Chinese New Year: Ring in the Year of the Monkey, China’s historic policy end

Multi-level mall decorated with big hanging Chinese symbols and red knotted ropes

Chinese New Year decorations at the atrium of Plaza Singapura, Orchard Road, in Singapore. Photo by Choo Yut Shing, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 8: Roast pigs and noodles, red envelopes, lanterns and gold-embellished décor usher in the 2016 Chinese New Year of the Monkey, which sweeps the globe and sets Chinese celebrations in motion for more than two weeks.

A primary festival day actually occurs one day before the Chinese New Year’s Day, forming the ‘Excluded Evening’ on Feb. 7 that is reserved for family reunions. For many, an entire week is given off of work, for parties and visits, while some festivities carry on even longer. This year, London claims the biggest party outside of Asia, with additional large-scale revelries in Argentina, Australia and the United States.

WORLD’S LARGEST HUMAN MIGRATION

How big is this holiday? News wire services around the world, from Reuters to CNN, regularly describe this enormous holiday movement of families as “the world’s largest human migration.” In fact, Chinese railroad stations are designed with extra capacity to handle this vast homecoming. According to National Geographic:

Every winter, hundreds of millions of Chinese return home for the Spring Festival, the Chinese celebration of the Lunar New Year. The mass migration, known in Chinese as chunyun, accounted for … 3.62 billion trips made during the 40-day period surrounding the holiday in 2014.

CNN puts the number closer to 3.7 billion, counting trips by mass transit, by air and the use of personal vehicles, a common practice as the Chinese economy expands and more families own cars.

Yellow lighting on plate of Chinese dumplings with chopsticks on plate

Traditional Chinese dumplings. Photo by Sheilaz413, courtesy of Flickr

Who is the Monkey? People born in the Year of the Monkey are characterized as inquisitive, pioneering and mischievous, though clever in their careers and in wealth. People of the Monkey are sociable, self-assured and versatile, though their selfishness, arrogance and temper may hinder opportunities. But be careful! The Year of the Monkey is believed to be one of the most unlucky years of the Chinese calendar.

The color red, which is considered auspicious and homophonous with the Chinese word for “prosperous,” dominates décor during the Spring Festival, which ushers in warmer weather. When the New Year approaches, it is customarily ushered in with a Reunion Dinner, which is replete with symbolic foods. For two weeks, visits are made and hosted with family and friends.

Looking for an inexpensive, at-home recipe for Chinese New Year? Try these traditional Chinese wontons, or dumplings, that are made in Shanghai style and consumed for their alleged ability to promote wealth.

CHINESE NEW YEAR: BUDDHA, THE MONKEY & LANTERNS

Round paper lanterns, lit, with red writing in Chinese

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Legend has it that when the Buddha (or the Jade Emperor) invited animals to a New Year’s celebration, only 12 showed up; these 12 animals were each rewarded with a year. Tradition has it that a person’s birth year indicates that he or she will possess the characteristics of the animal in reign during that year.

Unparalleled among Chinese holidays, the New Year begins weeks in advance, with families cleaning and hanging paper cutouts in their homes, shopping for specialty foods and purchasing new clothing. Businesses pay off debts, gifts are distributed to business associates and everything is completed according to symbolism—for good luck, prosperity and health in the coming year. Channel News Asia reports that China’s central bank will be injecting 440 billion yuan (U.S. $67 billion) into the money market, providing liquidity in anticipation of the Lunar New Year financial demands.

In Buddhist and Taoist households, home altars and statues are cleaned.

NEW YEAR STAMPS: PEONIES & THE TWO-CHILD POLICY

Stamps from the China Post serve a dual purpose in 2016: Celebration of the Lunar New Year and recognition of the historic end to the country’s one-child policy. One of the new stamps, commissioned to 92-year-old Chinese artist Huang Yongyu, features a smiling, cartoon monkey being kissed by two baby monkeys. According to CNN, the China Post originally asked for a female monkey holding a baby, but the artist insisted on drawing two. As of January 1, 2016, the Chinese government formally ended its three-decade-long one-child policy, now permitting couples to have two children. All second babies born on or after Jan. 1, 2016 are considered legal.

In the United States, the Year of the Monkey stamp features reddish-orange peonies—the national Chinese flower—and a small, cut-paper image of a monkey. (Learn more from USPS.) In addition, gold ink in grass-style calligraphy shows the Chinese character for “monkey,” and “Lunar New Year” is written in gold up the right edge. The stamp’s issue date was Feb. 5.

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Categories: InterfaithInternational ObservancesNational Observances

Chinese New Year: Welcome the Year of the Goat

Oranges with green leaf tops on red black-print patterned paper with wooden reeds in back

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 19: The Chinese Year of the Goat starts today with a 15-day celebration that circles the globe.

The color red, which is considered auspicious and homophonous with the Chinese word for “prosperous,” dominates décor in nearly every event. The Spring Festival, as it is also termed, ushers in warmer weather and marks the time of great gatherings among family and friends. When the New Year approaches, it is customarily ushered in with a Reunion Dinner that is replete with symbolic foods. For two weeks, visits are made and hosted with family and friends, gifts are exchanged and merriment is par for the course.

CHINESE NEW YEAR:
FROM BUDDHA TO THE GOAT

Legend has it that when the Buddha (or the Jade Emperor) invited animals to a New Year’s celebration, only 12 showed up; these 12 animals were each rewarded with a year. Tradition has it that a person’s birth year indicates that he or she will possess the characteristics of the animal in reign during that year. In 2015, the eighth animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac—the goat—will have supremacy. (Select watch brands have designed goat faces for this event, as Forbes reported.) The goat represents independence and an observant nature.

A 15-DAY FESTIVAL:
DINNERS, RED ENVELOPES & LANTERNS

Vase with branches with red envelopes hanging all over branches

Red envelopes hang from branches at the Pechanga Resort and Casino, in California. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Unrivaled among Chinese holidays, the New Year begins weeks in advance with families cleaning and hanging paper cutouts in their homes, shopping for fish, meats and other specialty foods, and purchasing new clothing. Businesses pay off debts, gifts are distributed to business associates and everything is completed according to symbolism—for good luck, prosperity and health in the coming year. (Wikipedia has details.) In Buddhist and Taoist households, home altars and statues are cleaned.

On the eve of the New Year, a Reunion Dinner is shared with extended family members. Dumplings, meat dishes, fish and an assortment of hot and cold dishes are considered essential for the table. (News alert: This year, Filipino-Chinese and Chinese Catholics in Manila were granted an episcopal jurisdiction exemption for Ash Wednesday fasting, in light of the eve of Chinese New Year.) Traditionally, red envelopes filled with money or chocolate coins are given to children. Following dinner, some families visit a local temple.

For the next two weeks, feasts will be shared with family and friends, fireworks will fill the skies and parades with dragons and costumes will fill the streets. (View colorful photos from CNN.) Friends and relatives frequently bring a Tray of Togetherness to the households they visit, as a token of thanks to the host. Through the New Year festivities, elders are honored and deities are paid homage, with all festivities being wrapped up with the Lantern Festival.

HOMEMADE CHINESE DINNER

If carryout isn’t your idea of an authentic Chinese experience, check out these sites for delicious New Year recipes:

IN THE NEWS:
DIGITAL RED ENVELOPES
AND SYDNEY’S GIGANTIC DISPLAY

A new approach to the red envelope tradition was unveiled last month, when the company Tencent announced the capability to send electronic red packets via smartphone. (CNBC has the story.) The service, which saw $2.9 million worth of transfers in its first 24 hours, allows users to send and receive digital envelopes of money.

In Australia, 90 warriors originally created for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games are lighting up Sydney Harbour, as part of the city’s Chinese New Year Festival. The warriors, which are modeled after the terracotta warriors found in the tomb of China’s first Emperor in 1974, are lit in red, green, yellow and blue. (Read more from ABC.net.) Australia’s program is the largest Lunar New Year celebration outside of Asia.

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Categories: Faiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

Qing Ming: Chinese on the move to honor ancestors

QING MING traffic jams are not a modern development! This detail comes from a much larger Chinese mural of a Qing Ming festival as men and women fill the streets and waterways.

QING MING traffic jams are not a modern development! This detail comes from a much larger, thousand-year-old Chinese mural of a Qing Ming festival as men and women fill the streets and waterways.

SATURDAY, APRIL 5: English spellings of the holiday vary, but newspapers in Asia are clear in reporting the most important news at this time of year: Watch out for traffic congestion and travel safely! Huge numbers of Chinese families are heading home to reconnect with their families and honor their ancestors at this time of year.

In the past, other English phrases have been used to describe this holiday: Wikipedia’s entry lists many names, including the Clear Bright Festival and Grave Sweeping or Grave Tending Day. The scale of annual ceremonies honoring ancestors has grown to elaborate heights in some eras—and shrunk in others—over many centuries. Chinese writers claim that the annual observance has continued in various forms for nearly 3,000 years!

Today, popular springtime customs associated with Qing Ming include kite flying, time spent with family, picnics and other outdoor gatherings near sites associated with ancestors. As spring flowers are blooming, many enjoy the sights and smells. Chinese news media already are featuring photos of families enjoying flowering trees in parks.

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Categories: Faiths of East Asia

Zongyuan Jie: Tao Ghost Festival

Grand Taoist Temple set in green hillside

The Zhi Nan Gong Taoism Temple in Teipei, Taiwan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, AUGUST 20 (But Dates Vary): Over the past month, millions across Asia, especially Japanese and Chinese, observed Obon festivities—including Asian communities in the U.S. Now, as Chinese turn to the celebration of Zhongyuan Jie, alternatively known as The Ghost Festival, dates also vary. If you are looking for observances across the U.S., check local events listings. Some observances occur earlier than they do in China. Wikipedia has an overview of these traditions.

The origins of Zhongyuan Jie lie inTaoism, Chinese folk religion and the influence of Buddhism during “Ghost Month.” The focus often is on this one “Ghost Day.” While Chinese traditions suggest that the gates of hell open each year at the beginning of the seventh lunar month, it’s on the 15th day that these spirits are granted a major festival. The spirits return to their respective realm the following day.

CUSTOMS FROM EMPTY CHAIRS TO JOSS PAPER

During the recent Tomb Sweeping Day (Qingming Jie), the living paid respects to their deceased ancestors by visiting cemeteries and cleaning gravestones. Now, on Zhongyuan Jie, the ghosts and spirits return the favor by visiting the living. Chinese operas are performed before empty rows of chairs, so that spirits have a spot to sit; seats are left unoccupied at dinner tables, so that living and deceased family members can dine together; shops are closed so that the streets can be left empty for wandering ghosts. Burning incense and joss paper—often into the shape of houses, cars, boats and money—are common, as devotees hold that incense symbolizes prosperity and joss paper carries over material items into the world of the dead. Significant events like weddings and major investments are withheld until the end of Ghost Month.

Devotees of this festival believe that it is an auspicious time for the absolution of sins committed by their ancestors. Many perform rituals to further that spiritual goal. Buddhists and Taoists rites may include the throwing of rice in all directions, believed to aid suffering spirits. Families are also careful not to attract ill-mannered ghosts, paying tribute and offering food to unknown souls so as to appease them and not attract misfortune. On the final day, hungry ghosts are guided home with floating lanterns released onto nearby rivers and other bodies of water.

ZHONGYUAN JIE AROUND THE WORLD

With a general focus on ancestor worship, specific customs associated with Zhongyuan Jie differ in participating countries:

  • Singapore and Malaysia: Concerts and other performances are common during The Ghost Festival. Some older operas are slowly being transformed into pop concerts.
  • Taiwan: While ghosts allegedly haunt the island for the entire seventh lunar month, the mid-summer Ghost Festival is preceded by parades, offerings and the release of lanterns. Taiwan is home to a museum dedicated solely to the festival: the Keelung Mid Summer Ghost Festival Museum.
  • Vietnam: The release of birds and fish, along with prayer, is regarded a means to earn merit.
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Categories: Faiths of East Asia