Legendary stories behind Chinese New Year

Legendary stories behind Chinese New Year

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The Year of the Dragon begins on 23 January 2012. Chinese expat Xian brings you three insider stories about the biggest celebration of the year.

In less than a week, the festivities will begin for the biggest Chinese celebration of the year, the traditional Chinese New Year. In Chinese it is called Guò nián, which means "to pass the year". Like in many other cultures, traditional festivals have a meaning behind them, and there are certain rituals that are practiced. Here are some traditions behind the celebration.

Why the upside down blessing?

One tradition for Chinese New Year is to post Chūn lián (antithetical couplets) on the door. Chūn lián are festive words written on red paper. One of the most frequently used words is (福), which means blessing.

However, if you recognise Chinese characters, you'd be surprised to find that Chinese people turn the word "blessing" upside down when they post the Chūn lián on their doors. The reason is that the Chinese word "arrive" has the same pronunciation as the word "upside down". So by turning the blessing the other way makes it read "blessing arrives."

The legend behind this story is as follows:

In the 14th century, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, decided to use the word "Fú" as a hidden signal to prepare for killing someone. His wife, the Empress Ma, was concerned that this might turn into a killing spree.

In order to prevent this, Empress Ma thought of an idea. She gave a secret order to all the families in the city that by sunrise of the next day, every family needed to post the character "Fú" on their doors. Every family obeyed the order.

However, there was one illiterate family, whose owner had pasted the "Fú" upside down. The next day, Emperor Zhu saw that all the families had his secret signal but one family got the character wrong. He was furious, and ordered that family to be executed immediately.

The Empress Ma found out about this. She was very clever, and said to the emperor: "That family knew you would come today. They pasted the word upside down, so that it now reads: 'blessing arrives'. Isn't this what your presence means to them?"

After hearing this, the Emperor was so pleased that he released the family. From that point on, people started to place the "Fú" upside down, and since then it has become a Chinese New Year tradition.

Why fireworks?

Have you ever wondered why Chinese people love fireworks so much? Aside from the fact that the Chinese invented gunpowder and are now the largest manufacturers, we just love setting off these fireworks for all occasions, especially to celebrate the new year.

Of course, there is a story behind it this too, and it goes like this:

A long time ago, Nián (from the word Guò Nián, "to pass the year") was a monster living in a mountain. This monster only came down from the mountain to the villages at the end of every year, to hunt for livestock and people for food. For years, people ran away to avoid disaster.

Then one year,  Nián came down to the village as usual, and immediately ran away when he noticed a big piece of red cloth outside one house.  And on the other side of the village, Nián ran away when he encountered a bright fire that made loud noises from burning wood.

People realized that Nián was afraid of the colour red, bright light and sound. To prevent the monster from coming to the village again, the people started setting off fireworks on this day. And for generations, this tradition has been followed, until it developed into today's fireworks show.

No wonder Guo Nian (the pass of Nian) means "to celebrate the New Year".

Why the fish?

One dish that's always on the celebration dinner table is fish. So why do people eat fish especially on this day?

The Chinese word for "fish" has the same pronunciation as the word "extra" in Chinese. There is a Chinese idiom "Nián Nián yŏu yú", which means that every year we can have a few extra things. This is a blessing, which when "translated" to the dinner table, means that every year we can have a bit of "fish".

Now that you already know how to say: guò nián and nián nián yŏu yú, it's time to pick up several more Chinese expressions:

Happy New Year!                             Xīn nián hăo 新年好!
Wishing you a happy new year!   Zhù nĭ xīn nián kuài lè 祝



Photo credit: Mike Peel (Chinese dragon).

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1 Comment To This Article

  • Audrey posted:

    on 20th January 2012, 09:44:30 - Reply

    Great article! I enjoyed those stories, and it's a great insight to the Chinese New Year celebrations! I even have a few Fu signs in my house... I'm pretty sure I need to go home and re-arrange them. =)