Chinese around the globe will celebrate the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, on Saturday. It marks the start of the Year of the Rat, the first in ancient China's cyclical chronography of years.
The following are brief introductions to some cultural concepts and traditions surrounding the most festive season in China.
The Chinese lunar calendar assigns an animal symbol, either real or mythological, to each year in a 12-year cycle. The 12 animals are rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
Various versions of stories have been created to explain why the rodent ranks first in the cycle, forerunning even the most revered symbol of the dragon. A widely told legend goes that the rat played a trick to win first place in a legendary competition for the 12 symbolic animals.
But some ancient folklorists, including the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) scholar Liu Xianting, argue that the sequence was set according to the active time of each animal. Rats come first as they are most active around midnight, the start of a new day.
Rats often symbolize intelligence and fertility in Chinese legends and folklore. The image of a large clan of rats marrying off their daughter appears in many festive paper cuts and decorations in rural China.
CALL OF HOME
Spring Festival is China's most important holiday centering on family reunions. Each year, hundreds of millions of people from across the country embark on the journey home, putting much strain on railway and road transportation.
This year, it is predicted that three billion trips would be made during the 40-day travel rush, or "chunyun," from Jan. 10 to Feb. 18, slightly up from that of last year.
Many stores will close during the festival, as their non-local owners or employees head home, so it is a tradition for many families to store sufficient food in advance.
FIGHTING "MONSTERS" ON NEW YEAR EVE
For most Chinese, the celebration starts on the eve of the Lunar New Year. After a fancy supper, many families will stay up late on the eve, watching the gala on TV and eating snacks.
Top on their watchlist is the Chinese New Year Gala aired on China Central Television. A variety show full of comedy sketches, songs and dances, it is hailed as the most-watched television program in the world. But in recent years, it faced ever fiercer competition from local channels and websites that held their own New Year galas to grab a share of the audience.
At midnight, the advent of the new year is marked with deafening fireworks, which continue for a week afterward.
The fireworks and the red decorations in front of many homes and businesses were originally intended to scare away the "nian" (year in Chinese), a mythical beast thought to have preyed on people and livestock at the turn of the year. The monster, however, was afraid of loud bangs and the color red.
Although few now believe in the existence of the monster, Chinese families carry on the tradition of hanging red lanterns, setting off fireworks and fixing red scrolls with rhyming phrases on their doors, hoping all the items can ward off evil spirits and bring in good luck.
DOS AND DONTS
The Spring Festival comes with a groundswell of symbolism, all meant to ensure a propitious start of the new year.
In northern China, dumplings are an indispensable New Year dish, believed to bring fortune as it resembles "yuan bao," a boat-shaped gold ingot used as currency in centuries past. Some families will put a coin in one of their dumplings, and the person who finds the "special dumpling" is believed to have good luck for the whole year.
In southern China, where rice is preferred over wheat, New Year diners eat glutinous rice cakes, also symbols of prosperity.
Children will receive red envelopes stuffed with "lucky" money, presented by parents, grandparents and other relatives. The custom is intended to protect children from bad luck during the new year. It can be given in exchange for a child's New Year greetings, or be stuck under the child's pillow on New Year's eve.
There is a long list of things that Chinese will avoid during Spring Festival, including quarrels, crying and cursing, as people fear that bad behavior at the start of the year will continue throughout the year. Those who happen to break bowls, plates or glasses must immediately say "sui sui ping an," meaning "let's be safe during the new year," as "sui" in Chinese means "year" as well as "broken."
Some superstitious northern Chinese also believe that if a person gets a haircut during the first month of the lunar year, his maternal uncle will die.
The tradition can be traced back to an ancient story about a barber who could not afford a decent New Year gift for his maternal uncle, choosing instead to give his uncle a haircut that made him look much younger.
After his uncle passed away, the barber missed him very much, crying with the coming of each new year. The Chinese phrase for "missing one's maternal uncle" ("si jiu") is very close in pronunciation to the phrase for "death of one's maternal uncle."