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The Chinese New Year – Origins and Mythology

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If the greatness of a culture can often be found in the festivals, then this is the gateway to China. The Chinese New Year.

Origins of the Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year - Defeating the Nian
The battle with Nian

A land full of mythical beasts and cultures, the story is a fascinating one.

Tales and legends take us thousands of centuries back to the time when beasts were inhabiting the earth.

The beginning of Chinese New Year would start with the fight against a mythical beast called Nian, which inhabited the sea and would come up at the eve.

The terrified people hid in their homes and would gather and prepare a feast with offerings to the ancestors and gods, hoping for the best.

On the ground, fighting the Nian was not so easy but over a period of trial and error, the Chinese discovered, that the monster feared the colour red, fire, and loud sounds.

Now you know the reason for fireworks, the colour and the lanterns outside the homes of Chinese. Interesting, right?

Today

The Chinese New Year’s Eve is celebrated the world over. It has transformed into a festival beyond compare. Families hold traditional dinners and often, like modern families, watch a lot of special television programming.

Chinese New Year & Family

Chinese New Year is for people to come together. No eating alone! Family is the basis of Chinese society and the New Year’s Eve dinner is the most important occasion where all family members must gather.

God save you if you turn up late that day! Although no reason is good enough, if you truly can not be there, fighting the modern Nians of office work, deadlines and bad bosses, the family would leave a spot on the table, with a spare set of utensils.

Food is naturally a big source of pride for the people. But it is not only a feast but an array of symbols and meanings.

Much More than the Feast

To understand deeply, it is important to know that a lot of meaning associated with the Chinese New Year feast and the food items are derived via homophonic and the visual cues of the food.

Understanding The Chinese New Year Feast

For a land surpassing many geographies and having gone through multiple dynasties, the food differs as per customs and regions. But here are some dishes that are common in almost every table and you will love to know more about it and flaunt it to your other friends who considered themselves as foodies till now.

Dumplings

Dumplings at the Chinese New Year
Photo by Buenosia Carol from Pexels

Eaten during every special occasion, dumplings are the most significant during Chinese New Year.

Homophones: In Chinese, dumplings sounds like — jiāo zi. Jiao means ‘Exchange’ and Zi means ‘Midnight hours.’

Significance: Eating dumplings at midnight is an exchange of the old year and welcoming it with the new.

In some provinces, egg fillings are a must. Dumplings signify the silver ingots and the egg, the gold in it. Meat and bamboo strip filling signify that everything needed will be available.

Sometimes a coin is put in a random dumpling and if you get that — you are in for some great luck!

You also want to have lots of pleats — as a flat seam signifies poverty.

Not only are these heavenly and delicious but also a beautiful way in which the family come together. During New Year preparations, every member of the family participates and wraps dumplings.

Noodles

Dumplings and noodles are often cooked together. Noodles are often called as the gold silk and with the gold ingots — dumplings, prosperity is assured.

Visual cue: Also called as cháng shòu miàn, meaning longevity noodles.

Do not chew. Do not cut. Slurp!

Significance: Longer the noodle, the longer your life will be. A good item for your next birthday too.

Life Noodles for Chinese New Year
Photo by Buenosia Carol from Pexels

Steamed Fish

Fish is a must for the Chinese New Year.

Homophones: Fish symbolizes surplus and wealth. Customs around fish are aplenty and fish is chosen as per the homophonics.

Crucian Carp — jìyú, sounds like the Chinese word jí meaning good luck. Mud Carp — lǐyú, sounds like li meaning gifts. Catfish — niányú, sounds like, nián yú, meaning ‘year surplus’ and the list goes on.

Significance: A lot of importance is given in the way it is eaten.

Steamed Chicken — zhēng jī

A whole chicken is another symbol of family.

Visual cue: The head and claws are often kept intact. It represents reunion and rebirth.

Significance: In certain provinces, the main workers should eat the claws which are supposed to help them grasp onto wealth.

Chicken wings help you fly higher, while the bones represent outstanding achievement.

Chicken soup or just eggs is sometimes the first meal of the year.

Nian gao

Also known as rice cake or New Year cake, this is a must for the Chinese New Year.

Homophone: Same pronunciation as gāo — tall/high. Nian — Year.

Significance: A wish to be successful and “higher” each year. Every year to be better than the last.

Hot pot (huǒ guō)

Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty was the most avid fan of hot pot.

If you were invited to his New Year’s Eve dinner, you would see a feast of around 120 dishes for lunch and even more for hot pot.

Hot pot is the centerpiece of Spring Festival dinners, for a lot of people.

Hotpot is actually very basic. A bubbling pot and plates of uncooked meat and vegetables. You can choose whatever you like to throw into the pot.

Wait until it’s cooked, take it out and eat.

….and our favourite origin story

Spring Rolls - The Chinese New Year
Photo by Natalie from Pexels

Spring rolls — chūn juǎn

It was traditionally made on the first day of spring this is eaten in celebration of Springs arrival. Now you know why it’s called as the spring roll!

and yes, how to wish Happy New Year?

Prosperity is a key to the Chinese culture and A Prosperous New Year is a great way to greet.

In Mandarin — gong xi fa cai and in Cantonese — gong hey fat choi.

Xin nian kuai le, literally “happy new year,” is perfectly welcome, too.

Note the word Nian and the mythical beast? Now you know where that comes from too!

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