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The Year of the Rabbit

The Origin

By Mick Vann, Fri., Feb. 12, 1999



photograph by John Anderson

The Chinese word "Nian" in modern Chinese language means "year," but more importantly, it was the moniker of a horrible dragon-beast that terrorized and ate the people and domestic animals of ancient China every evening before the arrival of a New Year. Nian had a cavernous mouth and could swallow hordes of people and animals in one gulp. As you can imagine, this put a real damper on celebrating New Year's Eve and made it difficult for society to flourish, what with the annual reduction in demographics and all.

This yearly slaughter went on for generations until a mysterious and wise old man came along, offering to figure out a way to subdue Nian and free the populace from its horror. Just before the annual onslaught, the old man met with Nian and tricked him into realizing that the humans weren't a worthy opponent for a beast as powerful as it. Instead, it would find much more worthy opponents in the many beasts of the forest that plagued the humans and their herds on a daily basis. Nian realized the folly of his ways, and the other beasts, now too afraid to attack the humans, stayed hidden in the forests. This allowed the populace to flourish and prosper, and begin to live peaceful, productive lives.

Before the old man rode off on Nian's back to become a deity, he told the people to put up red (because Nian is deathly afraid of the color red) paper decorations on their windows and doors and to shoot off fireworks at each year's end to prevent Nian from reverting to his old ways.

The tradition of observing the tricking and conquest of Nian continues, carried on from generation to generation. "Guo Nian" today means "to celebrate the New Year," "Guo" translating as "pass over" and "observe." Using red paper decorations and blasting fireworks (the origin of our practice) still lives on today to scare off Nian, should he have a relapse and decide to feast on people again.


The Calendar and the Placemat

Most of us are familiar with the placemats in Chinese restaurants; you look at them, figure out which is your sign based on the year of your birth, and read the horoscope-like information. While waiting for your order to arrive, you nonchalantly ask your date, mate, or friends what their sign is to secretly assess whether you're compatible. But the placemats only hint at the complexity of the Chinese calendar, which is used to determine the ever-changing date of the New Year.

The Chinese Lunar-Solar calendar, which was adopted in 2,698 BC (by Western reckoning) is based first on a 60-year cycle with names like "Tian Gian" or "Heavenly Branch." Within this 60-year structure is the 12-Year Cycle, the familiar animals of the Chinese Zodiac, which are half domestic and half wild to reflect the balance of yin and yang. On top of this, you add the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in 1912, and the "24 Terms," which reflect the changes in nature through the year, and you end up with a wacky lunar-solar calendar system with 12 months (half with 30 days, half with 29). To make it correspond to the movements around the sun, a 13th month is added every two to three years. This is why, when I asked a Chinese student on campus what the date for the New Year in 1999 was, it took him about five minutes on a calculator to figure it out.

Just remember that the New Year begins on a new moon somewhere between January 1 and February 19 inclusively (most often in the first week of February), and that the celebration lasts intensively for two to three days, and casually for 10 days to two weeks, ending with the Lantern festival. (Note to Capricorns and Aquarians: You should check carefully when the New Year began on the year you were born. Doing so taught me that I am a Tiger and not a Rabbit, as I had thought for the past 30 years or so -- and it makes a lot more sense that I'm a Tiger than a Rabbit.)

For more info on the Chinese zodiac, check out the Web sites http://www.cnd.org/other/calendar.html and http://www.found.cs.nyu.edu/liaos/horoscope.html.


Preparations for New Year's

A flurry of activity takes place to prepare for the New Year's festivities. Old debts and grudges are dispensed with, so that no bad karma which would set the tone for the coming year or unduly influence the gods on their visit is carried over. The family cleans the house thoroughly from top to bottom, so that no evil or bad will is left inside (possibly the origin of our spring cleaning). The house cannot be cleaned or swept for two days after New Year's or you risk sweeping out any new good luck that has accumulated. New clothes are purchased if the budget allows, and any necessary sewing is taken care of.

New wallpaper is popular, as is repainting the window and door frames (in red, of course, to ward off Nian). Windows and doors are decorated with ornate paper cutouts and poems with the themes of happiness, wealth, longevity, and happiness in marriage with many male children. The rice pot is emblazoned with a banner reading "Ever Full!"

This can be a stressful time for workers, because an employer shouldn't carry over any employee who is undesirable -- it's considered bad luck. So the owners of businesses often have their own versions of a pre-New Year's banquet, with chicken always featured. A big sigh of relief courses through the group when the owner takes the first piece of chicken. A chicken leg offered to an employee (called "unimpassioned chicken") means the person has been given his walking papers and must be gone by New Year's.

The Money Tree, or Yao-Ch'ien-shu, has to be set up. This is a pine or cypress branch, threaded through a dried persimmon and placed in a pot filled with rice (the original Christmas tree). Branches are decorated with gold and silver foil, representing ingots. Garlands of seeds, nuts, paper cranes, and paper persimmon flowers are wrapped around the branches. Instead of an angel, the tree is crowned with a likeness of the benevolent genie, Liu-Hai, with five gold coins floating over his head. The tree is left up until the 16th day of the New Year, when it is taken outside and burned.

Many Chinese keep a picture of Tsao-Wang, the god of the hearth and kitchen, above their stove and pay homage to him throughout the year with small offerings. Just as every Western family has its own Santa Claus, each Chinese family has its own Tsao-Wang. It is his duty to keep track of the family's deeds and report them annually on his trip up to "the August Personage of Jade," or Yu-Ti, the chief cook and bottlewasher. Yu-Ti is the one who assigns quotas of happiness or misfortune to every household in China. Tsao-Wang is his spy, who departs on the 23rd of the last month to fly up to the Jade Temple to make his yearly report on the family. For this reason, sweets are smeared over the mouth of the picture to sweeten his report. His old picture is then burned over pine twigs, a new picture is put up, and he returns on New Year's Day to begin the cycle anew.


The New Year's Eve Feast

On New Year's Eve, the entire family gets together for the most important feast of the year. The Chinese transit system is booked solid from everyone returning home -- much like our Thanksgiving or Christmas. Everything possible must be done to be home with the family on New Year's Eve.

The banquet is the most elaborate possible or affordable, preceded by noshes of pickles, peanuts, and watermelon or pumpkin seeds. Next comes P'ing-P'an, a platter of artfully arranged vegetables and meats. This is followed by a series of stir-fried small dishes called Hsiao-tieh-ts-ai. Next comes the big guns: the main dishes, always in a lucky number: five, seven, or the most lucky, nine. The dishes are given auspicious names as a means to add to the festivities and celebration.

The foods themselves are selected mostly for their names as homonyms to prosperity, longevity, etc. Bak-choy sounds like the term for "great wealth," so a dish with bokchoy would be included. Oysters are called "Hao," which sounds like the word for "an auspicious occasion or event," and "Fu," as in tofu, sounds the same as "riches," so a tofu dish is always present.

Fish is always included, but this one gets a little weird. The Chinese word for fish is "Yu," which also means "surplus," something any family would want plenty of. The problem comes from eating your surplus, leaving the family with nothing. Often a spoiled fish is cooked in a spectacular fashion, as a showpiece only, not meant to be eaten. Sometimes a fish carved from wood is sauced to represent the fish course. Only if the host first breaks the fish into small pieces in front of them should guests ever eat the fish (or in the case of Yu Sheng -- Chinese New Year Salad -- where all the guests simultaneously toss the fish within the salad).

Certain dishes are always included in the mix. Dumplings signify a long-lost wish for a happy family (and many male children). Dried oysters are for "all things good." Angel hair seaweed is for bringing prosperity, as is Yu Sheng Salad. Prawns are for liveliness and happiness. New Year or Pudding Cake is to ensure good luck with high hopes for the coming year.

Sugar cane is often consumed after the meal while sitting around the fire. The leftover pulp is thrown on top of the coals to insulate them. The next morning, under the cane ash, finds "Yuong-Huo-Chung," or "concealed fire starters," glowing embers to start the New Year's Day fire with the lucky sign that the sweetness of the sugar cane would ensure sweetness and pleasure throughout the year.


The Eve

After the feast and knocking back libations of rice wine and beer (which might be accompanied by drinking games featuring construction of poems), the family sits around playing board games, telling jokes, and watching television. TV features nonstop programming devoted solely to events of the eve, with the Chinese version of Dick Clark manning the helm for the countdown.

The windows are all thrown open to release bad spirits and allow good ones easy access. Lights are left on to light the way for deities of prosperity. As happens here, at midnight the sky explodes with millions of firecrackers and constant barrages of fireworks. Don't forget that the Chinese invented fireworks; this is just another cultural practice we "borrowed" from the Chinese.

It's important to try to practice "Shou-nien," or "guarding the year," by staying up as late as possible, although the kids and old folks usually hit the bed shortly after the fireworks are spent.


The Day

Much like the Scots and Brits who practice the New Year's tradition of "first-stepping," the Chinese feel that the first person one meets and the first words heard on the New Year will set the tone for the coming year. It is lucky to hear songbirds, especially ones colored red.

The kids are up at the crack of dawn to receive their version of Christmas presents, "Hung Bao," or packets of money wrapped in red paper ("Hung," or the color red, is a homonym for vast, liberal, or a flood -- as in "of money"). These are given to children as well as unmarried adults.

Sharp objects such as knives or scissors are hidden during the day and not used to prevent accidentally "cutting the thread of good fortune." No sewing is allowed because you might prick a finger or draw blood, which would cause similar mishaps all year long. Little food preparation is done to avoid the use of knives; most food for New Year's Day is prepped beforehand and simply reheated.

The family then goes door-to-door, first to relative's homes, then to homes of friends and neighbors, bearing best wishes and gifts of food and drink. Any disagreements are dispelled as quietly as possible. The colors white and black are never worn, as they are colors of mourning. Undertakers hide in their homes so that they don't bring bad luck to anyone.


The Dragon Parade

Most of us are familiar with the Dragon Parade (there's a brief flash of one in the intro credits to NYPD Blue). It is a huge event in cities with large Asian populations, such as San Francisco, New York, and Houston. In China, the parade is always held at noon on New Year's Day because the country is basically shut down, except for movie theatres. In the U.S., the parade is commonly held the first weekend closest to New Year's Day.

The Dragon is a three-dimensional papier-mâché rendition of Nian: large-headed, and followed by a long train of silken body held aloft by dancers -- 60 is the common number used in China. The Dragon undulates and darts about with much head shaking and posturing. He is accompanied by two lions, which are usually smaller. They are the two lions who are the keepers of the door to the Jade Palace. It's considered very lucky for the Dragon to bow in front of your business, your home, or you personally.

As the Dragon and the Lions do symbolic battle, millions of firecrackers go off, drums are pounded, and cymbals are clanged; it's a very noisy and celebratory affair. The procession is attended by Banner Bearers, small characters who taunt the Lions and Dragon, the musicians, and onlookers. Stilt-walkers, clowns, neighborhood drum and bugle corps, and musical groups add to the mayhem and merriment.

The Dragon dances from business to business, enticing the proprietors to come out and offer Hung Bao, the dancer's payment for their performance. Periodically the Dragon stops in front of a business to "eat." He munches heads of lettuce ("Sheng-ts'ai," or lettuce, is a homonym for the verb "to bring about wealth and riches"), which contain packets of money. They are suspended on long poles over the doorways in such a way as to make them very difficult to reach, and the crowd has a hoot watching the dancers try to reach the heads of lettuce. The more athletic and resourceful the dancers are, the more frenzied the crowd gets.

The celebrations slowly wind down over the next week or so until the Lantern Festival, which is the denouement to the Spring Festival.

If you thought you were a little superstitious, rest easy knowing that you've got nothing on the Chinese. And, while I suppose it is possible that all the fireworks, spring cleaning, good luck food, Christmas tree, and first-stepping stuff developed spontaneously and independently all over the world, common sense would dictate that we have the Chinese to thank, and thank them we should.



Yu Sheng -- Chinese New Year Salad

(serves 4-6)

Marinade:

1/2 Tbl vegetable oil
1/2 Tbl sesame oil
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/8 tsp five spice powder

juice of one lemon

Salad:

Half-pound of sushi-grade tuna, chilled till firm, sliced paper-thin, 2" long slices, against the grain

2 cups peeled, shredded daikon

2 cups peeled, shredded carrot

6 thin, quarter-sized slices ginger, shredded finely

1/3 cup sweet pickled ginger, finely shredded
1/4 cup pickled scallions, finely shredded

6 makroot leaves, rib removed, finely shredded

1 large red jalapeño, seeded, finely shredded

1/2 bunch scallions, finely shredded
1/2 bunch cilantro, leaves only
1/4 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts for garnish

toasted sesame seeds for garnish

1 lemon or lime, cut in half, seeded

crisp-fried shrimp chips or rice noodles

Marinate the fish slices by tossing. Place in the bottom of a large bowl or large platter. Put daikon and carrot shreds on opposite sides. Sprinkle everything else except garnish in bowl or platter. Squeeze lemon or lime juice over the top. Just before serving, have everyone toss the salad simultaneously with chopsticks. Taste, and adjust seasoning with sesame oil, lemon or lime, salt, juices from the pickled ginger, and scallion. Garnish with chips or sticks, peanuts, and sesame seeds.

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