Gong Xi Fa Cai: Rituals and Traditions for Chinese New Year

By Clark Norton
February 17, 2015

February 19 marks the beginning of Chinese New Year 2015, which then continues for 15 days.

The New Year is the Year of the Goat – or Ram, or Sheep, depending on the source, and perhaps where you live. One theory has it that if you live in a country with more goats, you’re more likely to call it the Year of the Goat.  If sheep are more common, then you’re more likely to call it the Year of the Sheep or Ram. 

The Chinese Zodiac consists of 12 animals, such as horse, dog, rat, etc., which rotate over the course of a dozen years. Chinese earth elements also enter the picture, so this is the year of the wood goat.

New Year Greetings

Chinese New Year – celebrated not just in China but in Chinese communities around the world -- is filled with traditions that vary somewhat by region, though there are plenty of unifying traditions as well.   

The typical Chinese New Year’s greeting translates more like “Congratulations on being prosperous” or “wishing you prosperity” than “Happy New Year.”  “Gung Hay Fat Choy” (Cantonese), while written the same way in Chinese and with similar meaning, is pronounced somewhat differently from the Mandarin Gong Xi Fa Cai.

The Mandarin greeting "Xin nian kuai le" translates more closely to “Happy New Year!”

Rituals and Traditions

In the days leading up to Chinese New Year, the Chinese consider it important to pay off their debts and start with a clean slate.

In a similar vein, it’s considered good luck to give your house a thorough cleaning in the days leading up to the holiday -- much like the concept of spring cleaning, because Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival.

(If it doesn’t feel quite like spring yet where you live, consider that 2015’s is actually one of the later dates for Chinese New Year, which is based on the lunar calendar and may fall at any time from around January 20 to February 20.)

However, cleaning your house on the actual date of Chinese New Year is considered bad luck – it’s like sweeping your good fortune away for the coming year. 

It’s traditional for parents and any older or married members of a family to give red envelopes (hong bao) filled with money to children and unmarried family members. The packets are given as a sign of good luck and prosperity. The amount doesn’t matter so much except that it’s essential to avoid anything featuring the number four, which means death (sei) in Cantonese.

The Importance of Food

Along with lion dances and setting off firecrackers, much of the “festival” part of the Spring Festival revolves around eating, starting with a feast on New Year’s Eve.

In Malaysia and Singapore, it’s common to start New Year’s meals with a dish called "yu sheng" -- a raw salad usually topped with fish (yu), especially salmon.

If served at a restaurant, the server will pour the seasoning and sauces and add the salmon, while saying auspicious phrases like "nian nian you yu" and "bu bu gau sheng." After that, everyone tosses the yu sheng as though you would a mixed salad. Except it's much messier with yu sheng because everyone tosses it together, and you're supposed to toss it as high as possible. 

The higher you toss, the belief goes, the better the year ahead.

Seafood is Essential

Traditionally, it’s also considered auspicious to eat seafood such as prawns (for happiness), fish (for abundance), oysters (for good news), abalone (good fortune), and sea moss, for prosperity. Nian gao (a sticky cake) is a common New Year's dessert, also eaten for prosperity.

Why are eating prawns, fish and the rest considered so auspicious? It’s all about symbolism – based on sounds in Mandarin and Cantonese.

Prawn (Prawn (大虾) is called "ha" in Cantonese, which sounds like laughter, so its symbolism is like happiness that brings laughter.

Fish (鱼) is called "yu" in Mandarin. The way “yu” is pronounced is also the same pronunciation as the Chinese word for abundance or surplus (余).

So when the Chinese say "nian nian you yu" (年年有余), it means “may there be abundance (or ample surplus) every year” – to better prepare for the next year. So eating fish on New Year is essential.

Table Etiquette

Chinese New Year is a time for families to gather from near and far, and to invite neighbors in as well. The oldest people at the table and guests are served first.

The feast is typically served in the center of a big round table, and everyone digs in to the various dishes with their chopsticks.

And if the appropriate dishes are served, the house is clean and the debts are paid off, the following year is bound to be a good one!

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

With many thanks to Chinese culture consultant Jade Chan -- may your year ahead be one of prosperity, good health, and excellent travels!

Photo credit: Dennis Cox, WorldViews

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