Julie Ji, of Watford Chinese Medical Centre, recalls the Chinese New Years of her childhood, and explains how a focus on health and wellbeing underpins the celebrations…
Although I have lived and worked in the UK for many years – and would consider myself now more English in many respects – I still very much look forward to the arrival of the Chinese New Year. This year, it falls on 14 February, and it is going to be the Year of the Tiger,the third in the cycle which recurs every twelfth year. So, loosely speaking, if you are born in the years of 1912, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, or 2010, you are an Tiger in the Chinese Zodiac.
Tigers are normally considered to be courageous, active, confident, optimistic, passionate, considerate, affectionate, independent… but they also tend to be rebellious, unpredictable, quick tempered and careless. They are supposed to be most compatible with Pigs, and least with Snakes. You have been warned.
As a child, growing up in China, I would always get very excited about the Chinese New Year – which is called ‘Chun Jie’, the Spring Festival – because that is when all the family and relatives would get together, cook, eat and catch up.
The life of the Chinese definitely revolves around food, so whoever is the best cook would always be in charge of the cooking and preparation. Traditionally, people would start preparing cured food at least a month ahead. Taking advantage of the cold winter weather, meat and fish would be salted, or marinaded in different sauces, and then simply hung outdoors for the frost, wind and sun to enrich and bring about unique flavours.
A big thorough cleaning of the whole house would also take place beforehand. It is believed that the cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the preceding year and makes homes ready for good luck. Brooms and dust pans would be put away on the first day so that the luck could not be swept away, and homes would often be decorated with papercuts of Chinese auspicious phrases and couplets. New clothing and shoes would be prepared, and people would have their hair cut to symbolise a fresh start.
In many households where Buddhism or Taoism is prevalent, home altars and statues would be cleaned thoroughly. Altars adorned with decorations from the previous year would be taken down and burned a week before New Year starts, and replaced with fresh decorations. In the countryside, Taoists would also see off their ‘Kitchen God’, the household’s presiding figure, by burning a paper effigy. This would ensure that the Kitchen God could report details of family transgressions and good deeds to the Jade Emperor, the superior power in heaven. Families would often offer sweet foods in order to bribe the deities into reporting good things about them.
The most important event would be the Chinese New Year's Eve dinner which every family will have. Traditionally, at least one person would have to stay in the kitchen and produce seemingly endless dishes all evening, so that the rest of the family members could enjoy them while fresh. The main courses of Chinese food all have to be stir-fried and eaten at once. This meal is comparable to Christmas dinner in the West, except we have much more elaborate and abundant food.
The first day of the New Year celebration is for the welcoming of the deities of the heavens and earth, officially beginning at midnight, when every family sets off fireworks and firecrackers to clear away and ward off evil and bad spirits. In the morning of the New Year day, everyone, especially children, dresses in new clothes from top to toe. Younger generations have to wish senior members of the family, usually parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, good health and happiness. In return, the older generation give their best wishes to the younger, and red-packets containing money, would be given to children.
Different days throughout the Chinese New Year period each have their own significance. The second day, for example, is for married daughters to visit their birth parents. Traditionally, daughters who have been married may not have the opportunity to visit their birth families frequently. On the third and fourth days, by contrast, people generally don’t visit relatives and friends. People need to rest after the overeating and exertion, and they would also reserve these days to commemorate the deceased.
The seventh day of the fortnight is traditionally known as ‘the common man's birthday’, the day on which when everyone becomes one year older.
On the eighth day, the family have another dinner to mark the eve of the birth of the Jade Emperor.
The fifteenth and final day of the New Year festivities is Yuan Xiao Jie, the Lantern Festival. Candles are lit outside houses to guide wayward spirits home. People walk the streets carrying lit lanterns in all sorts of shapes and sizes, representing flowers, fruits and animals. A sweet glutinous rice ball, brewed in a soup, is eaten.
Together with the food and the festivities, the other very important element associated with the Chinese New Year, and deeply seeded in the Chinese culture, is health.
Traditionally, New Year presents would always be expensive herbal tonics and remedies, which people would normally not be able to afford easily. The Chinese invariably put health first above anything else.
After the New Year celebration, people focus on and overhaul their health. The Chinese are firm believers in the ‘prevention is better than cure’ maxim. Just like people in the west service their cars and boilers, we service our bodies, and do not tend to wait till things start to go wrong. People consult Chinese doctors, who are all also trained and qualified in western medicine, to get herbal remedies or have acupuncture treatments, which are both extremely natural and effective ways of treating conditions that do not tend to respond to western medicine. We would not put up with even the smallest of health complaints, and we don’t simply reach for painkillers to treat headaches, or other aches and pains. We know that there is always a reason behind any little problem, and we don’t want to mask this with pills. Instead we always want to find the cause and nip it in the bud, to fix any problems before they become serious. Straight after the Chinese New Year is normally the time when people go about seeing to their health and well being, strengthening their defence system and increasing their vitality…
It’s a Chinese habit that could benefit a western culture too, helping to prevent illness, and increase longevity.