If you’ve already broken your New Year’s resolutions and are already bummed out by bad weather and bad news, take heart: you have a chance at a do-over. The Chinese New Year begins this weekend and will continue for about two weeks. Celebrations are sure to be found wherever there is a Chinese community, anywhere from your nearest Chinese restaurant to local cultural centers to the major extravaganzas organized in big cities. You don’t have to be Chinese to participate and you certainly don’t have to be Chinese to wear red and to receive the traditional wish for “great happiness and prosperity”: Gong hei fat choy (Cantonese).
Official occasions to welcome a fresh start seem to be a primordial human need since ancient times. The Persians (Iran, Asia, Middle East) began their celebrations around the vernal equinox in March back in the 6th century BCE, probably as an outgrowth of the Zorastrian religion. Their holiday, “Nowruz,” continues today with its bonfires and colored eggs. Likewise, the Babylonians marked the rebirth of the natural world at “Akitu,” also in late March, about 2000 years ago. In ancient Egypt, the new year was celebrated in July, in advance of the rebirth of the land generated by the annual flooding of the Nile River, and in ancient Rome, from which our own Western traditions emanate, the new year honored the god Janus of two faces, change and beginnings, for which the first month of the year is named. Rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal of hope, reiteration of promise — this is the stuff of the new year, wherever, whenever, and by whomever it is celebrated.
The Chinese New Year, which is well-known here in America, originated about 3000 year ago during the Shang Dynasty and is based on the lunar cycle. It celebrates a new spring planting season, and centers on home and family, reverence for ancestors and respect for ancient customs. In preparation for a new year, people clean their houses to rid them of bad luck, repay old debts to start the year afresh, and don new clothes to honor new beginnings. They cook traditional foods, such as springrolls, dumplings, noodles (long for longevity) and rice cakes, and they decorate their homes, their tables and themselves in festive red and gold for good luck. Factories and business will close for at least a week, maybe two, to allow everyone to spend time with their families. (This year, unfortunately, New Year festivities and family reunions will no doubt be severely affected by the quarantine of several cities in China and the threat of the spreading coronavirus around the world.)
Anyone who has ever seen a Chinese New Year parade knows that a major symbol of the holiday is the giant Nián, the mythical monster that is part dragon, part kirin. (Photo above taken in the Shanghai Art Museum.) Legend has it that the Nián would come out at this time of year to terrorize villages and eat people — oh my! Once gunpowder was invented in the 10th century, fireworks and firecrackers intended to scare off such demons became an essential part of the Chinese New Year.
The most elaborate parades in the US occur in the heart of Chinatowns, the large ethnic neighborhoods that grew up in America’s big cities after waves of Chinese immigration began in the late 1800s. My first exposure to such a “city within a city” was as a girl when my Mother and I visited Los Angeles. Coming from a small South Texas town, I had little frame of reference for anything Asian. (There wasn’t even a Chinese restaurant in my hometown, and I’m not sure if there is one there today.) I still remember feeling overwhelmed as I entered LA’s Chinatown under the piafang, the huge iron gateway with its golden dragons, into an exotic world of totally unfamiliar, sights, sounds, and smells.
A few years later while living and working in New York my familiarity and comfort with Chinese customs, foods, traditions and people grew. I worked on Wall Street in lower Manhattan and Chinatown was a popular nearby destination for lunch. The area is huge, its streets busy and bustling with residents and tourists alike, all there to enjoy the restaurants and tea rooms, the open-air markets and souvenir shops that cover some 24 blocks over two square miles. And it keeps growing. Today it has all but swallowed up what’s left of older ethnic immigrant communities such as Little Italy and the Jewish Lower East Side, which may explain why it is still the only major Chinatown in America that doesn’t have a gateway arch!
As China’s presence in the world has grown, so have Chinese traditions gone mainstream in the West. Chinatowns now not only welcome and absorb many different ethnic Chinese, but also Vietnamese, Korean, Thai and other Asian nationalities. There are Panda bears in zoos, frozen spring rolls in the supermarket, Chinese cooking shows on TV, and Chinese language studies in schools. Wonton soup is as ubiquitous as pizza. Like many avid travelers, I have been to China and I have experienced their society first-hand. I now have Chinese relatives and many Chinese friends. I think all this “melting pot” multi-cultural mingling is only for the better, because people usually fear what they do not know or understand.
One of the most familiar aspects of the Chinese New Year for most of us is the zodiac calendar and the designation of one of 12 animals as a namesake for the new year. As you probably know, 2020 is the Year of the Rat. Those born in a rat year (divide by12) are organized, careful, and thrifty. They are often wealthy and successful because they are hard-working and have keen sensibilities, especially for danger. Note, however, that while you may enjoy special favor if this is your zodiac year, you are also more prone to catching the attention of those Nián-like demons. Astrologers advise that you wear red underwear all year to protect yourself.
Given how many demons are freely roaming the earth these days, that sounds like good advice for all of us. Red underwear…hmmm. Are Victoria’s Secret stores still in business?