Sunday, January 22, 2012


Monday is Chinese New Year’s day. Here’s a guide to what you should and shouldn’t be doing. If you’re here. And if you’re Chinese. And you believe in this stuff.

1. LET OFF FIREWORKS. But of course. Surely the greatest Chinese invention. The first time I lived in Beijing, they were outlawed in the city. But now, it’s open slather for the whole 15 days. Alas for most Chinese, it’s not so much about the pretty colours but about scaring off evil spirits with the noise – the really big noise. With an abject lack of elan, you’ll see stern-faced men stride up to a small cardboard tube, light a fuse, step back, witness the bang, nod their approval in a “that should do the trick” kind of way, then go and do it again. Or you may not see them. Sometimes you’ll round a corner, often with your unsuspecting little girls in hand and - BOOM! - something that sounds like it should bring up iron ore goes off right beside you in a quiet residential street. Our kids, understandably, aren’t that fond of spring festival. If they venture outdoors they walk around warily with their hands over their ears, as if Beijing were a minefield. Which it kind of is.
There are more fun ones available – the near-professional level kind that shoot coloured balls around. You can hold these in your hand and fire at will, which is always fun until someone loses an eye, or a hotel.

Oops! Beijing's new 44-storey Oriental
Mandarin hotel was pretty much finished
and getting ready to open during Chinese
New Year celebrations in 2009 when
someone shot a firework at it, and then
this happened.
2. CLEAN HOUSE. We’re not saying the Chinese are superstitious or anything, but many believe the house must be thoroughly cleaned before New Year’s day. No cleaning can be done on that day, or you might sweep good fortune out of your house. After day one of the 15 day spring festival, people can sweep up, but are supposed to stack the sweepings in corners, not removing it from the house until the fifth day. And then it must be carried out, not swept.

3. DON’T CRY. For it is believed if you cry on New Year’s day, you’ll cry for most of the year, if not all of it. Thus kids can get away with murder on the day and won’t be belted.

5. DON’T SWEAR OR USE UNLUCKY WORDS. Like ‘four’ (see what I did there?) Four (si) sounds like the si which means ‘death’. Thus, on New Year’s day, you might get into trouble if you and three mates want a beer: “I want more than three but less than five, please.” Just pray noone asks you the time between 3:59 and 29-to-five.

Chinese people go all-out to think of imaginative New Year gifts for
younger relatives, which are always, without exception, little red
envelopes containing cold hard cash. 
6. EAT DUMPLINGS - STAY UP ALL NIGHT. The tradition is that families get together on New Year’s eve and, at midnight, they start eating jiaozi, small dumplings usually filled with meat, after which they are supposed to start bickering about who makes the best jiaozi. Eating fish (yu) is also good, for it is said to portent good fortune for the year ahead, because yu also means ‘extra’. But don’t go eating chicken (ji) that day, because a troubled year could be ahead. (Ji sounds a little like qi, which means anger). (Look, I don’t make the rules, OK?) (They’re ancient.)
7. AVOID GETTING YOUR HAIR CUT FOR A MONTH. The old belief is you shouldn’t get your haircut in the first month of the New Year, or that wretched, ever-present danger, bad luck, might rear its head again. Thus there’s a big rush in the last days of the old year, with hairdressing salons often open until the early hours of morning. They have to make hay, for then it’s slim clippings for a month. Also on hair, don’t wash it on New Year’s day. Yes, luck again.
8. MAKE SURE THE FIRST PERSON YOU SEE IS COOL. The first person you bump into on New Year’s day is thought to be significant for the year ahead. Thus you don’t want it to be that dork from next door who’s always bugging you about joining Amway. Try to make it someone you like.
9. AVOID BAD LUCK. For it is unlucky.
10. DON’T USE KNIVES OR SCISSORS ON NEW YEAR’S DAY. It may cut off fortune.

Performers get dressed up in lion dance costumes such as
this one, which are always baking hot. In Beijing and other
parts north this is a good thing, since spring festival falls
in the dead of winter when it is absolutely freezing cold.
(My reference guide for all this points out that while many Chinese people these days may not believe these superstitions, they will still practice them, as a means of providing continuity with their ancestors.)

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