As Emory finds itself just days away from the 2011 Chinese New Year celebrations, which will herald in the year of the rabbit, we might find it interesting to refresh our memories about some traditions that are observed at this time of year. But in addition to reflecting upon the simple rituals associated with the event, we should also keep in mind what the holiday represents on a symbolic level.
Chinese New Year is a really dynamic and exciting holiday in China and elsewhere. People commonly take days off of work to observe the holiday, and the event is always celebrated with loud noises and general revelry. On our own campus, Emory Chinese Students Association, in alliance with many other Asian student organizations on campus, hosts an annual Lunar Banquet event that is highly anticipated and open to all.
The Chinese New Year is the most important and widely-celebrated of Chinese holidays, and it’s observed in several countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The tradition arose from a legend that a mythical beast called Nian, or “year” in Chinese, would emerge from its hiding place to wreak havoc on the villages, devouring children and crops alike. As the legend goes, Nian was afraid of loud noises and the color red, so the villagers began lighting firecrackers and wearing red clothing during this time of year to protect themselves.
As centuries passed and cultures continued to evolve, even more traditions came into existence, and now Chinese New Year customs range from province to province and from country to country. Some elements that are shared are the emphasis placed on spending time with loved ones, exchanging presents and, of course, food. The actual festivities span 15 days in China, promoting a range of activities such as performing a thorough household cleaning in the beginning and adopting a vegetarian diet during the later days.
The cuisine that’s associated with Chinese New Year celebrations has always been particularly interesting to me. The Chinese are very big on word play, so the words for many of the foods that are traditionally eaten on this date are homonyms or sound similar to words that suggest prosperity, health or good luck. For example, fish is a popular dish because the Chinese words for “fish” and “surplus” — “yu” — are homophones. Noodles are also common, and they’re always eaten without being cut, so as to symbolize longevity. These are only two of a vast number of traditions followed for their symbolic meaning.
What’s significant to me about these traditions is that they promote the idea that we have a degree of control over seemingly intangible and random things as fortune and luck. The belief is that we can encourage good circumstances in our own lives through belief and positive attitude. Many of the other traditions, such as the household cleaning and vegetarian diet, also embody the concept of fostering a new beginning. Such concepts are promoted in the celebrations of other cultures as well, making such holidays relevant to many.
Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.