Today’s post is co-authored in collaboration with Brian Loo, a Chinese-Malaysian and fellow polyglot. We met at the Polyglot Gathering back in 2016. He has a crazy passion for Native American languages amongst others. This is the first article we will be collaborating on concerning China and the Chinese culture. His blog is Swimminginanoceanofwords.com
On to today’s post!
It’s early morning, but your mother is already scurrying back and forth in the living room. The poor lady is busy arranging the house and setting the table. You quickly gaze at the living room table and see red envelopes with Chinese characters on them.
It’s Chinese New Year!
Asian customs and holidays are everywhere.
Maybe you’ve got friends of Asian extraction at work, school or church.
Admit it. You’ve always been curious about their culture. You’ve wanted to connect with them on a deeper level for awhile. Any attempts weren’t as fruitful as you’d hoped. Kinda frustrating, isn’t it?
All you needed was something to talk about. Well, Chinese New Year is your key to loving out loud through conversation. The good majority of Asians celebrate the holiday.
Chinese New Year, (also known as Lunar New Year) is based on the Chinese Lunisolar calendar because of the spread of Chinese culture over the centuries. The Chinese sphere influence was so great, they all used Chinese characters at some point in history. This is one of the reasons why the holiday is celebrated in many other countries by different names. For example:
- Japan: Shōgatsu
- Korea: Seollal
- Vietnam: Tết
Let's explain the Chinese zodiac.
In the Chinese Calendar there are 12 years, each with its own animal. 2017’s is the Water Rooster (or Chicken.) Each of the 12 animals have different characteristics that result in good or bad luck. People are constantly talking about what pairs can marry and all the things you'd expect with horoscopes. Talking about the zodiac with Asians can always lead to interesting discussions and help you get to know someone better.
If you do a bit of reading, you’ll discover that there are many lucky and unlucky things that roosters have to be “careful” of this year. The Chinese are stereotypically known to have a love for all things lucky. In the zodiac, there is no exception. You have lucky directions, flowers, numbers, the list goes on and on, not to mention the unlucky things.
Considering the zodiac cycle is every 12 years, roosters are born in the following years: 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, and 2017. Roosters are supposedly known to be determined, smart, brave, lovely, energetic, but this depends on what element you have. The Chinese had five!
Trying to understand horoscopes is something fun just to read up on and gain cultural perspective.
To get a conversation about Chinese New Year started, you can try the following questions:
- What year were you born in?
- How does your family usually celebrate Chinese New Year?
- What do you think of the zodiac?
But of course, one of the easiest conversation starters is to ask someone about their favorite memories with red envelopes.
It’s all about the Red Envelopes.
Remember waking up on Christmas and rushing to the Christmas tree and hoping that Santa brought you that Death Star Lego set you wanted? Only to discover that because you had been a naughty, the elves gave you a megabloks set…
One of the best parts of growing up in a Chinese household and celebrating the holiday goodness is never having to worry what your present will be. Every year, it will be red envelopes. No matter what, you can spend it on your heart’s desire!
These special red envelopes are called by various names.
- Mandarin: Hongbao (紅包)
- Hokkien: Ang Pao
- Cantonese: Lai see
Regardless of the name, it’s always stuffed with cash. The envelopes are often decorated with really cute designs like Hello Kitty (as seen above.) Usually fresh new bills for good luck in the new year.
That’s right. On Chinese New Year, parents, married people, and relatives give money to kids! And the best part ––it’s not just for one day! Chinese New Year lasts for 15 days (three days more than Christmas). Anytime throughout the 15 days of festivities, if a grownup pays your family a visit, hongbao will be given to all the children of that house! Christmas and Easter, eat your hearts out!
History of Red Envelopes
The origins of this sensational custom are steeped in history going back over 2000 years to the first Imperial Dynasty! During the Qin Dynasty, it was the custom for parents and grandparents to make strings of coins held together with red thread to form protective amulets.
These were given to children as presents to ward off evil spirits. It became common to do this during Chinese New Year and after paper was invented, someone thought of using red paper envelopes to keep the money instead! The hongbao was born!
How to ward off spirits and fables.
There are several legends as to why the custom of giving strings of money came to be practiced all over China. According to one story, a nasty demon was terrorizing a village. It would stalk the children late at night while they slept. The demon would touch the children's heads while they were asleep, causing the children to fall ill and sometimes result in death.
A young couple decided to protect their newborn child by praying to the gods for protection. In return, their gods sent eight fairies to protect the baby. In order to trick the demon, the fairies disguised their appearance by transforming into eight coins and hid under the child's pillow at night. The fairies lay in wait. At night the demon appeared and crept closer to the child.
Suddenly the eight coins began to shine brightly, blinding the demon. Frightened from what had just happened, the demon ran away in terror. After hearing this story, the villagers began spreading the word and placed eight coins tied with red string under the pillows of their children to keep them safe while they slept at night. Thus began this wonderful custom, transcending the ages and remaining an important part of Chinese New Year celebrations to this day.
Time to Celebrate
Whatever your cultural background, get involved! No one will stop you from celebrating a holiday with them!
Use this as an opportunity to know people. Impress them with the fact that you know the story of how hongpao came to be. If you don’t know anything, always, always ask questions. Today when asked if I celebrated Chinese New Year, instead of just answering with a yes. I turned the question on her to see if there was something special where she came from.
Asking questions is a key to opening someone’s heart to you. Find out your zodiac and share that with someone, or make fun of your monkey cousins! Stay inquisitive and remember that kids will certainly appreciate a little extra pocket money. 🙂
Brian Loo is a linguist and translator from Malaysia. He has a fascination with exotic languages and used to endlessly frustrate his parents during his teen years by spending more time reading Urdu, Classical Arabic and French grammar books than doing "normal" teenagers' stuff, whatever that means. He currently manages his own translation agency and blogs on swimminginanoceanofwords.com.