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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Culture of Taiwan: Lunar New Year traditions

One of the things, that really interest me and something I greatly enjoy writing about is Taiwanese culture, urban lifestyle and the complexities of the Taiwanese modern society. This seemingly small nation of islands and islets in the Far East is a treasure trove of archaic Chinese and Austronesian traditions and superstitions with uniquely Taiwanese characteristics, that are nowhere else to be found. Taiwan's complicated history of the past four centuries has produced a very complex society and a lot of outsiders might struggle to understand why things are the way they are in Taiwan. I hope this series will be helpful for those, who want to get a better understanding. Living in Taiwan has taught me a lot, but there are still things, that surprise or leave me wondering from time to time. Fortunately I have a Taiwanese wife, who is very smart and at the same time patient enough to explain them to me. This process usually results in very interesting conversations and I want to take that and adapt it to my blog. I've decided to publish a series of interviews with her, that will be related to Taiwanese cultural particularities. By the way, she a passionate blogger for almost a decade now, you can check out her blog (in Chinese) here.


Today we will discuss the upcoming Lunar New Year and all the things surrounding it. Keep in mind, that this is just a general Taipei-centric overview of the most common customs and traditions. I'm sure there are many parts of Taiwan, that have their own unique ways of celebrating this important festival, so take her words as a reference, not as the definite truth for every Taiwanese. If there are some things we missed to discuss, please leave a comment and add to the discussion.

MKL: Can you briefly tell us what Lunar New Year is and how important it is as a celebration in Taiwan?

The Taiwanese Wife: Lunar New Year, also known as spring festival (春節, chūn jié) is the new year according to our lunar calendar and a several days long festival. It's also the most anticipated vacation of the year for all nations in the world that have Chinese roots. Westerners traditionally celebrate Christmas as their biggest annual celebration, the Lunar New Year has a similar meaning to us. The festivities start with the reunion dinner (團圓飯, tuán yüén fàn), where children commonly visit their parents and eat dinner together (married women traditionally eat with their husband's father, but they are free to visit her own family on the second day). During Chinese New Year celebrations relatives would usually visit each other and say congratulations (恭喜, gōng xǐ). Saying gongxi means people wish good luck to each other appreciating the safe passing of the old year and welcoming the new one. In the old times people believed there was a monster (年獸, nién shòu), that would eat them on the new year's eve. So when they survived and made it to the new year, they would congratulate each other. The fireworks (煙火, yēn huǒ) were a way to chase away the monster, that's why it's so popular during Lunar New Year’s Eve. This is just a legend, however tradition is preserved until today.

MKL: What are some of the things one needs to prepare before the celebrations?

The Taiwanese Wife: Let me list the most common ones:

1. New clothes and new shoes: At the first day of the Lunar New Year we would always wear new clothes. It means we want to look new and fresh for the upcoming year and also we want to look better in front of the relatives when they come to visit. Before people weren't rich and always saved money, many only bought new clothes before the new year and hoped to wear them for the whole year. However, in the recent decades of economic growth and relative prosperity we don't need to be so frugal anymore, so somehow this reason doesn't apply anymore, but the tradition still continues.

2. All kinds of snacks: Usually we prepare peanuts, Chinese sweets, candies, sun flower seeds and squid floss. During the long vacation you would sometimes like to entertain yourself by watching DVDs or playing video games - these snacks would be an excellent companion for that. They are also good for having tea with relatives.

3. New money: You'll need to give "red envelopes" or angpau (紅包, hóng bāo) to parents or kids during new year. The rule is that those "who work" give money to those that "don't work". We believe that giving new money would bring good luck. People would even change the old bank notes for new ones and put them in the red envelopes.


MKL: Is there anything one should not do to avoid bad fortune?

The Taiwanese Wife: Yes. For example: From the fifth day of the new year until the end of the celebrations you can't sweep the floor toward the outside. If you do so, it means you'll sweep your money out of your house. However, at the first four days of the new year you can't sweep the floor (or clean the house) at all, it's considered bad luck and causes the money to go away. And the second thing is: Do not break anything! However, if you break any ceramic items by accident, you have to say "碎碎平安!" (sueì sueì píng ān), which is roughly translated as Break break safely! The pronunciation of "碎" is the same as "歲" (sueì), which means year. If you say this phrase quickly, that would change the negative aspect of "break safely" to a positive spin of a "safe year".

MKL: What kind of food is eaten and what is the meaning behind it?

The Taiwanese Wife: In the old times meat was expensive and only eaten on special occasion. At the new year's eve we worship our ancestors and in order to show our respect, chicken and pork are a must. The other two obligatory foods are fish (魚, ) and leaf mustard (長年菜, cháng nién cài). The pronunciation of fish is the same as surplus (餘, ), it signifies, that we'll have more than enough food, we wouldn't lack food to feed the family in the coming year. And leaf mustard always comes with long leaves, by eating them we believe we can live long lives. The turnip cake (蘿蔔糕, luóbuo gāo) and glutinous rice cake (年糕, nién gāo) also need to be prepared, because the pronunciation of cake (糕, gāo) is the same as high (高, gāo). We believe, that if one eats more "糕", they will get a promotion or improve their career in the coming year year, we have a saying "步步高升" (bùbù gāo shēng), it means climb steadily. It's common in Mandarin to use homophones and connect them with good fortune.

MKL: You once told me, that the festive feeling has become less in recent years, especially in Taipei. Are people not into the celebrations anymore? Why do you think is that?

The Taiwanese Wife: Well, I also wonder why this happened. I could only guess it's because our lives became better in recent decades. In the past Lunar New Year celebration was like sharing after a harvest, people were able to buy new things and eat better food during that time. However in the recent times we can do this during all the time, so the feeling of "getting new things and eating better" becomes less strong. Another reason is, that we have less and less leisure time because of the overloading jobs, so people tend to relax or travel during the new year's vacation. You will see a lot of people going out with families and visiting tourist spots. I remember you once told me, that when you were living in Malaysia, you enjoyed the Lunar New Year vacation very much and felt it was a lot of fun. How come in Taiwan you didn't feel so? I guess because we are not a minority in our country and we don't fear, that our culture and traditions are in danger and therefore the celebration becomes very normal and more like a routine. Maybe we should visit Malaysia or Singapore during Lunar New Year to enjoy the authentic atmosphere again.

MKL: Well, I think it's more a problem of bigger cities. I hear Singapore and Hong Kong also lack a good new year atmosphere, but the smaller towns and villages would be much more festive and people much more excited to celebrate. Dear wife, thank you for the interview.

The Taiwanese Wife: You're welcome ^_^

Related: My photos of the Lunar New Year Festival at Dihua Street>>

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