Feature Articles

Lunar New Year Customs and Traditions

By: shimin on 11 Mar 2013
When visiting Singapore just before the New Year, one may be overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of people getting ready. A trip through Chinatown proves just that. The Lunar New Year isn’t always about eating and dressing well – we’ve got a few interesting customs, too. If you feel clueless, don’t fret! We’ll explain some of the customs and traditions of the Spring Festival so you’ll get a better understanding of Chinese culture.

Fú 福
Usually written on a red piece of paper, this character is pasted everywhere. While some may paste the sign the right way up, it’s normally pasted upside down. The word 福 (Fú) means good fortune. When pasted upside down, it is inverted (倒 dăo), which is also a homonym for the word 到 (dào), meaning, “to arrive.” So when this word is inverted, it becomes an auspicious symbol as it signals the arrival of good fortune.

There’s also a historical anecdote which explains the origins of this custom. In the Ming dynasty, the Emperor pasted this word on someone’s door when he wanted to kill that person. The Empress discovered his cruelty and found a clever way to outsmart her husband. She decreed that all doors should be pasted with this character, though an illiterate family pasted it upside down. The next day, the Emperor made his rounds and was furious as he could not find the house of his victim. Seeing the inverted word made him even more incensed, and he ordered that family to be put to death. The Empress quickly intervened, telling him that it was a good omen as it signaled the arrival of good fortune. The family was pardoned, and subsequent generations still carry out this tradition.

Spring Couplets (Chūn Lián/Duì Lián 春联/ 对联)
Like the word Fu, spring couplets are also pasted at the entrance of homes and businesses during the Lunar New Year. The origins of Chinese couplets are murky and date back to folklore. Two of the most fearsome warriors of the heavens were sent by the Jade Emperor to vanquish demons which were harassing the people. Soon after, many artistic representations of these warriors appeared on doors as the Chinese believed that their spirits would protect the residents of the house. In time, they came to be known as door gods. When illustrating these door gods proved to be tedious, many chose to write their names on peach boards instead.  This practice evolved over time and people began to write their wishes for the New Year on pieces of red paper, which gave rise to this tradition.

(Photo Credit: Siearel)

Spring couplets are read from right to left. Both lines must have the same amount of characters, so writing them requires a bit of poetic prowess. It’s helpful to think of the couplets as mirrors of each other, as each word in the second line must be the opposite of each word in the first line. Many people write their own couplets to express auspicious sentiments.

Lion Dance/Dragon Dance (wŭ lóng/wŭ shī 舞龙/舞狮)
Lion and Dragon dances are performed to usher in the New Year. The lion dance’s origins go back to the Northern and Southern Song Dynasty when Emperor Wen tried to find a way to fight against General Fan Yan, who headed an army of elephants. Emperor Wen's governor, Tan He came up with a plan to dress his soldiers like lions to scare the elephant away. They succeeded and soon, the lion dance became part of Chinese culture.

(A lion dance in the street. Photo Credit: Flickr, Wonderlane)

Sometimes, a fellow dancer wearing a mask leads the lion to “eat” oranges, or peel a pomelo, with the latter signifying prosperity. Sometimes, the lion is made to pick vegetables. The lion “eats” the vegetables and spits them out, and this signifies abundance throughout the year. The dance ends in the lion leaping for the red packet (angpow) though the red packet is sometime given after the performance.
The dragon dance, however, is performed to give thanks to a mythological dragon who gave rain to the people, despite opposition from the Jade Emperor in heaven. The dragon is also a symbol of a bountiful harvest as the Chinese people believed that these mystical creatures bestowed rain upon the people.

(A dragon dance is performed. Photo Credt: Flickr, lok_lok05)

During dragon dances, the dragon chases after a pearl, which symbolizes the search for wisdom. The dragon is often green, which signifies a good harvest, though red and gold are more common now. Like the lion dance, the dragon comes to life with graceful movements, making it enjoyable to watch.

Now that you’re armed with a little more knowledge about the Lunar New Year, go out and explore. Sample the food, take a stroll and admire the decorations at Chinatown. You may just see a lion dance gracing our streets.

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