian2), is considered to be the most important part of the celebration. Children are supposed to return to their families and married couples are expected to go to the male’s relatives house (and to the female’s relatives house on the second day of the festival).
If a family member couldn’t participate in the grand feasting, his or her presence is usually symbolized by placing an empty seat at the banquet. In our case, we were all present!
“羊年到，祝三羊开泰，喜气羊羊,” on behalf of all of us as the as the year of the goat arrives, I wish you peace, luck, and joy.
9:00-12:00 pm: I was in a food coma by this time. To end the night, my host family and I watched the Chinese New Year program on CCTV 1 and admired the fireworks. Lighting firecrackers is one of the most important customs of the Chinese New Year celebration. Thanks to this custom, I have been deprived of sleep due to the blaring and booming sounds that firecrackers and fireworks produce. Remind me to invest in a pair of ear plugs the next time I celebrate CNY in Beijing.
This picture was taken at Jing Shan Park in Beijing, China on March 5th, 2015, which marks the last day of the Spring Festival. According to the locals, Jing Shan Park is the best place for firework viewing due to it’s high elevation in the middle of the city.
And that wraps up my CNY experience in Beijing.
Written by Sonia Kurniawan, Indonesia
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