I made a Lunar New Year card from one of my paintings. The painting is of the Winter Blooming Plum, and the Chinese phrases are various ways to wish people a happy New Year.
Today is Chinese New Year’s Eve or Lunar New Year’s Eve. It is the year 4719 according to the ancient Chinese calendar. 2021 is the year of the Ox. More accurately it is the year of the metal ox. The year 2021 is supposed to be a lucky year – much luckier than 2020. The year 2020 was predicted by the ancient calendar to be a very unlucky year – a Gengzi Year. These years if disaster happen every sixty years. 1960 – famines; 1900 Boxer Rebellion; 1840 First Opium War. My wife tells me these things. Sometimes it is too difficult to translate because they are based on obscure, ancient beliefs. But I am curious and researched the origins of this prediction for a bad-luck year. It is not a good thing to do during the bad luck year, because it might attract the bad luck.
My first year living in China I was shocked by how many fireworks people shoot. I lived in the prosperous city of Hangzhou and they LOVE FIREWORKS. My wife (then my fiance) went home to be with her family. I was amazed by how much of the sky was filled with fireworks. This was taken from the window of my foreign teachers’ apartment.
My wife and I first met face-to-face during a Chinese New Year. It was a glorious time in my life. Today, I got up early to chat with my wife and her family as there is a sixteen hour difference between us. This is the first year we have been so far away from each other on the New Years since we first met. And my wife’s family is without either parent for the first time in their life. When I chatted with them, I noticed her older brother has taken over their father’s seat. Every year he would sit there, drink tea and enjoy the boisterous conversation. My mother-in-law, just like my mom, was the heart and soul of the family though. When she was alive, she made sure I had the candy I enjoyed, and we shared a love of Kou Rou – braised pork belly with taro – 芋头扣肉. She was a thin person who loved to eat this fatty pork dish and when I joined the meal, she would sweetly use her chopsticks to pass me a choice piece of meat, or two. One year I ate so much my boobs began to grow – it is not a dish to eat every day.
Traditional Celestial Lion Dance in my wife’s family home
Celestial Lion in my wife’s home village
There are so many traditions around the Lunar New Year, and many are local variations. One year I asked my students about their local customs, and one boy was from a small mountain village where they made a special kind of Nian gao (new year’s cake). His village’s version used a Chinese character none of my students had ever seen before. The character for “Gao” 糕 is translated as cake but it is not a cake you would not recognize unless you are Asian. It is made with sticky rice and served to bring good luck before the New Year. Legend has it the cake was created as an offering to the Kitchen God. The kitchen god has a special place in every Chinese home. He watches over the family and reports to the Jade Emperor. So people use sticky rice as an offering so that the Kitchen God’s mouth will be stuck closed and he can’t badmouth you to the Jade Emperor.
One of my very best students was from the city of BinYang in Guangxi Province. On the 11th day of the Chinese Lunar New Year they hold a Firecracker Dragon Festival. The city has a Firecracker Dragon Temple. There is an insane amount of firecrackers thrown by competing teams. He goal is to burn the other’s dragon, and be the last dragon standing. They are hurling huge packs of ten thousand firecrackers. You don’t want to walk into the middle of a dragon battle – believe me.
At the same time the women of the area hold a dancing dragon contest. It is beautiful and they practice for months and teams work together for years.
One year I visited my wife’s hometown before the Spring Festival – the only time actually. They don’t like going to the hometown because it is not convenient and every year it becomes more and more crowded. Traditionally, my wife’s older brother writes the three panels of poetry for the front door. That year I was given the honor of placing the Men Shen Door Guardians on the front door. These gods watch over the house and keep out evil spirits. You will see them guarding the entrance in temples throughout Asia. I hope the spirit of the door guardians guards your home and keeps you safe from evil spirits, the New Years monster and the awful covid-19 demon. Xin Nian Kuai Le – Happy New Year. My wife’s family is Cantonese, and the first thing I ever said to my mother-in-law was over the phone our first New Year’s together – Gung Hay Fat Choi – Cantonese for Wishing you great happiness and prosperity. She laughed when I said it, and that laugh brought me great luck over the years, as has her daughter.