AWAKEN THE DRAGON
Enter The Dragon
In pretty much every country except China, the celebration is known as Chinese New Year; in China, this most important of all celebrations is called Chūnjié (春节), or Spring Festival. The Spring Festival marks a new year on the lunar calendar, with 2024 being the Year of the Dragon. The festival also represents the desire for a new life. It is also one of the most important celebrations for families as well, with a week of official public holidays in mainland China. Over time, the festival became about honouring deities as well as ancestors. You will find the Spring Festival celebrated in any country where you find significant Chinese populations, including Cambodia, Indonesia, The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and of course...Thailand, where the major cities and many regional areas have enormous celebrations. Naturally the islands of Singapore and Hong Kong have huge celebrations at this time as well.
With around 14% or so of Thais identifying as having Chinese heritage, Thailand has the largest Chinese community outside of China in the world; the celebrations here are almost as magnificent as they are in China. Dragon Dances and Lion Dances are now commonplace during celebrations. The noise of drums and cymbals together, along with fireworks and the vigorous dancing of the Lion or Dragon, is thought to ward off any evil spirits.
In 1912, the Chinese government adopted the Gregorian Calendar and actually abolished Chinese New Year as the official New Year, making January 1 the new official start of the year. The Chinese New Year festival still continued, but in 1949, it was renamed the Spring Festival.
If using the Gregorian Calendar, the Spring Festival commences on the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice (December 21), which usually occurs between January 21 and February 20. Celebrations occur from what used to be Chinese New Year's Eve until the Lantern Festival, which is the 15th day of the first Chinese calendar month. The 15th day also marks the first full moon after the Spring Festival and of the New Lunar Year; in China, it is known as Yuánxiāo jié, meaning "first night of the full moon”.
Myths & Legends
Chūnjié is a centuries old festival which gains added significance due to several myths and traditions. One of those myths pertains to a creature who went by the name of Nian (Year).
Legend has it that in ancient times, living deep beneath the surface of the sea, lived a monster named Nian. Described as having a long head and sharp horns, it appeared in the village every New Year’s Eve to eat people, particularly children. It also had a taste for the villagers' livestock. On New Year's Eve each year, the villagers would flee into the distant mountains so as to avoid being harmed by the monster. Nobody knows how long this had occurred for, but one year, an old man appeared in the village on New Year's Eve and said he would stay the night and not follow the villagers into the mountains. They all thought him mad and expected him to be dead and the village destroyed when they returned the next morning. To their shock and amazement, the village was in tact and the old man was still alive when they came down from the mountains.
A Tradition Is Born
When asked how he had survived the night, the old man replied that he had pasted red paper on all the doors, lit candles in the houses, donned red clothes and burnt bamboo to make a loud cracking sound.
Amazed by what they were hearing, yet seeing the proof with their own eyes, the villagers were convinced. Every New Year's Eve since, the people did exactly as the old man had done and Nian never reappeared. That tradition has continued to this day and with the invention of gunpowder, with firecrackers to follow, the latter have replaced the burning of the bamboo. All of these rituals have become the most significant ways to celebrate the arrival of the new season.
As the Year of the Dragon approaches for this year's Spring Festival, families across China eagerly prepare for the annual reunion dinner on Chūnjié Eve, a cherished tradition fostering family bonds and unity. A pivotal aspect of the festivities involves the meticulous cleaning of homes in preparation, symbolising the expulsion of misfortune and the welcoming of prosperity. Historically, when people did not bathe regularly, this time was used to take a bath to welcome the Spring Festival
Another such tradition in Chinese culture is the significance of the number 8; its revered position deeply intertwined with notions of wealth and fortune. The phonetic similarity between "eight" (Ba 八) and "wealth" or "prosperity" (Fa 發), renders it a symbol of utmost auspiciousness, permeating various aspects of life from selecting phone or house numbers to significant dates. The synchronicity of the commencement time of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 was 8pm on the 8th of the 8th, epitomised the cultural reverence for this number.
Moreover, in the digital sphere, numerical expressions like 518, pronounced Wo Yao Fa, for "I want to be wealthy" and 886 pronounced Ba Ba Liu, the equivalent to an English "goodbye", exemplify the pervasive influence of 8 in contemporary Chinese lingo. From ancient divination practices to modern internet slang, expressions such as "Bagua" and "Babai Relationship" underscore the multifaceted significance of 8, symbolising not just material abundance but also cultural wisdom and social connections deeply ingrained in the fabric of Chinese society.
These vibrant red packets, known as Hóngbāo (紅包) in Mandarin, Lai Shi (利是) in Cantonese and Ang Pow in Hokkien, symbolise good wishes, luck and blessings for the new year ahead. They are also given on birthdays and weddings.
With amounts varying from a few dollars to more substantial sums, the act of giving these envelopes is steeped in customs and traditions that date back generations. Custom dictates that the money inside should consist of even numbers, as odd numbers are associated with funeral offerings, reinforcing the cultural importance placed on auspiciousness and harmony.
Red, a colour cherished for its association with energy, happiness and good fortune, is central to the symbolism of these envelopes.Beyond the monetary gift itself, the vibrant red paper adorned with intricate calligraphy and symbols signifies the transmission of blessings and joy to the recipients. The act of wrapping lucky money in red envelopes is believed to amplify the positive intentions and blessings bestowed upon loved ones, creating a tangible manifestation of well-wishes and prosperity as they embark on the journey into the new year.
Thus, the tradition of giving red envelopes during Chūnjié serves not only as a gesture of generosity, but also as a powerful expression of cultural values and communal spirit, fostering connections and spreading joy amidst the celebrations.
Spring Festival Dining
As the vibrant festivities of the Spring Festival sweep across both China and Thailand, the culinary landscape transforms to embrace traditions steeped in symbolism and heritage. While there are no singular, definitive dishes that define the Spring Festival celebrations, certain foods have emerged as traditional favourites, each carrying its own significance and regional flair.
The Spring Festival Eve dinner is the cornerstone of the celebration. It is a time for family reunions, a moment when those far from home return to sit at the family table. Except for the North, where the choice is dumpling, the dinner typically features fish, an emblem of abundance. Beyond these staples, the meal is a reflection of individual tastes and preferences, a mosaic of flavours that celebrates both family and culinary heritage. Most Chinese families prefer the warmth and intimacy of their homes for this meal, eschewing the impersonal ambiance of restaurants, making it an occasion of togetherness and family love.
Dumplings & Cakes
In Northern China, dumplings reign supreme as a staple of the Spring Festival Eve dinner. These delightful parcels, often handcrafted with care and precision, are more than just a culinary delight; they are a symbol of prosperity and a harbinger of wealth for the coming year. Far from the bustling streets of Northern China, in the southern regions, dumplings give way to other festive specialties, showcasing the diverse culinary preferences that mark this celebration.
The Spring Festival Cake, a solid, sweet concoction made from glutinous rice flour, holds a special place in Eastern China. Its sticky texture and sweet flavour are not just a treat for the taste buds, but also symbolise a rich, sweet life. As we move towards the culmination of the Chinese Spring festival, Tang Yuan, small balls crafted from glutinous rice flour, emerge as a highlight. These delicate spheres, which can be either filled or unfilled, are served in boiling water and represent family unity and togetherness.
In Thailand, where these traditions meld with local customs, Chinese Spring Festival becomes a testament to cultural fusion, where food is not just about sustenance but a bridge between traditions, a celebration of shared histories and hopeful futures.
Why Spring Festival?
Even though it is winter in China, the festivities are known as Chūnjié, the Spring Festival. This is due to it aligning with the Beginning of Spring, the first of twenty four terms used by the Chinese in co-ordination with the changes of nature.
China's 24 Solar Terms encapsulate a profound system of timekeeping rooted in ancient wisdom and meticulous observation of natural phenomena. Comprising 12 major and 12 minor solar terms, this calendar divides the sun's annual journey into equal segments, known as "jie qi." Serving as a testament to the intricate understanding of seasonal changes and astronomical laws, the 24 Solar Terms play a pivotal role in Chinese society, guiding agricultural activities and daily life with remarkable precision.
Originating in the Yellow River region, the formulation of the 24 Solar Terms emerged from meticulous observations of celestial movements, temperature fluctuations, and natural phenomena. Evolving over centuries, this temporal framework has become an integral part of China's cultural heritage, influencing societal norms and daily practices across various ethnic groups. Embraced as a time directory for agricultural production and daily routines, the solar terms permeate Chinese life, guiding individuals in harmonising with the rhythms of the natural world. With its inscription on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the 24 Solar Terms stand as a testament to humanity's profound understanding of time and nature, as well as the enduring legacy of cultural wisdom.
The 24 Solar Terms are as follows: Beginning of Spring, Rain Water, Insects Awakening, Spring Equinox, Fresh Green, Grain Rain, Beginning of Summer, Lesser Fullness, Grain in Ear, Summer Solstice, Lesser Heat, Greater Heat, Beginning of Autumn, End of Heat, White Dew, Autumnal Equinox, Cold Dew, First Frost, Beginning of Winter, Light Snow, Heavy Snow, Winter Solstice, Lesser Cold, and Greater Cold.
After Papermaking, the Compass, Gunpowder and Printing, the 24 Solar Terms are recognised as the Fifth Great Invention of China; this cognitive system not only shapes the rhythm of the agricultural calendar, but also fosters a deep connection between humanity and nature, embodying the essence of Chinese cultural identity. Thus China's Spring Festival makes absolute sense.