Happy Chinese New Year 2016 ~ Chinese Customs and Beliefs

The Zodiac

– The Chinese Zodiac cycles through 12 years, each one associated with an animal. Your year of birth determines your zodiac sign and personality. (Be careful to line up your birth year with the Chinese calendar, not the Gregorian/Western calendar. For example: The Chinese New Year for 2016 starts on February 8th. Even though 2016 is the year of the Monkey, someone born on February 7th, 2016 would still be a Sheep, not a Monkey. We often forget this when we look at a Chinese restaurant paper placemat. Haha.)

– 2016 is the year of the Monkey. Some years Monkeys are born are 1992, 2004, 2016. They’re known for being fun, cheerful, energetic, creative, and generous.

Food, Family, and Community

– Food is more highly regarded as a source of nourishment in Chinese culture than in Western culture. The Chinese value food so much that “Have you eaten yet?” is often the very first thing asked after a hello in any conversation. It’s the equivalent to the American “How are you?” It’s a way to show you care about the other person’s happiness and well-being, not necessarily an invitation to eat together. For example, if you’re calling someone long-distance, you would still ask “Have you eaten yet?”

– Eating together is also an important part of life in Chinese culture. Meals are always considered a joyous time for community and bonding. There are some rumors that in very traditional villages, it’s a sin to let anyone—even strangers—eat alone.

– In Chinese restaurants (especially “dim sum” restaurants over a weekend), community and family values are very evident:

– The restaurant is often an extraordinarily huge open space in which everyone can see everyone. It’s as if we lose our sense of self and become part of the community. (Compare this to booths and divided sections in an American restaurant.)

– Tables are usually round, stressing the importance of sitting in a circle and being able to see everyone.

– Tables with families often have all three generations present (the elderlies, the adults, and the children), illustrating the importance of family togetherness. It’s more rare to see that at American restaurants, where diners are often friends of the same age, a romantic couple, or a family with two generations present.

– Dishes are served “family-style,” meaning they’re placed in the middle for everyone to share. Often, the Chinese serve others before they serve themselves. They insist on giving food to others, especially to guests, elderlies, and children.

– “Dim sum” translates to “touch the heart” or “to your heart’s content.” A patron points, picks, and chooses dishes to their heart’s content. Sometimes people also refer to dim sum as “yum cha”—meaning “drink tea.”

– If someone pours tea for you and you’re busy talking, one way to say thank you is by putting your index and middle fingers together and tapping the table three times. How did this originate? Hundreds of years ago, an emperor loved traveling around his country disguised as a normal citizen in order to observe his people. One time at a restaurant, he poured tea for his servants. His servants had no clue how to react. They didn’t want to get up to bow three times, as they normally would—otherwise they would bust the emperor’s cover. The servants pretended their fingers were like a person bowing. Today, it’s a popular “thank you” gesture for tea! (I found out this is more popular among people from Hong Kong and southern China. Some from northern China have never even heard of this.)

– But while gathering together for a meal is important even on an ordinary day, it is considered almost sacred during the New Year’s Eve dinner. So many families travel to see their relatives just to celebrate and eat with them that the days surrounding the Lunar New Year are known as the world’s largest annual human migration, with more people traveling during this time than during the winter holiday season worldwide!

The Nian Monster and “Gung Hay Fat Choy”

– The famous phrase “Gung Hay Fat Choy”—which people say to mean “Happy New Year”—actually literally translates to “Congratulations and Be Prosperous.” Congratulations on what?

– According to an ancient myth, the Nian monster (“Nian” translates to Year) was an ugly dragon that came out in the winter to eat people and livestock. Soon, villagers discovered that it was afraid of the color red, loud sounds, and light. When people were lucky enough to survive another cold winter and another Nian / Year, they were congratulated—hence “Gung Hay Fat Choy.”

– Over time, traditions to start off the new year have evolved, but most have their roots in scaring off evil spirits and the Nian monster: wearing red, passing out lucky red envelopes with money, leaving the lights on for the first night of the year, and watching traditional dragon and lion dances accompanied by loud drums and loud, red firecrackers.

Lucky Number Eight, Hair, and Prosperity

– The word for the number “eight” (baat or bat) in Chinese sounds similar to the word for “prosperity” (faat or fat), making it the luckiest of all numbers. That’s why the Asian supermarket chain in Boston is named Super88 and not any other random number. It’s also why the Chinese decided to have the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony on 8/8/08 at exactly 8:08:08 pm. It’s THAT big of a deal.

– (Not really related to prosperity, but just pointing this out: The number “four” is the least lucky Chinese number because it’s a homonym for “death.” When it stands alone, it is unlucky, but if it is paired with another number, the phrase can change. “49″ means “dead enough,” “48″ means “die prosperous,” and “45″ means “can’t die.”)

– The word for “prosperity” is also a homonym of the root word for “hair” (tuw faat). For fear of washing away their prosperity, the Chinese do not wash their hair on the first day of the new year and for fear of cutting their prosperity, they do not cut their hair in the first few days following the new year. So superstitious!

The Role of the Elderly and Dead Ancestors

– Aging is a positive thing in China. Age goes hand-in-hand with social status, power, and command for respect. A word for “old man” (gong) is the same as the word for a god. (For those of you who are Cantonese, think of “gong gong” the maternal grandfather and “ley gong” the thunder god.)

– The Chinese believe that dead ancestors have some power over the living. They depend on them for good health, fortune, and prosperity. They bow to their shrines (sometimes set up in one’s house), leave food out for their spirits to eat, burn fake money so they could use it in the afterlife, and address their prayers TO them—not just have prayers about them. Indeed, dead ancestors are treated like gods. Again, it’s all about the power of family.

– Unlike American homes with lots of photos of children and the new generation, Chinese homes give just as much—if not, more—emphasis to photos of and even shrines for grandparents and great-grandparents.

– Adults give other adults and children red envelopes containing an even amount of money. Odd amounts are generally for funerals.

American New Year vs Chinese New Year

– Chinese New Year is a time to recognize the importance of family. It’s about eating together and being together with living family members. It’s also about remembering dead ancestors throughout the year to be able to get new blessings from them this year. It’s about family and community.

– Right before the new year begins, the Chinese clean their homes, buy new clothes, and get haircuts. All of these are to start fresh and get rid of bad spirits. Being proactive is found right before the new year. Being passive or reactive is found after the new year begins.

– When the Western New Year begins, it is about a newfound sense of determination in achieving individualistic goals, while the Chinese New Year is about a renewed sense of commemoration and remembrance of family and dead ancestors. It’s all about people together, not individuals.

– While Americans get things done on their own, the Chinese slow down just to hope for things from others. Americans become proactive, while the Chinese become reactive and open to receiving more blessings like happiness, good health, and wealth from dead ancestors.

– There’s nothing more worthy of gratitude than enjoying another Nian—another Year—and still being on this beautiful planet with family, friends, and community!

– Be healthy. Be happy. Be prosperous. Be hopeful. But most of all: Be grateful.


Remember: This article is full of generalizations about the Chinese and Americans. Different families practice or believe different things. Just as not all Americans create “individualistic” New Year resolutions, not all Chinese people believe everything above. Most of this article is true for my own family. As my lovely readers know, the world is full of wonderful similarities and differences among people. I love interacting with and learning about as many cultures as I can but always remembering that an individual is not defined by just culture. I’m also happy to call myself Chinese and American and to pick my favorite values, qualities, and habits from each. =)

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