The 30th (the last) day of the current Lunar year will be tomorrow, on January 27th, according to the Gregorian calendar. It will be the last day for Chinese people to prepare themselves and their houses for the new year – the year of the Fire Rooster. This is one of the most important days in the year, because of the reunion dinner where the whole family comes together from different parts of China (or even from other countries).
Usually, the table is full of food, and as you may already know – food means a lot to the Chinese people. That is why there are special “lucky” dishes for the Reunion Dinner and the other days of the Festival.
Fish, or 鱼 (Yú in pinyin) is pronounced the same as the word for “surplus” and Chinese people like to have it at the end of the year, because they think that in this case, they will have more in the following year. The Chinese believe that fish has to be the last dish left on the table with some left over, which means you will have surplus every year. In some areas of the country, they believe that the head and the tail shouldn’t be eaten until the beginning of the new year, which means that the year will start and finish with surplus. There are also some rules about how to serve fish to the table: 1. The head of the fish should be placed towards guests or the elder members of the family as a sign of respect; 2. All family members can start eating fish only after the one who faces the fish’s head eats of it first; 3. The fish should not be moved, because the two people who face its head and tail should drink together as it is representing good luck.
The other typical Spring Festival meal – Spring rolls, or 春卷 (Chūnjuǎn in Pinyin) – gets its name after it. Rolls are traditionally eaten in East China. Fillings such as vegetables, meat, or even something sweet are wrapped into thin dough wrappers and then fried until golden-yellow. Eating the Spring rolls during the Spring Festival means to welcome the coming spring and the golden-yellow color symbolizes wealth.
While Chinese people are cooking noodles for the reunion dinner, they never cut them, even if they are too long. Because long noodles mean longevity. So, the longer the noodle – the better 😉
Sweet rice balls, or 汤圆 (tāngyuán in pinyin) are the main food for Lantern Festival (which falls on the 15th day of the new Lunar year) but they are also eaten during the Spring Festival in most Chinese regions. They symbolize reunion and being together with family because of their round shape and pronunciation (and probably the meaning of this dish made it one of the most favorite during the Spring Festival).
That is also the reason why Chinese people like to eat oranges, tangerines and pomelos during the Chinese New Year. These fruits have a round shape and their yellow-orange (“golden”) colors symbolize fullness and wealth. Also, orange or tangerine is pronounced like 橙 (or chéng), which sounds the same as “success” (成). The Chinese name for pomelo is 柚 (yòu in Pinyin) which sounds nearly like “to have” (有 yǒu) and exactly like “again” (又 yòu). According to a Chinese saying: “The more you eat, the more wealth it will bring”.
Another dish, which we already mentioned in our first article about Chinese New Year, is glutinous rice cake, or 年糕 (Niángāo in Pinyin), which means “getting higher year by year”. Chinese people understand it like to get higher in business or to get a promotion.
Last but not the least a “must-have” during the Spring Festival (especially here, in the North) are dumplings – 饺子 (Jiǎozi in pinyin). Some families eat them during the reunion dinner but, traditionally, they should make them after the dinner and consume them around midnight. They symbolize wealth because the dumplings look like Chinese silver ingots. And here the Chinese also say (the same like with pomelo) – the more dumplings you eat during the New Year celebrations, the more money you can make during the year. The filling can vary, as each family has their own traditions about what they like to prepare, and there are also regional differences. But one filling that is conspicuously absent is Chinese sauerkraut, or 酸菜 (suāncài in pinyin) in dumplings because it symbolizes a poor and difficult future. Sometimes families hide a coin inside one of the dumplings. He or she who finds it will be showered with good luck.
There are a lot of other “foods with meaning” which are usually on the Chinese table. If you are interested in the culinary traditions, there is a whole list here: http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/Chinese_Customs/food_symbolism.htm
Nowadays, many Chinese families will not have this dinner at home, they prefer to go to a restaurant instead as many restaurants are open for New Year’s Eve celebrations. That is a good choice for those who want to have a good dinner but do not have time (or the inclination or the talent) to cook.
At midnight, as soon as the clock strikes twelve, the fireworks and firecrackers start to go off. People use them during the whole festival’s celebration, as they believe that they will scare off bad spirits. Traditionally, the Chinese set off one string of small firecrackers first, followed by three big firecrackers, which “sound out” the old year and “sound in” the new year.
Also, some Chinese families go to the local temples after the dinner to pray for all good things in the coming year and stay there until the first firecrackers start to go off.
As we are talking about Chinese New Year, of course, there are some taboos, which people try to avoid during the reunion dinner and the following festival’s days. Some of them believe that: 1. if they wash their hair on the first three days of the new year, they will wash away the good luck; 2. a cry of the child brings a bad luck to all family members; 3. you must not deal with money (no loans or borrowing from friends!) because it is believed that this way, the money will get away from you.
Chinese culture is so interesting for foreigners because of the countless symbols and meanings. Try to remember them all to get the maximum amount of luck for the next Lunar year (especially you Roosters!). Not to miss the other information about this country and its traditions – follow us on our social media platforms (WeChat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and, of course, our blog). Good luck and Happy Spring Festival!
Written by Inna Mironova