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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The New Year marks the start of spring

The New Year marks the start of spring

130208 02b
Teochew temple in Phnom Penh. Supplied by Jean-Michel Filippi

Many controversies have been aroused about the origins of Chinese New Year. A number of countries, and not just China, celebrate it because of an old Han influence: Japan, Korea and Vietnam amongst others.

In a large number of countries with important Chinese minorities (Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and others), official days off are given to the population.

Hence, the designation “lunar calendar new year” was often preferred to “Chinese new year”. Singapore went as far as marginalising lunar New Year because of its too obvious Chinese character and promoted Christmas to keep a balance.

The origins of Chinese New Year are uncertain and are lost in the mists of time. According to a number of specialists, it is a very old celebration of which the origins far exceeded the cultural limits of the Chinese world: Iranian New Year (Nowruz) would be part of this huge cultural area.

One thing is sure; Chinese New Year corresponds in China with the beginning of spring and hence had to do with traditional agricultural works. The date of Chinese New Year varies from year to year but always takes place between January 21 and February 20 on the first day of a new moon and the exact date is fixed by the observatory of the purple mountain in Nanjing.

As usual, the Chinese cultural world is stuffed with symbols based on homophony and New Year is not an exception. The Chinese official name of New Year reveals a lot: guònián. Its meaning is “the change of the year (nián)”, but nián, which is pronounced in the same way and is written differently, has another meaning: a monster who used to terrorise the villagers at that time of the year, and hence, the necessity to offer food to him. After the farewell ceremony to the hearth god and the cleaning of the house, the New Year’s dinner can take place.

All the dishes have a symbolic meaning. To eat fish (yú) is compulsory because its Chinese name is homophonous with yú “abundance”. The meal should generally ends with a niángao, made of red beans between two layers of sticky rice, literally “year cake”, but gao also means “to grow up” and eating it would ensure one’s growth in all the fields of life.

Red envelopes and firecrackers traditionally follow. Now, due to the many accidents, these are forbidden in many urban areas or replaced by electrical firecrackers which enjoy a relative success.

Chinese New Year officially lasts for 15 days. The first day, people visit their elders, the second day married women visit their family with their husband and children.

One particularly important day, generally the ninth day, is the Jade emperor’s birthday: two ceremonies commemorate this event, one at home at daytime and the other in the temple late at night.

The last or 15th day of the first month, the lantern festival takes place.

Today, as there are many people of Chinese origin in Cambodia, don’t hesitate to wish your friends a happy new year by saying guòniánhao in mandarin or by using a formula more used in southern China: xinniánkuàilè.

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