You may think you know your Chinese New Year traditions, but the festival used to be very strange indeed, with evil ducks, red shields against star wars, pedophilic evil spirits, and yearly disturbances in the spacetime continuum.
Unlike Spin the Bottle where the winner gets a kiss, in “spin the duck,” the winner gets fired. In Taiwan, on the 16th day of the 12th lunar month, a big banquet used to be thrown by the company boss during which a roast duck is spun. The unlucky person the bird points to has to voluntarily resign (with a nice severance package), taking the company’s bad luck with him/her.
2. Fire leaping
It must be said: great balls of fire. In Shandong province, the men of the household used to call out well-wishes while leaping over flaming piles of firewood. Called ‘jumping over fire’ (过火群), it was believed that the fire would burn away the family’s bad luck, and even the ashes were kept to ensure prosperity.
3. Wearing red on the year of your zodiac animal
“Roosters”, this one’s for you. It was believed that during the year of your zodiac sign or benmingnian (本命年), the “God of Age” star is liable to curse you with disaster. As protection against this stellar adversary, it was advised that you wear red on your person (even if it’s red underwear) during the year to ward off the bad luck. Just as long as it’s not a MAGA hat.
Image: Gage Skidmore
4. Kowtowing for red packets
In the past, children had to really earn their red packets. By bowing with their foreheads to the ground children showed deep respect for their elders. This ritualised respect was also to give thanks, as the money given by the elders was meant to protect them from the evil spirits they attracted.
5. Not washing your hair
If it rhymes in Chinese, it’s real. Since, the word for hair (发) also appears in the the phrase “to prosper” (发财), it was believed that washing one’s hair washed away chances of wealth in the coming year. People used to go the first four days without washing their hair, making it an equally prosperous time for head lice. Incidentally, for the first two days of CNY you also shouldn’t wash clothes since they are meant to celebrate the birthday of the Water God (水神).
Not visiting the doctor
Nowadays, people are a bit germaphobic, and with reason. However according to tradition seeing a doctor on New Year’s Day was the same as inviting sickness. Even gallipots (medicine boxes) were symbolically smashed on that day. Sadly this “out of sight, out of mind” approach doesn’t work on insurance claims.
8. Staying at home on Days Three and Four
This Chinese custom fits the modern world like a glove. Known as 赤口日, “Red Mouth Day”, socialising on that day was believed to risk quarrels and fights. Also known as 赤狗日, “Red Dog Day” (Red Dog being the God of Blazing Wrath), people would stay indoors to avoid the bad luck of meeting the Red Dog on the road. A whole day stuck at home without talking? Thank goodness for the internet and Netflix.
The homestay used to continue on Day 4, although socialising was encouraged – with the Kitchen God. To welcome this protector of the home, people would burn incense and paper money, set off firecrackers, and offer up meat and fruits. In addition, as he was said to report to the Jade Emperor about the household, a paper effigy of the Kitchen God would have its lips coated with honey – to sweeten his report, or to gum his lips together.
Sending off the God of the Poor
According to legend, the God of the Poor was a short, skinny man who loved ragged clothing and porridge. So fixed was his fashion sense, he would even rip the clothes people gave him before wearing them. People prefer to pack him off to heaven on the 6th day of the Spring Festival (by tossing out rubbish and dirty clothes) than see him wandering around in rags on earth.
The sending off ceremony was especially popular during the Tang Dynasty (618–907).
As porridge was also associated with poverty, folk also avoided eating porridge in case it might be an omen for the future.
10. Growing one year older on day seven
In defiance of the laws of physics, on the seventh day of Chinese New Year everyone grows one year older regardless of their birthday. Called 人日, or day of the human, it celebrates the creation of humanity by the female goddess Nu Wa (女娲). This day also coincides with the birthday of the Buddhist god Sakra, so Chinese Buddhists celebrate it by not eating meat. Growing old twice as fast while being stuck on a diet of veggies. Bummer.
While we won’t miss these traditions, here is one custom we will sorely miss – the Chinese New Year celebrations used to last a full 15 days.
Happy Chinese New Year (such as it is)!
By Vincent Tan