Gung xi fai cai! (hear it here; sort of like “GONG she FA kai”) (Congratulations and prosperity!)
Xin Nian Kuai Le! (The translation says “happy new year”, but that last charcter is “joy.” No, I can’t read Chinese, except for a very few characters: one, two, three, mountain, horse, north, middle, kingdom, capital, people, forest, (really useful vocabulary, huh?) and joy, which I always thought looked like a person dancing under two sets of lanterns on either side, so I know that that’s it at the end.)
Yes, I’m late. Chinese New Year (aka Lunar New Year, since it is celebrated in most of Southeast Asia, not just China) started on the new moon, which was Monday, January 26th this year.
But it goes for two weeks, so I’m kinda not late.
We’ve been throwing ourselves into it. We spent a lot of time in homeschooling last week to take the opportunity to talk about history, how things change and stay the same (like how in China there are parts of the countryside that still look pretty much like they did a thousand years ago, but also some very modern cities, like Shanghai), Chinese culture, Chinese music, Chinese folktalkes, etc. We had General Tso’s Chicken (of dubious Chinese authenticity, but still good), homemade noodles, and hot pot. Plus, we finally tried out a local restaurant, recommended by our youngest’s godparents (whose daughter is also from China) for some wonderful dim sum and dragon dancing, lion dancing, and a kung fu demonstration by one of the local kung fu academies, which teaches lion dancing as an offshoot of their usual classes.
If you have any small people in your life who you’d like to introduce to Chinese New Year, I highly recommend Long-Long’s New Year by Catherine Gower, illustrated by He Xhihong. The story follows a young boy who rides into town with his grandfather on their bike cart to sell their cabbages. Through some hard work and ingenuity, Long-Long earns some money and helps his grandfather sell enough cabbages to buy the fixings for the family’s New Year’s celebration.
Although very traditional, the story is set in modern China (the ladies practicing their fan dance in the park are using a boom box, and modern buildings can be seen in the background behind the traditional market stalls). We first found the book at the library, and loved it so much that I ordered it for the kids this year. I also noticed that the endpapers are decorated with a pattern of five bats around a flower, symbolizing the traditional Five Happinesses: longevity, wealth, position/success, posterity, and a happy death. There is also a brief Chinese dictionary (with Chinese characters) explaining a few of the names or customs in the book, and a telling of the legend of the sea monster Nian who came out to torment a village every year until he was chased off one year by loud noises and red paper.
Another great book for all-year Chinese culture information is Moonbeams, Dumplings, and Dragon Boats by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz, and The Children’s Museum, Boston. Illustrated by Meilo So. There are sections for each of the major Chinese festivals, starting with New Year, then the Cold Foods Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Each section has the legends behind the festival (although I was a little annoyed that the legend of the monster Nian (a homonym with the Chinese word for “year”) is missing from the New Year’s section), associated traditions, crafts, and food.
This year, we tried the suggested craft of making New Year’s prints. I really recommend getting the book (for lots more crafts, stories, and recipes), but the quick summary is:
1. Find a Chinese pattern (I found mine in Auspicious Symbols of China, a book I bought in China last year; simple papercut styles are best for this craft). Blow it up on the computer and print. (Remember that it will be in reverse when you print it, so either flip the image on the computer or choose a print where it won’t matter. Some Chinese characters (like the common “double happiness”) are symetric, some are not.)
2. Get some styrofoam trays from the meat counter. (Our local chain grocery was very generous; the guy gave me a big stack. We may have to take him a print.) Trim off the rounded rim so you have a flat piece. You’ll want to use the flater side (ours had a company imprint on one side).
3. Lay the pattern over the tray. Tape in a few places to secure. Trace the pattern with either a semi-blunt pencil or a stylus (available in craft stores, usually by the stamps for use with brass embossing stencil plates). Peel back one side and check to make sure you didn’t miss anything (if you did, carefully lay the pattern back down, trace the missing lines, and check again). Small dots can be added in after the paper is off with a sharp pencil.
4. Roll on a thin layer of paint (we found a cheap sponge roller, about 1 1/2 inches at the craft store). We used red construction paper and black poster paint (darker paint would’ve been better; ours is washable paint and dries a little gray). You want it even, but not thick; if it’s too thick, it’ll fill up the indented pattern you’ve made and ruin the print.
5. Carefully lay down the paper. Holding it steady with one hand, smooth the paper down over the styrofoam printing block. Shift your hand and smooth down the rest of the print. Peel off, being careful not to shift the paper.
Ta da! You’re done! (Below, the original clip art and the finished print.)
Some common Chinese symbols (especially for my friends who read the blog, who we gave copies of the prints after mass this morning, but forgot to tell them what the symbols meant, because the two year old was in a mood and needed to go home ASAP).
Bats– bat (fu) is a homonym with good luck. Hence, the five bats symbolizing the Five Happinesses.
Dragon– symbolic of the emperor, dragons are in charge of rains and rivers in Chinese mythology. They are good (although somewhat temperamental) figures in China, generally associated with boys.
Red– This is the lucky/happy color in China. Brides wear red, and it is the preferred color for festival clothes.
Carp or goldfish– happiness. And two of them is “double happiness”, which is even better, of course!
Double happiness upside down– “upside down” is a homonym for “arrives”, the doubling of the character for happiness is traditionally associated with weddings (symbolizing the coming together of the two people into one new whole), although it also seems to be used generally in decorations
Mandarin ducks, in pairs– symbolic of wedded happiness and perfect contentment, since these ducks mate for life (see below: mandarin ducks, beak-to-beak, under a double happiness and lotus flowers)
I’ve seen some things on different forums decrying Chinese traditions as “superstitious” and not fit for Christians. In my house, we don’t do Santa Claus (we’ve gotten a lot of pushback on that from the grandparents); we feel that there’s just too much room for confusion, and, besides, what could be better than Jesus at Christmas? However, I’m not too concerned that my kids will actually worry that the Kitchen God is going to tell the Jade Emperor about the bad things they did in the past year if we don’t rub his mouth with honey on his picture or that Nian is going to come up out of our lake and attack the house because we don’t have red papers posted outside or firecrackers to drive him off. We don’t believe that attending a dragon dance and lion dances drives off evil, but we make sure we get to see them at least once around the New Year (making sure to “feed” them generously with money in the lucky red envelopes, at least to encourage the luck of getting the local Kung Fu academy to keep doing the lion dances)! Many of the wishes (happy marriages, prosperity, long life, children, etc.) are universal.
So, I offer you good wishes (and prayers) for happy marriages, and an auspicious beginning to the New Year!
(bats (happiness), bringing money, around a central pattern of peaches (longevity))