Sunday, February 18, 2007

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Happy New Year!

'Gung Hay Fat Choy!' is a tradition New year salutation but the meaning is 'Congratulations and be prosperous' rather than 'Have a Happy New Year!'

Although my own heritage is not Chinese, I have been involved in traditional Chinese New Year celebrations since childhood. I travelled and lived in Asia when I was a young girl and after that, studied Asian martial arts. Although my own martial arts discipline was Korean rather than Chinese, my study began at University where all Asian martial arts clubs and students became close friends. I therefore received invitations every year to traditional New Year banquets and participated in many of the customs. Although Koreans and Vietnamese celebrate the Lunar New Year as well, most banquets I attended were hosted by Chinese or Malaysian organisations.

Even now, I always am aware of the New Year and decorate the house with banners whenever possible as well as participating in whatever customs are appropriate for a 'foreigner'.

The Asian New Year for China, like many ancient festivals of its kind, is not limited to one day, but is a celebration that extends from the New Moon to the Full Moon. It therefore lasts an entire fortnight and culminates with the Festival of Lanterns on the 15th day. Today, 18 February is the first day of the New Year. In Vietnam, it is known as 'Tet'.

In Malaysia, the New Year is celebrated for 15 days from the New Moon to the Full Moon and the celebration of Chap Goh Mei marks the end of the New Year festivities.

Like many ancient cultures, the Chinese and others who celebrate the lunar New Year prepare for it by cleaning their homes. Muslims do the same when preparing for the Islamic New Year, incidentally. Dirt should not be swept out the door with a broom, as that action would sweep the good fortune out as well. Instead, the dirt is collected in the centre of the room and carried out of the house instead.

During the New Year, it is considered unlucky to cut hair or use sharp implements. Hair in many cultures is a symbol of life as well as symbolising the rays of the sun in terms of sympathetic magic. To cut one's hair therefore would be tantamount to cutting the light short. As the origin of New Year Festivals is rooted in a human desire to encourage the sun to return after the darkness of Winter, it would be unfortunate indeed to perform acts that would operate to weaken the power of life and light.

The predominant colour of the New Year is red, as red is the colour of life and prosperity. Red is the symbol both of blood and of fire. Fire is a purifying element as well as one that protects. It is fire that drives away the darkness, and the New Year by heralding the Spring season, is a festival celebrating the triumph of light over darkness.

Banners with statements relating to happiness and good fortune for the New Year are painted or printed on red paper and displayed on walls both in private homes and in businesses and public places. 'Gung Hay Fat Choy' (Cantonese) is a common message. 'Gong xi fa cai!' is the Mandarin equivalent.

The New Year is a time when gifts are exchanged. Red envelopes containing money either in the form of coins or more significant sums are given to children and family members usually by the male head of the household. Often, a token coin will be wrapped in red paper and given to guests at traditional banquets as a symbol of good luck rather than an actual financial gift. For family members, however, the money gift or 'lai see' can be a substantial amount.

An even number of coins or notes, or an amount representing an 'even' rather than 'odd' sum is considered auspicious.

In Malaysia, the red envelopes given are known as 'ang pow'. Malaysians and Chinese follow many of the same traditions at the New Year.

Small oranges such as clementines and tangerines are traditional symbols of 'happiness in abundance' at the New Year. People bring tangerines and oranges to friends and relatives when visiting during this festival season. A piece of fruit given with its leaves intact is considered to be a sign of a relationship that will remain secure during the year to come. Often people will give or display a small orange tree decorated with red envelopes and other red good luck charms during the New Year. Plum trees are purchased and displayed at the New Year as well.

Red and pink flowers are displayed and each has a special significance. Narcissus symbolises prosperity. Camillia represents springtime. Evergreens symbolise everlasting life. Peach blossoms are a symbol of longevity and Buddha hand citron signifies happiness.

Cards are sent and exchanged that show traditional symbols of good fortune and prosperity. Among these are fish, boats, dragons and chrysanthemums. Amulets made of metal or plastic in the shapes of good luck symbols are common. Usually they will be red and gold and may be painted, decorated with gilt or red velvet and often ornamented with red tassels. Amulets or chocolate amulets in the shape of old Chinese coins, firecrackers, fish, and money bars are displayed or given as tokens during this holiday. Another shape that can be seen in amulets made of chocolate, plastic or even solid gold is that of the ancient gold nugget. In appearance, it resembles a house boat. One can find this form in the windows of many Chinese jewelry shops as well as in the less valuable charms that are sold and displayed at the New Year.

A traditional tray filled with sweetmeats called the 'Tray of Togetherness' often is displayed and shared with guests. It contains a number of symbolic offerings: Candied melon represents growth, physical strength and good health; melon seeds dyed red symbolise happiness, joy, sincerity and truth; watermelon seeds symbolise wealth. Lychee nuts represent strong family ties; qumquat symbolises prosperity; coconut represents togetherness and unity; peanuts for long life and lastly, longnan for many good sons. Ginger represents sharpness of mind and intelligence.

Other traditional foods for the New Year are a cake named 'go', the Cantonese word for 'high'. The cake is dark brown and made of sweet pastry. It signifies good fortune.

A vegetarian dish named 'jai' or 'monk stew' is a traditional symbolic New Year dish prepared in the belief that the New Year should begin with a pure dish made solely from vegetables.

In many kitchens, a picture of the Kitchen God hangs upon the wall. According to ancient custom, he is believed to visit the Jade Emperor in heaven at the end of each year to report on all the good and bad deeds of the family. On the 24th day of the last month of the year, a ceremony may be performed wherein honey is smeared on the mouth of the Kitchen God to make certain that he will say only 'sweet' words. Wine is poured on his mouth as well to make him intoxicated so that he will forget any bad deeds he is supposed to report to heaven. The picture then is taken down and brought out to the garden with much ceremony, then burned in order to allow the Kitchen God to rise to heaven. A new portrait of the Kitchen God then is placed on the wall for the next year.

On New Year's Eve, people often would stay awake as late as possible, believing that this would prolong their parents' lives. At midnight, fireworks are set off.

During the festival of the New Year, people wear new clothes. Red is the preferred colour, naturally.

In traditional Chinese communities worldwide, the festival of the New Year lasts a fortnight and parades often are held on the night of the Full Moon. The Festival of Lanterns is based on legends from the Han Dynasty and is over 2000 years old. There are a number of different legends to explain the festival and like many ancient traditions, no one is entirely certain of its real origins.

In one legend, the Jade Emperor in Heaven was furious because a town had killed his favourite goose. He decided to destroy the town with fire as punishment for this offence. A good-hearted fairy discovered the plan and warned the people of the village to light lanterns on the day appointed for their destruction. The people did so and the Emperor, seeing blazing lights throughout the village, believed that his orders had been carried out, and his loss thus had been avenged. He therefore made no move to send fire down upon the village.

In memory of their deliverance, people thereafter held a Festival of Lanterns each year at the first Full Moon of the year. In these parades, lanterns of different shapes and colours are carried through the streets, and dragon and lion dances as well as fireworks are part of the parade celebrations.

In fact, this tale shares common elements with New Year myths from other cultures. The goose almost universally has been considered a guardian of the people, an animal who with its strident voice warns against invaders. The goose is an ancient symbol of the Goddess as well and is connected with ancient worship of the Moon.

In ancient Greece, the goddess Aphrodite was depicted as standing upon a goose with outstretched wings. This in fact may be the prototype of our 'Mother Goose'. The goddess Hecate was associated with the goose as well.

In Egyptian mythology, one creation story features the birth of the Sun from the cosmic egg laid by the Nile goose. Hymns have been found to the goose as 'great chatterer', the 'creator of the world'.

Even earlier, the Bird Goddess of Paleolithic times has connections with the goose. In terms of the association of the Triple Goddess with the moon as well as the Seasons of the year, Robert Graves in 'The White Goddess' wrote: 'In the New Moon or Spring she was girl; as the Full Moon or Summer she was woman; as the Old Moon or Winter she was hag.'

In the context of ancient correspondences of the Goose with the Sun, Moon and labyrinth leading from death to rebirth, there is a fascinating discussion of the Phaistos Disc by H. Peter Aleff which can be found online at:.

Following his logic, it is possible that the old phrase of 'wild goose chase' denotes an ancient ritual game intended to bring individuals safely into the afterworld.

Be this as it may, it is probably that the Chinese tale of the Jade Emperor and his favourite goose is a very debased version of a far more ancient tale of death and rebirth. Fire, of course, is a symbol of immortality, a symbol of the indestructible soul. It is traditionally a 'guardian' of the gates of the Other Realms, as witnessed in the tale of the sleeping Valkyrie Brunnhilde who is guarded by a ring of fire.

In another myth, the New Year Festival of Lanterns commemorates victory over a man-eating monster from the mountains known as Nian. Discovering that the predatory creature was afraid only of loud noises and the colour red, they gained their safety by setting off explosions of fireworks and decorating the village in red. 'GuoNian' means 'passing over the Nian'.

In any event, whatever its origins in myth, the Festival of the Lanterns that is celebrated on the occasion of the first full moon of the New Year is a glorious event. Lights and noisemakers (fire and fireworks) always were believed to have the power to drive away both demons and the Darkness itself. Although most contemporary cultures have discarded their old traditional belief systems, fireworks and lights continue to be central in most New Year celebrations throughout the world.

One final note about the legend of the Jade Emperor and his goose: this is only one of a multitude of tales wherein human beings are able to deceive or trick a god into believing that a sacrifice has been performed or expiation made. In most cases, from the periodic sacrifice of the Apis Bull in lieu of the Pharoah to the lanterns that deceived the Emperor into believing that the village was being consumed by flames, this trickery is a means by which the salvation either of one human being or all of humanity is procured. The idea that the gods can be deceived may be bizarre to those who believe in an omniscient deity, but many ancient religions considered gods only to be a superior, more-powerful type of human being, therefore attributing human characteristics and motivations to them. Many ancient 'hero tales' extol the cleverness of the hero in being able to trick a god or monster in order to save himself, a designated 'sacrificial victim' or sometimes even the entire world.

The heads of state in many nations today have joined the people to usher in the Year of the Pig with traditional activities designed to bring good fortune and goodwill to all.

In the People's Republic of Korea, school children performed traditional dances and songs and played folk games. In Korean tradition, the New Year celebrations begin at home. 'Sae hae bok mani baduhseyo!' is the traditional Korean New Year salutation. People visit and honour the elders of their extended households on the first day of the New Year. The elders often distribute packets containing money in a manner similar to the Chinese.

It is not uncommon for Koreans to consult a mansin or fortuneteller who will offer divinations at the beginning of the New Year. The Sul-Nahl is the first day of the New Year. Like the Chinese, the New Year festival lasts a fortnight. Its climax occurs at the Full Moon. On that night, women in traditional clothing join in a special circle dance known as the kang-gang suolae.

The most ancient custom in Korea is a fire ritual, originally performed in every village for an abundant harvest and the continuing welfare of the village. Performed not to an universal deity but to local tutelary spirits, the rite began with the lighting of a candle or bonfire.

Food and drink then would be offered to the beings of the spirit world. The most important part of the ritual then followed. Each man would hold a strip of thin paper in his hands, then ignite it at the common fire. He would hold it until it became too hot, then toss it into the air. If the paper soared upwards into the sky and burned completely to ashes, it was considered most auspicious.

Other traditional Korean Full Moon New Year customs were scarecrows or five grain rice placed at crossroads or a ritual of burning pine nuts beneath the moon.

The Vietnamese ordinarily celebrate the New Year or Tet Nguyen-Dan for three days rather than an entire fortnight. In Vietnam, Tet occurred after the rice crop was harvested and before the next crop was planted. It therefore was primarily an agricultural festival. Even now, it may be the most important holiday of the year for the Vietnamese.

Families often save throughout the year for the expenses of Tet. Houses are repaired, cleaned and sometimes even repainted or renovated. Decorations of peach and plum branches are displayed with banners on which New Year wishes have been written.

In the countryside, tall bamboo poles are erected in front of homes and festooned with amulets to ward off evil spirits and flags to attract the ancestors. Altars to the ancestors are set up in most homes with incense and candles. Visits to the cemetary are made, and graves of the ancestors are cleaned and decorated.

At midnight at the start of the New Year, firecrackers are set off. Small altars with offerings of flowers and food are placed in front of houses, and family elders recite prayers to bid farewell to the old year and herald in the new. Incense is burned and ancestors are invited to join in the celebrations.

New Year is a time when every one is expected to be on his/her best behaviour. An angry or unkind word is believed to bring ill fortune.

As with the Chinese, Tet is a time when visits are paid to family and friends. It is believed that the first person to visit a house may be responsible for the success or failure of the entire household in the coming year. Many families therefore try to make certain that the first guest is a friend or relative of great virtue and high social standing.

For the first day of the New Year, a traditional fair was held today in Ditan Park in Beijing, there were operatic performances. Vendors sold pork dumplings and sweets sculpted in the shape of pigs. President Hu Jintao visited remote villages in western Gansu and northern Liaoning provinces. On the outskirts of Dingxi city, he fried dough twists with farmers, helped cut traditional red paper banners and accepted a basket of potatoes from a farmer in keeping with the spirit of the New Year.

In every place where the New Year is being celebrated, temples are crowded and incense is burned. In some, coins are thrown towards the incense burner in the hope that they will land inside the pot, bringing good fortune for the year.

Ancestor worship is very much a part of traditional Asian New Year celebrations, pursuant to the belief that deceased family members exist in a spiritual realm where they act as guardian spirits for the living as long as they are honoured and remembered.

Other traditional elements of New Year celebrations are the Lion Dance and the Procession of the Golden Dragon.

The Lion traditionally symbolises courage, stability and superiority. The Lion Dance is a masqued dance that has its roots in ancient warfare. Originally, it was performed during battle to bring courage to the troops and consternation to the enemy. Accompanied by the clashing of cymbals and the beating of drums, the stylised movements of the Lions are very martial in nature. The Lion Dance may have been used in war first by the Sung dynasty. During the period in which the Ming Dynasty ruled, performance of the Lion Dance was expanded to chase away ghosts and evil spirits rather than being used simply in times of war.

The Profession of the Mythical Golden Dragon became a lavish spectacle in the Han period. The Mythical Golden Dragon possessed extraordinary powers and was the source of all natural elements of water, wind and fire, the custodian of the seaons and the guardian of life and prosperity. Any individual who came into contact with this being would be blessed in all aspects of life.

The Dragon Dance requires superb acrobatic skills. At the climax of the dance, the Golden Dragon climbs a pole to retrieve the 'Ang Pow', the red envelope tied to the end of the pole. Coins traditionally were placed in the Ang Pow and believed to be symbols of good fortune. If the Dragon retrieves the envelope successfully, the entire community will be blessed with good fortune in the year to come.

As in most lunar festivals, celebrations began last night.

The Chinese New Year is not the last 'New Year' celebration in our solar calendar. That distinction is reserved for Nawroz, the Iranian New Year, occurring at the Spring Equinox. The Iranian festival of Nawroz has its roots in ancient Sumerian traditions but primarily is based on Zoroastrian beliefs as delineated in the Sassanid period. Characteristic of the Zoroaster belief system was a belief in two warring gods, one of God and the other of evil, engaged in a struggle for supremacy. Ahura Mazda, lord of all Good was the eternal adversary of Ahriman, lord of Evil and proponents of the faity often were known as fire-worshippers as they believed fire to be the visible embodiment of the Divine. The Chinese Festival of Lanterns obviously was a fire festival initially. As previously noted, fire is perceived universally as a symbol of life force and purification. I intend to explore Nawroz and Zoroastrian beliefs further at the time of the Equinox, along with Eostre and other festivals of the Vernal Equinox.

No comments: