Cultural beginning

Symbolism, legends open up coming Chinese New Year

Symbolism, legends open up coming Chinese New Year

January 18, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

This week's new moon marks the start of a Chinese New Year with a frisky monkey on its back.

The Chinese New Year begins Thursday, Jan. 22, and the Year of the Green Monkey starts Feb. 4. Chinese astrologers predict a dynamic but unstable year, filled with surprises that will thrill adventurous risk-takers and unnerve people who prefer predictability and convention, according to the Chinese Fortune Calendar Web site at

"This is supposed to be an active year. You have to catch the ride," said Tai Yim, a Kung Fu grandmaster who owns a martial arts school in Kensington, Md. "The New Year is a new beginning with new hopes and new wishes."

The ancient Chinese Lunar Calendar system measures time based on the movements of the sun, moon and stars, and uses 12 animal signs to date the years. The first day of the first Chinese lunar month always falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. The corresponding date on the Western solar calendar varies from as early as Jan. 21 to as late as Feb. 19, according to the China the Beautiful Web site at


By the ancient Chinese calendar, Thursday is the first day of the year 4701.

The Chinese have adopted the Western calendar since 1911, but the lunar calendar is still used for festive occasions such as the Chinese New Year. Traditionally, Chinese New Year celebrations were the most elaborate and important of all the Chinese festivals. The 15-day celebration period was a time for the Chinese to wish each other "Guonian" for passing through another year and finishing the old and "Bainian" to welcome the new year, according to the San Francisco-based Chinese Cultural Center at on the Web.

Chinese New Year's Day, which also is known as the Spring Festival, long has been a "noisy and joyous occasion for it is full of explosion of crackers, splendid clothing and delicious food," said Roy Wang, an education professor in Qingdao, China. Wang is the brother of Lin Wang, who practices Chinese massage and acupuncture at Coolfont Resort & Spa in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

The new year signifies a fresh start to be celebrated with family and friends.

"Before the eve of the new year, everyone tries to come back home from every corner of the country, even from abroad, to join the entire family and greet the new year, just like Americans' practice for Christmas," Wang said. The rush of travelers clogs railroad stations and airports, he said.

The family reunion banquet - with eight cold dishes and up to 18 dishes - on New Year's Eve still highlights the festival in China, Wang said. The meal's last course always is fish, which is supposed to promote future abundance, he said. At the end of the meal, the family's younger members bow and pay respect to their elders, who give them gifts of money wrapped in red paper envelopes. Then the oldest family member gives the order to light the crackers and fireworks, the "loud sounds and flashes from which betoken the new hope for the coming year," Wang said.

Ling Louie, a Hagerstown resident whose parents owned the first Chinese restaurant in the area, remembered the importance of family ties during the celebrations of his youth.

"It was a big day, a festive but solemn day," he said. "We didn't go to Times Square or anything like that."

Louie recalled how his entire family would gather together for a feast of Peking duck, roast pig, shrimp wrapped in bacon, fish and rice and other holiday fare. He remembers the main course gracing the center of the festive table, and the family toasting the new year with white wine. They would reflect upon the year behind them and the one ahead, and remember the ancestors who laid their family's foundations, Louie said.

He stopped celebrating the Chinese New Year after his parents died because he doesn't have his own family, he said, but he sometimes visits his parents' graves on New Year's Day.

The Chinese New Year is a time to thank ancestors for their help in meeting the previous year's goals, to ask them for protection and guidance in the coming year, and to promise ancestors a big celebration in exchange for their help, said Yim, who immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in 1977.

The Chinese believe their ancestors won't provide new guidance if their descendants don't fulfill their promises in the new year, Yim added.

Wang described the family altars on which "beautifully decorated food is laid together with candles, incense and fragrant Chinese narcissus plants with only fresh blossoms." During the festival, many families perform religious rites at altars backed by huge paintings of the family tree with the names of family members who have died, he said.

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