Gatherings & Celebrations: Chinese New Year in Taiwan - #101

The events that bring us together... binding the past to the present, and predicting the future.  They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.  We celebrate our contacts with the heavens, with the earth and the sea, with our families, our nations, our religions, the rituals of the table... and, most important, these events can connect us to our true feelings.  They are the GATHERINGS AND CELEBRATIONS that mark the passages of our lives.   

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The calendar used in the western world is called the Gregorian calendar.  It’s named after Pope Gregory who made it the official calendar of the church during the late 1500’s. It’s based on the amount of time that it takes the Earth to orbit around the sun, 365 and a quarter days.  China, however, uses a calendar that is based on the moon.  It is called a lunar calendar, and it’s based on the amount of time that it takes the moon to orbit around the Earth.  It’s measured  from new moon to new moon, which takes twenty-nine and a half days. For thousands of years the Chinese have used a lunar calendar to organize their lives.    

lives which for the most part centered around the farming activities of rural communities. Their moon calendar told them what had to happen to their crops at each point in the year.  When the Republic of China was founded in 1912, however, it took as its official calendar the Gregorian calendar of the west. It made perfectly good sense from a commercial point of view. Industry was displacing agriculture as the most important business activity, and so the western calendar was incorporated into the lives of the people.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   In reality, however, the western calendar was only incorporated into the business life of the community. Their religious rituals are still controlled by the things that happen with the moon.  All of their gatherings and celebrations have their origins in events that take place in the heavens.  And some of the most interesting take place here in The Republic of China.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The most important festival in China is New Year’s, which takes place on the first day of the first lunar month, usually about the end of the  February in the western calendar.  It is called the “Spring Festival” because it falls at the beginning of spring. In the old days people would go into the mountains and hunt for animals and use the animal meat as offerings to the gods and their ancestors. 

These days there’s not much hunting in the mountains, but many other ancient rituals are still followed.  Everything in the home gets cleaned, an undertaking that combines the idea of a spring cleaning with the desire to rid the dwelling of any evil spirits that may have taken up residence during the past year.  Old things are replaced.  “New” is the operative word in the New Year’s preparations. 

A lucky message gets attached to the front of the outside door of the home; a second goes on the inside door.  It would be difficult for any visitor from this world or the next to miss the greeting.  A table is set up and covered with offerings for the gods.  The three main meats, pork, chicken and fish are presented.  The oranges of good luck are always part of the package, along with sweet rice cakes and spirit money.  Candles are placed in the shrine.  Incense is burned.  Family prayers are offered.  A little wine is poured, just to keep up the spirits of the spirits.

When the incense has burned down about halfway, the gods are considered to have had their meal and it’s time to burn the spirit money.  As is the case with many ancient cultures, there’s a belief that what you needed and enjoyed in this world you will need and enjoy in the next.  And the way to send things from this world to the other is to reproduce them on special paper and then burn them.  When the transfer of funds is completed, everyone returns to the home and moves the offering table a little to the left of the shrine.  This is the spot where offerings are made to ancestors, as distinct from the place where offerings are made to gods.  Gods are slightly to the right.  Now, that’s not a political statement, just an ancient ritual.  The favorite foods of the ancestors are set out along with a few glasses of rice wine.  The ancestors inhale the aroma of the food, which is all they desire.  The remaining portion of the offering is returned to the family and becomes part of everyone’s dinner. 

Just before the end of the year, the Kitchen God, who has been hanging on the kitchen wall, returns to the other world in order to report to the Jade Emperor on how the members of the family have behaved during the year.

One of the main shopping streets in town is turned into a New Year’s market. The foods of Chinese New Year, like the foods of western New Year, are selected because of their symbolic meaning.  Lotus seeds, peanuts, and pomegranates represent a hope for the birth of children during the coming year.  The use of fruit with many seeds is a common representation of the desire for many offspring.  Grapefruits, oranges and tangerines show up because of their association with good luck.  And there are lots of candies in the hope that they will produce a year filled with sweetness.

There are many green foods as markers of growth and red foods for good fortune -- the same colors that we see in the west as part of Christmas, and with very similar meanings.  The Chinese word for fish rhymes with the Chinese word for surplus.  If you eat half a fish on New Year’s Eve and the other half on New Year’s Day, you can transfer a surplus of good luck from one year to the next.

New Year’s is when you give children “lucky money” in red envelopes.  In China, red is always the color of happiness and good fortune. Old debts are paid off so you can get started on some fresh ones.  Everyone tries to get new clothing, and everyone tries to stay up through the night to welcome in the New Year.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Chinese folklore says that in ancient times “Year” was a fearsome beast who normally lived deep in the mountains.  But on New Years Eve, he would come to places where people lived and eat them.  As a result, a number of monster avoidance techniques are recommended.  First, you should stay up all night so you can keep a good lookout.  Second, put up red posters on your door. “Year” hates red.  And third, use firecrackers to make as much noise as you possibly can.  Noise gives “Year” migraine headaches that sends him back into the mountains.

When morning comes, everyone congratulates everyone else for not having become “Year’s” supper.  A ritual offering of respect is made to one’s ancestors.  The traditional gifts are luxury foods.  After the family pays its respects to their ancestors, the gods are venerated. And finally, the members of the younger generation show their respect for the older generation.  There’s always a visit to a temple where incense is burned, and rounds of visits to friends and relatives for New Year’s greetings.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   And the rituals continue as the New Year begins.  The third day of the year is thought to be a generally unlucky day for people, and many of them just stay at home.  But it’s thought to be a good day for certain animals, especially field mice -- who are thought to hold their weddings on this day.

This is an ancient print showing the Wedding Of The Field Mice. The bride is being carried to the ceremony in a traditional sedan chair.  Everybody’s having a great time.  Some humans actually put rice in the fields for the affair. And I thought Mickey was having a good life.

Things pick up on the fourth day, when the gods who have been on vacation in the other world for New Year’s return to Earth. They’re welcomed back with firecrackers and offerings of spirit money.  The welcoming ceremonies often take place at the end of the day because no one wants to offend a god who might just be getting back a little late.

On the sixth day lion and dragon dances begin, and they are quite spectacular.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The seventh day is the anniversary of the creation of mankind and it’s usually marked by dinners at which seven dishes are served, and seven candles are lit.  The rituals of Chinese New Year are the most dramatic and the most important of this culture.

Almost all of the foods at a Chinese festival meal have some symbolic meaning.  One of the most common is the dumpling, and it’s particularly important at New Year’s.

New Year dumplings are made on New Year’s Eve. The women of the family gather together in the kitchen and undertake the task according to a set of ancient rules.  Children must not be allowed in the kitchen because they might say something that would interfere with the development of good luck inside the dumpling.  If there’s been any tension or argument among the women of the family, now is the time and this is the place to work things out and return to a state of harmony.  It is widely believed that New Year dumplings will not cook properly if there is any ill will among the members of the family. It is also very important not to count the dumplings as they are being made.  The more someone counts the dumplings, the poorer that person will be during the coming year. It’s also essential to wrap the dumpling so that it does not come apart during the cooking.  If the dumpling breaks up in the boiling water, the whole year will be filled with unpleasant experiences that will break up your happiness. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   For centuries it has been the custom to place a gold or copper coin inside some of the dumplings.  If you got a dumpling with a coin inside, it was a signal that you were going to have a prosperous year.  Recently, however, in order to avoid having people choking on hunks of metal in their food, that coins have been replaced with little pieces of candy.  Some of the dumplings also contain sugar coated lotus seeds.  If a married woman of child-bearing age receives a dumpling with a lotus seed inside,  it is a signal to her that during the next year she is going to have a son.  Now, I have always suspected that lotus seeds were chauvinistic -- but this really proves it.

This is Chef Tsai at the Taiwanese restaurant in the Grand Formosa Regent in Taipei.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   My vast Chinese vocabulary, which consists of “please drive to this address” as well as “thank you” has allowed me to reach the conclusion that the chefs may have agreed to demonstrate four recipes that traditional for a Chinese New Year’s meal.  I hope.

The first is a Chinese omelet. Three eggs are beaten together in a bowl, along with a half cup of chopped water chestnuts and a half cup of sliced scallions.  A little salt is added.  A half cup of oil is heated in a wok.  The egg mixture goes in and gets cooked on top of the oil. The edges of the eggs are folded in to make a round fluffy omelet. Eggs are an important symbol of rebirth and new beginnings.  Foods that are round are also meant to show completeness and goodness.  Eggs are therefore a traditional dish at a New Year’s meal in China.  A few flips and the omelet is ready to serve.

The next New Year’s recipe is for chicken with chili.  Chicken is a food that is often associated with good luck -- which is something that’s always nice to have -- but it’s especially valuable at New Year’s. Getting off on the right foot is important.

The wok is heated. A cup of oil goes in.  Then two cups of chicken are stir-fried for a minute.  The chicken’s been cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated for fifteen minutes in an egg white, a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of soy sauce, a little salt and pepper, and a half teaspoon of cornstarch.  Then the chicken is drained away from the oil, except for two tablespoons’ worth, which are added back into the wok. Two dried red peppers are tossed in and stir-fried for a minute.  A little soy sauce goes in,  followed by a little Chinese vinegar.  A teaspoon of cornstarch mixed into a little water is added, just to thicken things up.  The chicken returns to the wok.  And finally a half cup of peanuts are stirred in.

Next comes a dish of braised fish with soy sauce. Fish is a sign of good luck, so it is always a part of a New Year’s dinner. The whole fish goes in and cooks for five minutes. The oil that the fish is cooked in is heated to a temperature of 365 degrees.  When the fish is ready, it’s drained away from the oil and set aside.  Two tablespoons of oil go into a hot wok. A quarter of a cup of fresh ginger that has been cut into strips goes in... plus a quarter of a cup of scallions that have also been cut into strips. A few strips of hot red pepper.  The fish returns to the wok. A quarter of a cup of soy sauce is added.  Then a quarter of a cup of chicken stock. Two minutes of cooking and flipping. As soon as it’s warm and the sauce has thickened, the fish goes onto a serving plate and the sauce goes on top.

And then Chef Chou takes over to make the dumplings, always the most essential symbol of good luck at a New Year’s meal.  Dumpling dough, which is basically very similar to the water and flour dough used for pasta is formed into one-inch pieces.  Then each piece is floured, pressed into a disc, and rolled out into a flat three-inch round.  The rounds are filled with a mixture of vegetables and pre-cooked pork sausage meat and sealed.  Then they are set into a steamer basket that has been lined with aluminum foil to keep the dumplings from sticking to the basket.  The basket is placed on top of a wok that is filled with boiling water.  A cover goes on and the dumplings are steamed for ten minutes or until the filling is fully cooked.

Those are actually the recipes that I expected and just the kind of food that you would get at a New Year’s family meal.  And all of them were prepared within view of the Kitchen God.

The Chinese like to keep the images of their gods close at hand. Some are carved out of wood... or stone.  Some are molded out of clay.  And some are cast out of metal. But the Chinese deities that are most common are the ones made of paper.  You’ll find them in bedrooms, kitchens, offices, shops, factories and temples. They are an absolutely essential part of Chinese culture and the most popular are known as New Year’s Prints. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The oldest technique for getting something that is in this world to the other world is to burn it.  The physical aspect of the thing is destroyed in the heat of the fire.  The smoke goes up to heaven. The essence is transferred from here to there.  To do that with something that is built of stone or bronze is difficult and expensive.  To do it with something that is made of paper is a cinch. 

Paper gods are available in shops all over town, but they’re not actually purchased.  It would be impolite to try and “buy” a god. What you do is “invite” the deity to your home and pay the storekeeper for assisting you with the invitation.  You are, however, allowed to buy the candles and incense that come along with the paper gods. 

This is the home of  Huang Tien-heng, who’s a famous collector of woodblock prints that depict the gods.  He’s also the author of a book on the subject and he’s invited us in to take a look at a few examples of the art.

The tradition of decorating a home with paper prints goes all the way back to the 900s.  There are dozens of paper gods but they all fall into one of five categories. First come the Door Gods.  Each god has its own particular door.  The instruction book says that Unicorn Bringing Sons is for the bedroom door of young couples.  In the same vein is the God of A Hundred Sons and A Thousand Grandsons.   Protect and Aid the Home is always popular, and Bestow Promotions and Bring Prosperity is a big seller in the corporate world. 

The second group are the Festival Gods.  My favorite is the Kitchen God.  The Kitchen God comes in two forms:  Regular for the home and Industrial Strength for business establishments. Home style has both a god and a goddess; industry just gets the male deity. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): On the second day of the New Year, many people begin to honor The God of Wealth.  In keeping with the commercial aspect of his nature, he’s often offered by door-to-door salesmen wandering through the neighborhoods.  This can place some people in a rather awkward situation. If you already have a God of Wealth, it’s not polite to really hang out the window and say “Hey!  We don’t want any!  We already got one!”   See, a major deity will take offense at that attitude, and might just cut you out of his good will for the entire year.  So when it comes to The God of Wealth, having a couple extra is perfectly okay.

The third group is the Congratulatory Gods. If it’s your first wedding, you’ll get the God of Happiness and the Two Gods of Marital Union. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   If you’re marrying for a second time, you’re supposed to have a copy of the God and Goddess of the Bedroom, a charming couple who have had over a hundred children.  They also have the ability to protect the second wife from any evil acts on the part of the first wife.  Like all aspects of our society, what is popular changes with the changes in our values.  The paper god who would get you a hundred children is not particularly popular these days.  On the other hand, the paper god that will get you a good parking place is almost always sold out.