Personal Note: I decided to share my book with friends and students in mainland China because it costs too much to order one from USA. Enjoy it and share it with people you care and love. Peace, Steve, usa, September 9, 2019 firstname.lastname@example.org blog – https://getting2knowyou-china.com
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Since ancient times, the New Year preparation starts seven days before New Year’s Eve. Those Chinese living in the diaspora (like my family), in Taiwan and Hong Kong, have kept the traditions and customs intact, untarnished by the communists in mainland China. But modernization outside mainland China is doing its best to undermine ancient beliefs and practices, especially with the younger generation of Chinese in the world.
On December 23 of our lunar calendar, according to our Chinese traditional culture, the Kitchen God will report about the daily affairs of each family to the Jade Emperor. And you can bribe him by offering him sacrifices of water, beans and candy so he would not say anything bad about your family. If all goes well, the Jade Emperor will let you prosper and do well the following year. At the same time, the family will also worship their ancestors. The sacrifice will remain in place till New Year’s Eve when the Kitchen God will return to earth to a warm welcome. I grew up in a Christian family and so the Kitchen God was alien to me. I had never seen a picture of the Kitchen God. And as Christians we did not worship the Kitchen God or our ancestors.
On December 24, it is a time to clean the house. It is the time to clean the whole house. “Dust” is a homophone for “old” (chen), so cleaning the dust means (in our Chinese thinking) driving the old things or bad luck away, preparing everything for a new start. I remember feeling excited doing this with the whole family when I was growing up in the village in Malaya. We knew New Year was on the way. It was soap, water, brush and broom, with hands and knees, making sure the floors, walls and corners, doors and windows and the yards were clean. I remember we paid a lot of attention to our kitchen, which was a separate building attached to the rest of the house. The women washed the beddings and all the cooking utensils in the kitchen.
On December 25, families who want to make a good impression (to escape punishment) of the Jade Emperor during his visit to earth on this day to check out the veracity of the reports by the Kitchen God to him, many would put on a show of thriftiness and simple living. So in some parts of China, people will make and eat bean curd…considered simple and cheap to eat. I grew up a Christian and so this activity is something new to me.
On December 26, following an old tradition in China (in the past many people were poor and they could only afford to eat meat during the Spring Festival), some people would go to the butcher to buy meat. If they had raised their own livestock (especially
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before the creation of the new communist China in 1949 by Chairman Mao), they could pay a butcher to slaughter the animals for them. To keep the tradition alive, some people, despite the fact meat is available daily in the markets, would buy meat on this day. In the village where I grew up, without fail, every year a small group of butchers would slaughter a few pigs and sell their meat on makeshift tables in front of a village store and the whole village would be up very early and fight for a chance to buy whatever meat was available to them. This was done only once a year. I could hear the loud ringing of bicycle bells because of heavy traffic of many villagers coming to the buy the meat. And all the meat from the slaughtered pigs would be sold out by the time the sun appeared in the eastern sky. So if you wanted some meat, you had to be there early. I saw this ritual every year because we lived a short distance opposite this particular village store. We lived in a village and we could still go to a town, an hour away by bicycle, to buy the meats from a regular market where they sold only vegetables and meats, and all kinds of ingredients needed to cook a plain or a fancy meal.
On December 27, many people would go shopping and buy many things related to the celebration of the Spring Festival, like all kinds of decorations which would include pictures for the walls (like big posters), paper cuts, couplets, firecrackers and fireworks, and also new clothing. When I was growing up, there were no shops selling clothes and so my mother would buy the cloth and sent me to the village seamstress. She would measure, cut and sew the clothes for you for the New Year. Of course, now ready made clothes are everywhere in China and most people do not wait until December 27 to roam the streets to get the best buys in town. For sale signs and loud disco music are everywhere to entice you to enter the shops in China. Wearing new clothes and a new hair-cut were a must for most of us in the village. We arrived at Jake’s house on December 29, I did not see Jake had a new hair cut!
On December 28, according to the folk custom, people would have baths to remove all the dirt and sickness from the past, allowing better health and good luck to come to begin life anew for another year. They also believe washing all the dirty clothes would also ensure a clean, new start of a new year. Now in the modern era, with availability of washing machines and showers, this custom is fading away.
In my village (where most of the immigrants were from Fujian Province, China), every family would make steamed sweetened breads (look like steamed buns without fillings) in the evening after our regular dinner, and we enjoyed eating them fresh from the bamboo steamers. And it was also our custom to share and send these breads (between six to a dozen pieces) to our immediate neighbors who were also busy making steamed breads. My family also made nian gao (higher year) or rice cake
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every year the same time when we made the steamed breads. Earlier in the day, we would first ground the soaked rice and keep it inside a cloth bag to allow the water to drip for a few hours. Add to the moist ground rice was Chinese brown sugar with some almond extract. It would be steamed. The best part of the cake was to eat it after it became old, hard, moldy and chewy. I grew up without electricity and refrigeration. We would slice the cake into small pieces, and dip them in a simple batter of eggs and pan-fry them so they would be soft inside and crispy outside. We would eat the old moldy cake and it seemed the older the cake, the better the taste when pan-fried. These days, most people can buy any kind of nian gao from the markets. Eating nian gao will bring you good luck in the New Year.
Some people in China would decorate the rooms by pasting paper-cuts on the windows. And because in ancient times, nothing was sold or bought during the Spring Festival, some people in rural China would prepare various kinds of foods before the festival. Of course, now people can buy anything from supermarkets or shopping centers during the holidays.
On December 29, some people would go to the tombs to worship their ancestors or departed loved ones. In most non-Christian families (the population of Christians is on the rise now in contemporary China) there is a big family altar in the center of the living room…usually with aromatic incense and joss sticks and offerings of fruits and other edibles to the ancestors and deities, enlivened by the low hum of an electronic Buddhist chants daily.
Traditionally, it is also recommended for families to put up the couplets on the main entrance to the house especially between the hours of 13:00 and 15:00 on December 29. When I arrived at Jake’s house on December 29, the first visible sign of the Spring Festival was the couplets on scrolls on either sides of the main entrance to the house and the horizontal scroll on top of the door frame. (It was obvious Jake parents pasted the couplets some time before December 29.) The bold Chinese characters could be written in gold or dark black on bright red scrolls, warm and welcoming to any guest entering the house. And what stood out for me was the excellent calligraphy, used in the writing of the couplets expressing the deepest wishes of the residents of the house. It was truly a piece of fine art work.
You can be sure every momentous event in the Chinese culture has a history. Legend has it that a rooster perched on a peach tree would crow to bring back the traveling ghosts to the ghost world and if any of them had harmed anyone, Shentu and Yulei, the two guards at the entrance, would kill them. In time, people began to believe the peach tree had some magical powers over evil things and so they would hang peach
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boards in the main entrance to their houses with the names of Shentu and Yulei written on them to protect them from evil spirits. Chinese people believe the couplets used in our Spring Festival originated from Taofu, an inscription on peach board in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). During the Song Dynasty (960-1270 AD), paper had replaced the peach board with optimistic wishes for the future. The custom became popular during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) when Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, in his inspection tours, found the scrolls so meaningful that he ordered all households to paste these scrolls during the Chinese New Year. And that explains why we Chinese today continue this tradition of putting the couplets in the main entrance to the house.
Many Chinese today are not aware that there is a right way and a wrong way to read these couplets. I attended a Chinese school, founded by my grandfather when he and his family (including my father and his brothers and sisters) and his fellow immigrants left Fuqing, China and settled in a remote area in Malaya. The first thing they did was to set up a Chinese school for the children. They valued education. A primary school was founded by grandpa and it was located on our land. I saw the foundation stone when I grew up, a short walking distance from our house. Later the village decided to move it to a more central location in our village. I attended that school for two years only and later my father transferred me to an English school and I never did return to study in a Chinese school again. Most patriotic parents in our village would send their children to Chinese schools. At the time, children could attend a Malay, Indian, Chinese and English school, depending on the desires and thinking of their immigrant parents. And I studied English for the rest of my life.
As children we learned to master the brush, not a pen or pencil at the time. In traditional Chinese, we learned to write, not from left to right on a horizontal line, but from top to bottom, vertically from right to left. So how to read the Chinese couplets pasted on your doors? There are three scrolls: one on the top of the door frame and so the characters are written horizontally. Then there are two scrolls, one on either side of the door. These two vertical lines must have an equal number of characters, and their meaning must be related and antithetical. The top horizontal line usually has four characters and they sum up the meanings of the two vertical lines. If the four characters on top horizontal scroll are written the traditional way, from right to left, then you read the vertical lines from right to left. If the four characters on the horizontal line are written from left to right (the Western way), then you would read everything from left to right, including the vertical lines on either side of the door. So when you put up the couplets on December 29, you follow the same way as you would read the couplets. If it is written vertically from right to left, then you are to paste the right scroll first, follow by the left scroll. Then the top horizontal scroll. This
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is what you must do if you are faithful to the Chinese tradition…you must follow the order how the words are written, whether from left to right (the Western way) or top to bottom, right to left, the traditional Chinese way.
So when do you remove or take down the couplets? Most in the cities would try to remove them after the Spring Festival festivities, after the Lantern Festival on the 15th. Most in rural areas would leave them intact until next year unless damaged by wind or rain. And you don’t simply throw them away like some unwanted old pair of shoes. Spring couplets are gods and if you burn them, they would return to heaven and reward the families with good luck and fortune. There are a few cases where families would paste the new ones over the old ones. I wonder if the gods would be happy about this lazy habit of modern Chinese.
In modern China, some banks and supermarkets would give printed couplets to their faithful customers or clients; like some businesses would give you their annual, beautifully designed and printed calendars. If you are lucky, you can still go to some local markets where you can ask professional calligraphers to write down your favorite New Year wishes accompanied by a stylish calligraphy writing style. Worth the fees. Most ordinary printed couplets express vulgar wishes for power and wealth. Jake told me the couplets pasted on their front door were written by a respected old teacher in his hometown. And the special couplets would include characters from the names of Jake’s grandpa, father, mother and Jake. Jake took time to tell me the Chinese characters referring to him, his father, mother and grandpa in the couplets. This was the tradition of his village he said.
Here are a few common couplets prevalent in China. (How to read a couplet? The horizontal scroll always has four characters, and it is a summary of meaning of the two vertical scrolls. Each vertical scroll has the same number of characters.)
Horizontal scroll: Spring in the air
Left vertical scroll: Spring rain nourishes the plants
Right vertical scroll: Red plum decorates the mountains
Horizontal scroll: Flourishing in Four Seasons
Left vertical scroll: May you have good luck in everything
Right vertical scroll: May you feel content and family healthy
This is China.