The Chinese Lantern Festival

The Lantern festival takes place at the very end of the Chinese New Year celebrations but it is not a national holiday in China.

The festival can be traced back two thousand years. It began as a Buddhist custom where the monks would light lanterns in the temple to show respect to Buddha. The emperor of the time, who was an advocate of Buddhism, ordered all the houses and temples to do the same.

The festival is celebrated nowadays with lantern displays and street entertainment, including stilt walkers and lion dances. Lanterns are hung from houses, shops and businesses, creating a beautiful sight after dark.

Another important part of the festival is the riddle. Lantern owners write riddles on papers hanging from the lanterns for people to work out. If someone thinks they know the answer they have to pull the riddle from the lantern and take it to the owner. There is usually a small prize for getting it right. This year the New Year celebrations began on 8th February, and so the Lantern Festival will be taking place on February 22nd.

Related posts: Chinese New Year    Chinese Lanterns

The Story of the Dragon Nian

Once upon a time in China there lived a terrifying dragon called Nian. His home was under the sea, but once a year, on New Year’s Eve, he came to a nearby village where he ate their grain, their livestock and any young children who happened to be outdoors.

Not surprisingly, the terrified villagers used to run and hide in the mountains on this date leaving their homes behind.

One year a wise old man visited the village just as the villagers were fleeing, and he asked them why they were leaving. “The terrible dragon is coming!” they said. “You must come and hide with us for he may eat you.”

The old man said he wasn’t afraid and that he knew how to deal with the dragon, and so he stayed behind in the village.

When the villagers returned there was no sign of Nian, and amazingly their grain and animals were untouched. The old man said that he couldn’t protect the village every year, but he could show them how to protect themselves. “The secret,” he said, “is that the Dragon is frightened of the colour red and of loud sounds and bright lights.”

Now every New Year, the Chinese dress up in red clothes, hang red decorations in their doors and windows, and they set off fire crackers so that the noise and the lights will scare away the Dragon.

It must work because the dragon Nian has never been seen again since this wise old man’s visit.

Related post: Chinese New Year

The Chinese Zodiac

On February 8th this year, people in China, and Chinese people all around the world, will be celebrating Chinese new year. This year is the year of the monkey; last year was the year of the Goat. But how did the Chinese Zodiac come about?

Once upon a time the Emperor invited all the animals to take part in a race, and he said that the first 12 animals to cross the finishing line would become part of the Chinese Zodiac. At the time the rat and the cat were the best of friends, and they agreed that they would go together. However on the day, the rat was so excited when he woke up that he forgot to wake the cat and he set off without him. Since then rats and cats have been sworn enemies, and whenever a cat sees a rat it will chase it away.

The rest of the animals lined up for the race across the river. On The Emperor’s command they jumped into the river and began to swim.

Everyone thought that the dragon would come first because he could fly, but he actually came in fourth. He said this was because he had stopped along the way to help some villagers, and he had also slowed down to help the rabbit, who he had spotted clinging to a log and in danger of drowning.  The rabbit actually ended up finishing the race before the dragon!

The tricky rat asked the ox if he could ride on his back and he promised to sing to him as a payment for this. The kind ox agreed and as he was so strong he was the first to reach the other side of the river. He thought he would win and be the first sign of zodiac but the tricky rat jumped off his back at the last minute to cross the finishing line in front of him. The powerful tiger came in just behind the ox.

The snake was just as tricky as the rat! He wrapped himself around the horse’s foot to get a ride and then when the finish line was in sight, he suddenly appeared in front of the horse. The startled horse fell back and the snake crossed the finishing line ahead of him.

The rooster, the monkey and the sheep worked together and helped each other to get across the river by making a raft and paddling it together.

Unsurprisingly, the dog loved being in the water so much that he stopped to splash around and play, so he was one of the last to arrive back.

At the end of the day when it looked as though no more animals were going to appear at the finishing line, the pig crawled across. He had set out quite quickly, but then along the way he stopped to have something to eat and then, with a full belly, he fell asleep, waking just in time to cross the finishing line before the Emperor when home.

And so the final order of the zodiac is this:

  1. rat
  2. ox
  3. tiger
  4. rabbit
  5. dragon
  6. snake
  7. horse
  8. goat
  9. monkey
  10. rooster
  11. dog
  12. pig

Related posts: Chinese New Year   Year of the Goat

Chinese New Year

恭禧发财 – Happy Chinese New Year.

Today marks the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations of the Year or the Sheep (or the Goat if you prefer).

The Chinese year is based on lunar months (ie each month is 28 days because that’s how long it takes the moon to go round the earth) and so New Year’s Day in China falls on a different date each year. There are usually 12, but sometimes 13 months in a Chinese year. The first day of Chinese New Year will always be between 21st January and 21st February, and it coincides with the new moon.

New Year celebrations begin a couple of days beforehand, when people clean their houses from top to bottom to sweep away the old year. They never clear during the first two days of the New Year as this may sweep away the good luck that the New Year brings.

Family and food are both important in China, and on New Year’s Eve families get together for a special meal which includes fish and Chinese dumplings, both of which represent wealth.

Families decorate their houses in red (for luck) and gold (for wealth). Some popular decorations are lanterns, firecrackers and spring couplets. Firecrackers are also let off outside because the banging noise is believed to scare away the dragon Nian. Spring couplets are decorations which are placed either side of doorways. They are made of red paper, and have good wishes for the new year written in black ink. Each one usually has 4 Chinese characters on so that the couplet has 8 characters – 8 being a lucky number in China.

Children are given money in red envelopes, and tradition says that this will keep them healthy and give them a long life.

The public holiday lasts for the first three days, but the celebrations actually end 15 days later (coinciding with the full moon) with the Lantern Festival.

Related posts: The Chinese Zodiac     The Story of the Dragon Nian    The Lantern Festival