Do's and Don'ts of Gong Xi Fa Cai
Gong xi fa cai!
(Or Kung hei fat choy! if you're speaking Cantonese).
Like Korean Seollal?, Vietnamese Tet, Mongolian Tsagaan Sarand Tibetan Losar?, Chinese New Year farewells winter and the year gone by and rings in spring and the fresh year with family and friends. Making wishes for luck, prosperity and good fortune and warding off evil spirits are central to many celebrations, which vary across China and Lunar New Year cultures.
From the beginning of festivities on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month to the Lantern Festival on day 15 of the new year, taboos, traditions and superstitions dominate the auspicious time. If you want to ensure you have a lucky, prosperous year, here's a list of what to do and what not to do.
DO THESE THINGS
Clean the house thoroughly on Sunday, New Year's Eve, said Cheryl Cumines of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, whose great-grandfather established ships providore and lodge King Nam Jang in the Rocks in 1911. A clean home means sweeping away any misfortunes to make room for a fresh, ordered start to the New Year.
Look out if you're a monkey. According to Chinese philosophy, those born with the same zodiac sign as the year's designated animal are going to have a particularly difficult year. Those born in the Year of the Monkey – 1908, 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992 and 2004 – are urged to lie low.
Decorate your home with red lanterns and the "Fu" or luck character.
Come together as a family, travelling home to relatives, especially for a reunion dinner on New Year's Eve. Daphne Lowe Kelley, former head of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, who is involved in the production of Chinese Opera – Monkey King and Princess Iron Fan at the Seymour Centre, said the feast sees out the old year and celebrates togetherness. "Chinese love food, it's about good eating," she said.
Eat fish, which is essential to the reunion feast. The words for carp sound like "good luck" and "gift". Place the head in the direction of the most distinguished or oldest guest, who eats first, then utter the lucky saying "Niannian you yu". Homophones or "puns" explain the choice of many New Year foods, said Cao Yin, curator of Chinese art at the Art Gallery of NSW. Spring rolls resemble gold bars. Tangerines stand for success and pomelos bring wealth. Celery (for wisdom), plums (for a sharp mind), chicken (with the head and feet attached), steamed buns (piled high), lettuce (for being alive) and sweets (for a sweet year) are also customary. Dumplings, or "jiaozi", resemble old Chinese currency, while long noodles and peaches symbolise longevity. "Niangao" or steamed rice cakes, are a southern delicacy, "gao" meaning "high", as in to make better or improve.
Paste spring festival couplets around your front door, calling for blessings on the home and land. Written on red paper in black or gold calligraphy, the scrolls must have parallel structures and antithetical meanings, such as: "??????? Dragon and phoenix bring the prosperity / ??????? Peach and apricot blossoms welcome the spring / ???? Blessing on the Land".
Wear new clothes. Out with the old, in with the new – particularly if they are bright, happy colours. Red symbolises prosperity, so monkeys are advised to wear red (underwear included) to up their good fortune quotients.
Give red envelopes, or "hongbao" stuffed with money. Ms Cumines said that married people are expected to give the packets, often containing coins, but more regularly, notes, too, to children.
Set off firecrackers to drive away evil spirits. This, from a former Shanghai resident: "There are so many fireworks – professional grade, being lit at street level with no mortar - that it snows ash, constantly. You can spot the locals because they're either lighting the fireworks or running down the sidewalk, with helmets and goggles on, ducking and diving as if they were on sniper alley."
Move slippers and shoes indoors before going to bed, to protect them from the thieving hands of evil spirits.
See a dragon or lion dance and pray for the year ahead at the temple.
Settle debts by New Year. Fresh starts are no time to be beholden to others.
DON'T DO THESE THINGS
Use sharp objects in the three days or so of the New Year. Cao Yin remembers her grandmother scolding her for sewing in the New Year holidays, explaining that blades and needles mean a hard year ahead. For this reason, her father would avoid any cooking that involved using a knife for the first four days of the New Year.
Buy, give or do four of anything. The word for four has the misfortune of sounding like the word for death.
Wear white or black, which are traditional colours of mourning.
Eat congee or rice porridge on New Year morning. It symbolises poverty. "Congee is mainly water boiled with rice, it can be seen as a poor man's food. I love congee, but not on those days", said Ms Lowe Kelley.
Buy new shoes until after day 15 so as to avoid rough seas in the year ahead. Another homophone, shoe, or "hai", sounds like "rough".
Give sharp objects, scissors and knives as presents. In fact, gift no-nos extend well beyond things that cut, to include shoes, handkerchiefs, umbrellas, clocks, pears, cut flowers, black or white objects or mirrors.
Sweep the house on New Year's Day, so as to avoid sweeping away good fortune.
Swear and use foul or negative language or talk about death, ghosts and the past year. Now is a time to be positive and look ahead, not at times gone by.
Take medicine or break any household objects over the holiday. Illness or harm done during the festive season are believed to cast negativity on the year ahead.
Wake family up or use their name to wake them on New Year's Day for fear of rendering them bedridden and lazy all year.
Go outside on Scarlet Dog Day. Traditionally – and very rarely nowadays – the superstitious avoid leaving the house on day three so as not to encounter the god of anger.
Wash hair or visit the hairdresser, so as to not wash or trim all that freshly accumulated luck away. "Which reminds me, I have to make an appointment to see the hairdresser before New Year," said Ms Lowe Kelley.
Allow babies to cry on New Year's Day. The sound is believed to bring bad luck, so infants are fastidiously placated.
Beg in any way. Bad habits forged in the New Year set the tone for the entire year.