The Validity of Chinese Traditions

China’s a big country, so it makes sense that there would be variations in holiday traditions, but every New Year I feel like each of my friends has a different idea of how to celebrate the holiday. I just told Rosa that I’ve cursed myself by washing my hair this morning and she had no idea what I was talking about. (BTW I find that link so funny because really, the answer to any question about the reason behind any Chinese tradition is that it’s lucky or unlucky.)

So I want to start a conversation, and please leave me a comment about this. I’m going to write down some of the traditions I know and have been observing (or forced to observe) since birth. Tell me yours, and let me know if you’ve never heard of mine!

1. Hongbao

hong bao

A friend was just telling me about how one of his friends always got her hongbao put under her pillow after she slept on New Year’s night, like a Hongbao Fairy. He said he made fun of her till she cried (so cruel) because obvs no one ever sleeps on the hongbao. But in my family, we get the hongbao (red pocket) full of massive wads of ca$h (ok, 20 bucks) the night before and put it under our pillows to sleep. My mom is from Hong Kong and none of my mainland friends had ever done that before. You?

2. Lion dances

lion spits

I love being in Hong Kong for New Year because you can go to the big fancy malls and see lions dancing and spitting lettuce all over the floor! I forgot why that happens but obviously (see above) it has to do with luck, and probably a pun on the word vegetable (cai). I rarely saw that happen in mainland China, but I did see it once or twice in the south, right next to Hong Kong. Is it a Cantonese thing?

3. Hair washing and showering

me

I can’t seem to find the pics I took of the larger part of the hairdresser’s in China, but this is a (rather old) pic of me on the bed where you get your hair washed/scalp massaged/body massaged all at once. It’s awesome!

Back to the larger point: you’re not supposed to wash your hair or even shower on New Year Day because you’ll be washing away the luck bestowed upon you. This isn’t one I observed as a kid; I learned it while living in the mainland. My Taiwanese friends seem not to do it either. Is this something people give up when they get to the US, because Americans are crazy about showering? Seriously, Americans love to clean themselves. I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit something personal: in the winter, I often shower every other day.

4. New Year foods

viv and helen

Here’s my old students, Viv and Helen, chopping celery to make dumplings!

In my family, we just ate something sort of Chinese for New Year because we were in a tiny town in TN and didn’t really have access to Chinese foods or ingredients (or the will to use American ingredients and go through the time and effort of creating Chinese delicacies from them). When I went to the village in the mainland to teach, my students told me that it’s tradition to eat dumplings, and it’s also tradition to hide a coin in one of them and whoever finds it has extra luck. That seems especially unlucky to me though, biting into a dumpling and finding a coin (and breaking a tooth, and losing a filling, etc).

5. Teacher’s Day

I can’t find anything on this, but when I was studying in Hong Kong, our Chinese teacher invited us to her house on a specific day of New Year because that was the teacher’s day. I’ve not heard about that since! But I know that each day following New Year has some significance, like one day you go see your teacher, one day you go see your friends, etc. Anyone else know about that? What’s the schedule?

6. Get a new outfit!

chicken head

My favorite tradition! There are MAJOR sales on clothes before the New Year because you’re supposed to get a whole new outfit to start the year off fresh! I couldn’t find a pic of a sale so I will treat you to this picture of Calvin Klein’s window display in Hong Kong for the year of the chicken. I think it gets the point across. But again, not everyone has heard of this tradition, and I didn’t know about it until I went to HK. Maybe parents want to hide it from their American-born kids so they don’t have to pony up for new clothes?

There might be more, but lunch break is over. Things I miss most: the HK light show, fireworks going off at all hours every day for two weeks, the general good mood, the flower market. Leave me a comment about your traditions, or argue with mine! I’ll fight you!

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11 Responses to The Validity of Chinese Traditions

  1. Ian says:

    I used to do dragon dance for my high school on those years when they bothered to get into lunar new year. Except I didn’t know how to do dragon dancing, so I just hopped up and down a lot and got into people’s faces til they walked away in disgust. True story.

  2. Christine Chan says:

    I obsess over various fortune websites and lament about my poor luck to come. It’s very Chinese to find weird pleasure in bad news.

  3. Gary says:

    Maybe it’s because I grew up in the northern part of China, but I don’t recall my family/relatives being so superstitious or obsessed with lucky numbers. I get the impression that people from the south (Guangzhou, Fujian, etc.) are much more concerned about face, status, and luck.

    I haven’t gotten a hong bao since I moved to the US when I was 10 (!) because money was so tight back then.

    Nowadays, my CNY tradition is to call up like 20 different relatives back in China and wish them a Happy New Year. And swimming. And sending money back. That’s about it. Sigh.

  4. Maria says:

    Wow! You’ve done a great job with photos and text. I don’t have traditions to share but I love those you’ve put down here. On the other hand, perhaps that is a tradition of mine… to explore those of others. 🙂

  5. Raymond says:

    I don’t really have any Chinese New Year’s traditions especially growing up in a white household but I have heard of Hongbaos. I usually get them for my birthday, Christmas, and special events like graduation (last year). I get a lot more than $20 though. In terms of the lion dance, my co-worker is actually in a lion dance crew and they’re performing tonight in Chinatown. Can’t wait for Dim Sum Go Go!!!!

  6. Raymond says:

    I will be taking several showers today.

  7. Ryan says:

    I grew up with my maternal grandparents, so I think that is why I ended up following many traditions even though we were in TN. Grandma was from Fuzhou, Grandpa from Guangxi

    1) As a kid, I remember having the hongbao under my pillow. As I got older though, I would receive the hongbao only after going to bainian in front of my parents and grandparents.

    2) TN had no lions, but the Chinatown association here in Boston does to lion dances this time of year. Empty hongbao are distributed so that you can put money in to “feed” the lion.

    3) I’ve never heard of not washing during New Year, but it is definitely considered bad luck to cut your hair on this day. 髮 being a homonym for 發.

    4) Our family was huge on the New Year food superstitions. We always have nian gao (both the Shanghainese and Cantonese kind), a whole steamed fish (that you can only eat the top fillet and are not allowed to flip it over), fa cai tang (soup made with this moss stuff that looks like hair), noodles, chicken, occasionally dumplings (because they look like gold ingots, a more northern china thing). We also always had oranges and apples displayed.

    5) I was always taught that Teachers’ Day is celebrated on Confucius’ birthday sometime in fall.

    6) Always wore new clothes to represent the new year. And must be red.

    Other random superstitions and traditions: firecrackers (until we got a citation..), chunlian on the front door, a pot of narcissus, not allowed to sweep or clean the house on new year’s day, tang yuan on the last day of the new year period..

    • smbuchanan says:

      I forgot about a bunch of those things I love too! Like tang yuan, not cleaning, and those flowers.

      Teacher’s Day is a separate holiday, but my teacher that year said there’s a specific day on one of the New Year holiday days that you’re supposed to go pay your respect to your teacher.

      I forgot to mention that the stores the lion goes to have to pay up as well. It’s lucky to give away your money!

      PS I HATE nian gao the savory kind! My auntie used to make a sweet fried one that had coconut milk in the dough and was pan fried.

  8. Ben says:

    1. Yes to the red envolope
    2. Yes to the lettuce
    3. No to hair washing
    4. No to coins in dumplings
    5. No to teachers day
    6. Yes to new clothes

    Have you heard of getting a hair cut before new years? This is a BIG one

  9. Mei says:

    The ones I got from China and maybe from growing up? I can’t remember which now:
    1. Noodles – eat noodles for long life
    2. Pomegranate, grapes, seeds – eat things like that for bountiful year (and maybe fertility?)
    3. clean the house the day before, shower the day before, haircut the day before – basically do everything the day before so that you start the New Year’s day perfect. If you do, then that’s how the rest of the year is supposed to be.
    4. We always had to say 新年快乐,万事如意 to my mom before we got the hong bao.

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