Updated: May 4, 2021
by Dr Renée Ralph and Dr Amy Tian
Friday, 12 February 2021 is the day where millions of Chinese and Asians are looking forward to celebrating. It is the Year of the Ox where families and loved ones reunite in feasting and merry making for 15 days. The second animal of the Chinese zodiac, the Ox represents hard work, positivity and honesty in all of us.
Following the Chinese calendar, which rotates in 60-year cycles based on 12 earthly branches, each represented by an animal year, and five element years — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — 2021 is the Year of the Metal Ox. On a deeper level, each earthly branch is characterised by a yin or yang force and an element.
Chinese New Year vs Lunar New Year
When speaking English, most Chinese people refer to the holiday as “Chinese New Year,” or the more inclusive “Lunar New Year.” In Mandarin, the Lunar New Year is also called Spring Festival (pinyin: chun jie, traditional Chinese: 春節/simplified Chinese: 春节) or guo nian (traditional Chinese: 過年/simplified Chinese: 过年).
During Chinese New Year, individuals can say Happy New Year (pinyin: xin nian kuai le, traditional Chinese: 新年快樂/simplified Chinese: 新年快乐) or wishing you prosperity (pinyin: gong xi fa cai, traditional Chinese: 恭喜發財/simplified Chinese: 恭喜发财) to Chinese.
The Top 8 Traditions of Chinese New Year
1. Spring Cleaning
It is truly an auspicious event, where preparations are made at home. Cleaning the home, getting it spick and span, getting rid of stuff that is no longer require and keeping the home – neat and tidy. It is not good to clean the house during the Chinese New Year Period from 12-25 February, as it means the luck and fortune will be swept away.
2. Personal Grooming and New Outfits
On a personal front, grooming is important prior to the Chinese New Year, getting haircuts is vital and wearing a new set of brightly coloured clothing, in particular red to bring prosperity, wealth and health for 2021. Cutting the hair during this period is also not feasible, as it represents cutting your wealth or good fortune away.
Qi Pao now known as Cheongsam
Females have the option to wear the traditional Qi Pao (pinyin: qí páo, traditional Chinese: 旗袍, simplified Chinese: 旗袍). The Qi Pao entered mainstream Chinese culture during the Qing dynasty. The modern styles are very different from how it was originally. It began as a conservative dress with straight and loose cuts. Intricate designs were embroidered into the fabric. Through colonization, the Qi Pao became westernized is now known as the Cheongsam. (pinyin: cháng shān, traditional Chinese: 长衫, simplified Chinese: 长衫).
Males have the option to wear the Tang suits. A Tang suit (pinyin: táng zhuāng, traditional Chinese: 唐装, simplified Chinese: 唐装) originated from the Tang dynasty. The “new” Tang suit is a jacket that combines the man riding jacket (Qing dynasty) and the Western suit. It has an upturned collar and straight lapels. The suit features traditional Chinese knots and the material is in silk brocade, a luxury fabric in ancient times.
3. Chinese New Year Eve - Reunion Dinner
The custom of having reunion dinner dates back to as early as the 5th century and has been passed down to this day. Every New Year's Eve dish has an implied meaning. For example, a "whole chicken" symbolises togetherness of the family. The character "fish" has the same sound as the word "abundance", so by saving some fish until the next day (next year), it represents a year of abundance for the family.
In Singapore, before the main meal begins, the entire family will seat at the round table and have Yu Sheng as an entree. The raw fish salad has been the speciality of China's Guangdong province for centuries. It was brought to Singapore by Cantonese immigrants in the 1940s, and became a popular Chinese New Year dish by families and chefs from notable restaurants. Over time, the salad has become a rainbow of colours and flavours, with red-and green-dyed radish strips, candied orange peel, including raw salmon sashimi. The practice of eating Yu Sheng, complete with the high drama of tossing the ingredients into the air while loudly declaring auspicious wishes during Chinese New Year, is said to be unique to Singapore and Malaysia. It is serves as an auspicious occasion for family bonding.
4. Lion Dance
Lion dance (pinyin: wǔshī, traditional Chinese: 舞獅; simplified Chinese: 舞狮) is a form of traditional dance in Chinese culture and other Asian countries in which performers mimic a lion's movements in a lion costume to bring good luck and fortune. The lion, a symbol or power, wisdom and good fortune, chases away evil spirits and brings happiness, longevity, and good luck. The lion dance is also performed at many business locations during Chinese New Year celebrations as the lion brings prosperity and good luck to the business for the upcoming year.
In traditional Chinese culture, firecrackers were originally used to scare away evil spirits. Today, lighting firecrackers and fireworks is a custom to celebrate the coming of Chinese New Year, and a way to enhance the festive atmosphere. Right after 12:00PM on Chinese New Year's Eve, fireworks will be launched to celebrate the coming of the New Year as well as to drive away the evil. It is believed that the person who launched the first firework of the New Year will obtain good luck. However, despite the tradition, in mainland China nowadays, with the ongoing efforts to reduce air pollution, many major cities have imposed bans or restrictions on the use of fireworks and firecrackers (For instance, where and when to set them off).
6. From Hong Bao to eHong Bao
Hong Bao (red envelope, or red packet, or 红包) is a Chinese tradition where money is given to the little ones, unmarried individuals or the elderly and red envelops. The red colour symbolises good luck and is a symbol to ward off evil spirits. You are supposed to put crisp, new bills inside a Hong Bao.
eHong Baos. A contemporary interpretation of traditional Hong Bao comes in the form of virtual Hong Bao. For example, the Singapore Government has advised not to physically give the traditional Hong Baos, and an electronic transfer to the bank account is preferred. Thus, the new term “e-Hong Bao” is born and a positive spin that it is more environmentally friendly.
In mainland China, since 2014, it has increasingly become popular among people to send WeChat e-Hong Bao via its e-payment platform (WeChat Hong Bao, 微信红包), a mobile application which allows users to send or received from friends and family.
The flow on effect is the social activities for Chinese New Year has changed, the long queues at established banks to receive complimentary packets of Hong Bao and collecting new paper money are non-existent.
Good Luck Even Numbers - $2, $8, $10, $88
According to Chinese tradition and custom, good things come in pairs, an even number is preferred. The number eight represents good luck, as the number sounds like prosperity in Mandarin. Do not ever give $4, as it is the Chinese homonym for death and it is extremely offensive.
7. Paying Respect and Gratitude to Parents and Elderly
On the first day of Chinese New Year, a pot of tea and mandarin oranges are prepared. The child of each family will kneel in front of the parents, holding with two hands, a pair of mandarin oranges to present to their mum and dad. The mandarin orange is an important symbol of the Chinese New Year. The small citrus looks like the sun, and because the sun is aligned with the yang (positive) principle, it is a symbol of abundance and happiness. They are used as decorations and given as gifts when visiting family and friends as a symbol of sharing abundance and good fortune.
In return of their show of filial piety, the parents will give to their child or children a Hong Bao for good health, happiness and prosperity.
Changing Family Guanxi and Tradition
It is a shame as some kids miss out on this personal exchange from the elders – where some families still honour the tradition of children kneeling down in front of them offering the elders two mandarin oranges as a sign of respect. In return, the Hong Bao is given to the young - symbolising good health and prosperity throughout the Lunar New Year.
Culturally, the shift of this giving to electronic, cuts out the face-to-face contact and the significance of this exchange. The guanxi element of this familial tradition has changed remarkably in the modern Chinese society.
8. Lantern Festival
The 15th day marks the first full moon after the Spring Festival and of the New Year, also known as yuán xiāo jié 元宵節meaning "first night of the full moon". The day is well known as Lantern Festival day.
Another reunion dinner is held with lanterns and oranges being a large part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. It is customary to eat special sweet dumplings resembling the shape of the full moon. These round balls are made of glutinous rice flour stuffed with sugar fillings, symbolising reunion.
Impact of COVID19 on Chinese New Year
With COVID19 , restrictions and travel ban in various parts of the world, Chinese New Year Celebrations will start off differently, as physical contact and face-to-face large gatherings are not advisable, most families have opted for video-conferencing with dear ones to celebrate the auspicious season.
In a normal year, China and other parts of the ASEAN countries see around three billion trips during the Lunar New Year period. However, COVID19 has halted this tradition. The message is clear - there will be no travelling for the Spring Festival this year. No face-to-face reunions and large gathering to celebrate this auspicious period. Family reunions, an anticipated auspicious gathering with loved ones are limited to only 8 per household in Singapore.
Most Asians will feel homesick as they are not able to travel to catch up with their loved ones, aging parents and children. Hospitality business is at an all point low – no one is travelling and staying in hotel accommodation. The buildings and resorts are empty of human habitation in Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.
In Mainland China, authorities have encouraged people not to travel ahead of the country’s mass annual movement of people to celebrate Lunar New Year. However, hospitality business in mainland China has fortunately returned back to normal for many months. During the Chinese New Year holiday, most large malls, tourist attractions, public transport, hotels, and restaurants will open as usual, or even stay open longer.
Perth, Western Australia
Compared to various parts of the world, Western Australia has been blessed with no COVID19 cases for the past 10 months.
Christmas and New Year gatherings were able to continue smoothly. Australia Day was different this year, public fireworks were cancelled for health and safety reasons. Most families celebrated quietly at home, having barbecues in the backyard or picnics near the parks, rivers or beaches.
In spite of the strict measures taken, Perth is not immune to COVID19. The recent emergency lockdown on 31 January 2021 for the initial 5 days, highlights the grim reality of COVID19. The Perth streets were empty for 5 days and in the long term view, it is better to comply – so that the freedom of mobility and life can return swiftly.
It would be the first for many Western Australians adorning masks as a compulsory accessory when going out to purchase essential items. Due to panic-buying frenzy, rationing of goods and toilet rolls were reinstated by major supermarkets during this period so that the elderly will have access to these items.
The COVID19 State of Emergency in Perth will be extended to 18 February 2021 right in the middle of Chinese New Year Celebrations. West Australians have been law abiding, in support of the government’s decision to clamp down the tenacious viral strain of COVID19.
The New York Times applauded the leadership move and 2 million West Australians that cohesively work together to stop COVID19.
Chinese reunion for most families may have changed, however, as individuals we find ways to reach out and connect. For now, even if loved ones living in different countries and regions are physically unreachable – the virtual connection is the way to go. Culturally, the new way of communication illustrates the changing era and for now, it will have to do for now.
Your Brilliant Feedback
We would love to hear your thoughts on how you are celebrating Chinese New Year differently this year. Please sign up or join The Brilliant Foundation to write or offer your feedback.
· How has COVID19 impacted you?
· What are your Chinese New Year Plans?
· Are you connecting with your family for Chinese New Year? Virtually or Face-to-Face?
· Do you understand the meaning of family guanxi?
· What did you learn from this article?
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Copyright@The Brilliant Foundation
About the co-authors:
Dr Renée Ralph, Co-Founder, The Brilliant Foundation.