The corner shop will be shuttered, because Mr. and Mrs. Wang have headed back to their family’s village for the Chinese New Year, so buy your beer and toilet paper early. All the restaurants will be sealed tight, so your regular rations of gongbao jiding and pai huanggua will be off limits for the week. What will be alive will be the cracks and kabooms of neighborhood fireworks. The streets will glow red with lanterns, lit and swinging from everytree. Stands selling couplets, candy, and tiger-themed knick knackswill mushroom up, as if from a forest floor.
If this is your first Year of the Tiger, you’ll need context and warnings and directions. Sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for Everything Tiger.
THE CREEPY ORIGINS OF CHINESE NEW YEAR
What we call Chinese New Year actually has a whole host of names in China. Generally, it’s either “Spring Festival,” signifying the beginning of spring, or “Guo Nian.” Now, this one is a little more interesting. The Nian, you see, was a horrifying monster that roamed around, terrorizing the countryside. Locals, determined to prevent the Nian from wolfing them down, held a giant festival, and sure enough, the booming firecrackers and reverberating merriment convinced the Nian that tangling with the Chinese peasantry was a poor decision.
After eons of Nian Festivals, the meaning of the word evolved to its modern usage meaning “year.” When you “guo nian,” you’re literally celebrating keeping a vicious, man-eating beast at bay.
So the next time you’re annoyed by the incessant booming of the fireworks outside your window, remember that it’s your friends and neighbors protecting you from the nearby Nian!
HOW SHOULD I GREET MY NEIGHBORS?
With a hearty and confident “xin nian kuai le!”
Happy New Year
Good New Year
The Year of the Tiger has arrived
WHAT RITUALS SHOULD I EXPECT?
Even though the entire week is a celebration, the peak of excitement happens on New Year’s Eve. On this night, parents and elders begin to distribute hongbao, or red envelopes, to the younger generations. But don’t get too excited; to be eligible for hongbao handouts, you need to be single and unemployed. With each hongbao containing a couple hundred yuan, and hongbao coming in from 10 to 20 relatives, this is a holiday with some lucrative prospects! In many Northern villages, it’s also common to pay respects at the ancestral graveyards, and to pray for the whole family in the coming year.
New Year’s Day is a time to wake up as early as possible, which is called “winning the nian,” and should lead to your being able to rise at the crack of dawn for the rest of the year, if you’re so inclined. And, my favorite ritual: after breakfast, it’s time to kowtow to the elderly. Literally, you’ll be bowing before them. Scared? Don’t be—it’s not practiced everywhere, and it’s often followed by another round of hongbaos!
WHAT ABOUT ALL THAT WEIRD DANCING WITH THE MASK?
You mean lion dancing? It’s huge. Absolutely everywhere. Or, at least, everywhere in Chinatowns all over the world. This is gaining some popularity in the Chinese mainland, so you might see a neighborhood one if you’re lucky, but don’t hold your breath. Traditionally, it’s believed that the loud beats of the drum, the deafening sounds of the cymbals, and the threatening face of the dragon or lion will scare away any lurking evil spirits. It’s also incredibly fun to watch.
WHERE SHOULD I GO FOR CHINESE NEW YEAR?
This is the most important holiday of the year for Chinese people. And for travelers, it’s the busiest time. In the largest annual mass migration of humans, in the world, almost 40 million Chinese will make their way back home for the week. If you can, try to get invited to a Chinese friend’s house for the holidays, and celebrate it with their family. This will be the best way to discover he traditions and rituals. Plus, you’ll be sure to be fed until your belly’s ready to burst.
DO I REALLY HAVE TO TIDY?
You betcha! Make sure to clean the entire house before New Year’s Eve, and then hide any brooms and roombas and dustpans and rushes for the next two days. If you don’t, you’re risking sweeping, or even dusting, away good fortune for the entire year. Feel free to clean again after New Year’s Day is over, but still be very careful—leave dirt swept into piles in the corner until at least the fifth day of the year. On the fifth day, carry it (don’t sweep it!) out the back door, if you have one. Sweeping it over the front stoop is a sure way to welcome bad luck on your family. Yes, it’s superstitious, but it’s also a tradition!
AND WHAT SHOULD I EAT?
To Chinese, New Year’s Eve dinner is special. It symbolizes the reunion of families seperated by hundreds of miles. People from all over the country cram ticket stalls and bus stations as they rush home to see their loved ones. This New Year, if you’re in the North, you should do what all good Northerners do and dive into a steaming plate of fresh homemade dumplings. (Don’t miss Chi Le Ma, later in the magazine, for the China World Hotel’s secret jiaozi recipe.) Down South, we recommend digging into some sweet soup balls. But remember, like most things in China, traditional Spring Festival foods vary according to region.
When in Rome, eat whatever keeps the Nian away! When people prepare New Year’s Eve dumplings, they often add coins, tofu, jujube or sugar as a delicious, and superstitious, dumpling-filling. Those who bite into coin-filled dumplings are said to have money coming their way, while tofu equals luck. Sugar and jujube, meanwhile, are just plain sweet. Because coins are notoriously grimy, this little addition has become less popular every year.
HOW DOES IT ALL END?
The Lantern festival, 15th day of the Lunar calendar, marks the end of Chinese New Year. Traditionally, lanterns will be made with riddles printed on the surface. Nowadays, paper lanterns are already being replaced by electrical ones, and riddles are hard to come by, yet it is still worth appreciating hundreds of colorful lanterns lit on a dark and cold winter night.
AM I A TIGER?
The tiger is the third of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, and so, as with every other animal year, it appears every 12 years. Born in ’98, ’86, ’74, ’62, ’50, or the like? You’re probably a tiger. But pay attention—because the Lunar and Solar calendars don’t match precisely, you might not be! One of our writers claimed she was a horse for decades, thanks to a menu she read in a Boston restaurant. She only realized very recently that, born in January of a horse year, she’s actually a snake. So check the calendar to find out the exact date on which each New Year actually begins. This year, it runs from February 15, 2010 to February 3, 2011.
BUT HOW OLD AM I?
Traditionally, and this hasn’t changed much in rural areas, Chinese are considered one year old on the day they are born, and turn a year older with Chinese New Year. So this year, it’s not only Spring Festival, and Valentine’s Day, but it’s also everyone’s “birthday!” It’s customary to ask others their age around this time of year. The complication is that when people say they’re 30, they could very well be 29. In bigger cities this custom has mostly disappeared, but don’t be surprised if someone’s age doesn’t match their birthday.
IS THERE A BIZARRE STORY FOR THE YEAR OF THE TIGER?
Oh, of course. Just like for everything else in China, there’s a great story explaining the Year of the Tiger. While most associate tigers with bravery and ferocity, this is actually a woeful tale of deception, deceit, and murder. A valiant lion, the king of the forest, was on his deathbed with some chronic illness. The only cure was to eat the heart of a tiger. A cunning fox, sensing a rare golden opportunity, found a tiger and convinced it that the lion was ready to step down and abdicate the throne. The unsuspecting tiger rushed to the royal cave, where he was instantly mauled and devoured by the desperate lion. There was, however, a catch. The cunning fox had already ripped out the tiger’s heart, and eaten it in secrecy. The outsmarted lion keeled over and died. The ugly moral of the story is that cunning wins out over courage, every time. Don’t be easily deceived like a tiger in 2010.
THAT’S SICK. IS IT TRUE THAT TIGERS ARE LUCKY?
Yes, while the above story doesn’t back it up, tigers are said to be very lucky. And lively, and engaging, and is usually lauded for incredible bravery. A household with a tiger in it will be protected, they say, against all evil spirits.
However, tigers might not be so lucky this year. According to Chinese custom, your benmingnian, or “animal year,” is a time of ill-luck and bad-tidings, because your animal protector is gone for the entire year. As an astrologer might warn: play your cards close to your chest. Don’t take too many chances, or your heart might be eaten by a lousy fox.
HOW CAN I IMPROVE MY LUCK?
It’s all about the color red. Red underwear, red belts, red socks. Wearing these will make your situation a little better. You’ll see more than just tigers wearing red for New Year, though, as it’s believed that the color is a surefire way to scare away evil spirits and bad fortune. People will also often deck themselves out in new duds to mark a new beginning for the new year. It’s obviously time to hit the Puma store.
SHOULD I USE TIGER BALM THIS YEAR?
Who are you kidding? You should use Tiger Balm every year! Every day, in fact!
WHO SHOULD I MARRY?
It’s claimed that if you’re a tiger, and your partner is a horse, dog, sheep or pig, your signs match, and you can expect nothing but marital bliss. But if they’re a snake or monkey, you might want to think twice.
I’M ALREADY PLANNING ON DRESSING THEM IN RED, BUT DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER ADVICE?
Tiger babies are expected to be cheerful and passionate kids. And, as our editor Echo insists, “They’re so cute!” But to ensure the best possible luck, include the word shan, or mountain, in the little cub’s name. Tigers derive their ferocious power from their natural habitat, mountain caves, and once the tiger is taken off the mountain, the power is lost. Bring the mountain to your child, and make sure that he or she will be fierce for life.
AND DO YOU HAVE A GOOD TRADITIONAL COUPLET?
Couplets are indispensible for the New Year. Short lucky poems written on red paper, you’ll notice them hung on front doors and in windows throughout the city. They’re also said to ward off any neighborhood evil, and bring peace and good fortune to all inside, as long as they’re hung in the correct order.
A good one for Year of the Tiger reads:
chǒuqùyínlái rén yìjiàn
niúbēn hǔyuè chūn yùxīn
Literally, it translates to, “With the tiger year replacing the cow year, people will become stronger. With the cow and tiger hopping, the spring becomes more fresh.” But the most important take-away is that it’s a blessing for the new year.
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST, WHO ARE SOME FAMOUS TIGERS?
I’d hazard a guess that one in 12 celebrities turn out to be tigers, but some of our favorites include Stephen Chow, of “Shaolin Soccer” fame, Tony Leung from “In the Mood for Love,” supermodel Chiling Lin, and the singer of karaoke-favorite “Shi Nian,” Eason Chan. A handful of well-known foreign tigers include Bill Murray, milio Estevez, Jon Bon Jovi, Karl Marx, Marco Polo, Wesley Snipes, Beethoven, Posh Spice, and The Queen of England.
Now you’re ready to get out there and really enjoy the Year of the Tiger. Follow the advice of our fortune-teller and name your kid for a mountain, hang a spring couplet, eat dumplings and sweet soup balls, and launch some firecrackers to chase away the pesky Nian. But, whatever you do, don’t plan an early night in, sleeping in peace. Expect to celebrate for the whole night, and to greet the New Year in style.
- Q: How old are you this year?
- A: I’m 25 but my nominal age is 26.