5 Traditions You Need to Know for Celebrating Chinese New Year

5 Traditions You Need to Know for Celebrating Chinese New Year

Tomorrow begins the Year of the Sheep (or today for all of my friends and family back in Hong Kong)!

Of course, we’ll be celebrating Chinese New Year in Chicago, but the truth is, the celebrations have actually already begun. Last weekend we had the privilege of joining the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago in their celebration of the New Year, where we learned about Chinese folklore, traditions and cooking!

Despite our numerous visits to Chinatown, neither of us had ever actually been to the Chinese-American Museum, which I’ll be writing about more in detail at a later time.

During the celebration Johnny and I both learned some new things about Chinese culture and enjoyed being in an atmosphere that reminded us of celebrating back in Hong Kong.

As we learned about these traditions more in depth, it made me realize that I should explain, or translate rather, many of the terms and traditions I’ve found myself mentioning in past Chinese New Year articles.

So without further ado, here are 5 traditions and terms you should know for celebrating Chinese New Year:

Tong Yuen (湯圓)

Our celebration started out with the legend of tong yuen, followed by a cooking demonstration by Mr. Ram Moy, a Chinese cuisine connoisseur.

It’s no secret that I love tong yuen. I’ve mentioned them multiple times before as they’re one of my favorite parts about family dinners.

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Tong yuen are sweet rice balls (like Japanese mochi) and are one of the many auspicious foods eaten during Chinese New Year. They usually filled with sesame (my favorite) or peanut and are usually served in a ginger soup. At first I didn’t like the ginger, but now I’ve come to appreciate even that.

The name is a homophone for “union”, which is why they are always served at family reunions and holiday dinners. They’re also round in shape, and roundness is used to symbolize togetherness and unity in Chinese culture.

This is why round dumplings are served always in round bowls while seated at a round table (usually with round lanterns hanging overhead)!

It’s always about family!

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I was excited to try my hand at forming the dumplings, and did pretty well I think! The recipe is surprisingly simple and luckily we were each given a copy, so you know I’ll be attempting to make them at home in the near future.

Fai Chun (揮春)

It’s customary to greet people during Chinese New Year with proverbs wishing them health, prosperity and happiness. And there seem to be a billion different phrases you have to memorize.

In order to increase your chances of these proverbs coming true, it’s tradition to write them down on red papers called fai chun.

These papers are then hung around the house, typically on doors and various entryways.

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Some of them feature simple phrases, but sometimes you’ll also find fai chun that have whole poems or couplets written on them. They used to be all hand written with calligraphy, but nowadays most are mass manufactured and store bought. Like lai see, you’ll often find popular Disney and cartoon characters decorating the fai chun.

Mr. Moy took the time to demonstrate traditional calligraphy techniques and helped to make fai chun for everyone to take home.

Lai See (利是)

Translating to roughly “good luck”, lai see, or red envelopes, are filled with money and used as gifts. They’re given out during Chinese New Year, as well as during other Chinese holidays, birthdays, weddings and even funerals.

Lai see may sound like all fun and games (because, really, who doesn’t love getting money) but there are actually some pretty intense rules that go along with giving and receiving red envelopes!

If it’s a happy occasion, red or gold envelopes with even denominations of money are used. Whereas unfortunate occasions call for white envelopes with denominations ending in a one (so $21, $51, etc.)– to represent being alone and missing that person.

Typically speaking, only married couples give out lai see to their non-married friends and family members– but that’s not even always the case. Even if you’re unmarried, a boss should always give to their employees, an elder child should always give to their younger siblings, single people should give to those who serve them daily (such as drivers or doormen), and so on and so forth.

So you can see, sometimes it actually gets confusing to know who you are obligated to give lai see to.

Of course the museum handed out lai see to all of their guests, but we’ll have to wait until the last day of Chinese New Year to open them!

Chuen Hop (全盒)

A chuen hop, or Tray of Togetherness, is a Chinese box with compartments that you fill with all different kinds of special New Year candies, which have symbolic meanings of their own.

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The boxes are usually red in color (ours is red with Disney characters), circular or octagonal in shape (again with the circles), and have eight compartments, since that number is believed to be very lucky (although ours only has five).

Chuen hops will be kept filled during the 15 days of Chinese New Year, so that whenever you have guests, you can offer them these auspicious goodies! And if you’re offered some, you don’t turn them down. That’s bad!

Many of the candies you fill them with, which are mostly candied fruits and vegetables, are hard to find during the rest of the year. Some of the most common ones you’ll see are:

  • Dried Candied Lotus Root (糖蓮藕)–  symbolizing abundance year after year.
  • Dried Red Watermelon Seeds (紅瓜子)– symbolizing happiness and fertility or many offspring (seeds).
  • Dried Candied Lotus Seed (糖蓮子)– symbolizing, again, fertility. Can you guess what’s important for the Chinese?
  • Dried Candied Winter Melon (糖冬瓜)– symbolizing growth and health.
  • Dried Candied Coconut (糖椰子)– symbolizing togetherness.
As we were offered some of the candies from the chuen hop, I grabbed my favorites which are the lotus root and watermelon seeds. Yum.

Mo Si (舞獅)

Mo si, or lion dances, have been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years.

According to the Chinese, lions ward off evil and bring good fortune, which is why you often see lion dances performed during Chinese New Year and other joyous occasions.

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Lion dances were previously used as a fun form of weight training in Kung Fu. The heads used to weight around 50 pounds, so it was quite a workout! Today the heads come in different sizes and weights, with the most commonly used being around 20lbs.

The lion dance performance is still based on traditional martial art stances and footwork. Thus, all dancers must have a strong background in Kung Fu before training as lion dance performers.

While it may look like they’re just dancing and jumping, they are actually performing a story and solving a puzzle. The puzzle is a testament to the quality of the Kung Fu school and the skill of the performers. Of course in doing so there are certain rules and routines that must be obeyed.

Payment to the performing group is usually made through a choi cheng (taking the ‘green’ or vegetable). So before the lion can “eat the vegetable” the puzzle must be solved, to symbolize destroying bad luck and overcoming all obstacles.

The payment is usually inside a lai see that is attached or inside the vegetable (usually a head of lettuce). The lion will approach the vegetable with curiosity, consume the lettuce, and then spit out the leaves, without spitting out the money. Those who are hit by the leaves being spit out are supposed to receive extra luck!

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For parties or other performances (such as what we witnessed), instead of performing a choy cheng, the vegetable is often replaced by a scroll, with calligraphy wishing good luck and happiness, that is unrolled during the performance. The lai see are then fed to the lions!

恭賀新禧! May you be happy and prosperous!

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Have you heard of any of these traditions before?

A special thank you to the American-Chinese Museum of Chicago for allowing us to join in their Chinese New Year celebrations!

43 Comments

  • So wish we had this kind of experience (or friends to teach us) in San Diego.

  • Jenna says:

    I’ve never celebrated for Chinese New Year but have always wanted to. I’ll have to make a point to check out a nearby celebration sometime soon! Great list of traditions–looks like a great time!

  • kami says:

    I must say I only knew about lion dances before! Great article, thanks for teaching me so many new things :) (they say you learn something new every day, that was my part for today :))

  • You may not believe this but I have never celebrated the chinese new year before. It hadn’t even crossed my mind until now. What a fun holiday! I especially like the lion dances tradition. I could get really into that one!

  • It’s so interesting! I always feel I learn so much about the Asian culture from your blog, Beth :)

  • Cultural events like this are so fun to participate in, and it’s really interesting to learn about the traditions from around the world, and associated with those that live in the U.S. I think a ginger soup would taste delicious, and the tong yuen sound interesting – I wouldn’t mind trying the one with sesame in the center. I’ve always loved the way calligraphy looks. I have a friend who is pretty good at it.

    • Beth Williams says:

      I wish I were good at calligraphy, it’s really a dying art in most places, so that’s cool that your friend practices!

  • Whether it’s my own ignorance or simply my lack of exposure to the Chinese New Year, but I too had very little knowledge of this until I read this post. Kudos to you for putting this together because it really provides some valuable information and helpful tips. I did know about the lion dances which is so stereotypical of the Chinese celebrations but definitely appreciate the added info you provided. Great pictures also!

  • Meg Jerrard says:

    Great post, thanks for the info Beth! I personally love the tradition of creating proverbs wishing each other health – looks like such a fun tradition! I’ve never celebrated the Chinese New Year, but would love to start!

  • Natalie says:

    Not gonna lie, I didn’t know much about Chinese New Year before reading this post. I only knew it was coming up because I saw the snapchat about it yesterday and someone else say something about it. However, after reading this very great detailed post, now I feel in the know. I checked out the rules for the red envelopes, those are crazy, how $40 or $400 is consider bad luck, is it anything 4 related or just those two? However, I have heard of a few of these traditions, I didn’t know much else than that. Does it take a long time to learn how to do the Lai see? I feel I would forget something important and write something worst than what it’s suppose to be.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Any number relating to 4, since the word for number 4 is a homonym for the word death. Lai see doesn’t take any time to learn, but you just need to remember all the rules. Even Chinese people sometimes have to look them up or ask their relatives for clarification. :)

  • Freya says:

    I had heard of some of these traditions before but not all. I love traditions and would love to celebrate Chinese New Year myself one day. I love the idea of Fai Chun, the dancing and of course all the delicious food. The only problem I have is that I do not like ginger at all.

    • Beth Williams says:

      I hateeeed ginger, and actually still dislike most types of it. For some reason though, I enjoy the soup! It tastes more just liked a spiced, holiday-ish soup.

  • Myrabev says:

    Tradition is so important in every culture, I did not know so much about chinese culture and definitely appreciate this week written post. Sounds like the museum did a pretty good job on recreating chinese new year and traditions. I will be on the look out this weekend in London for chinese celebrations

    • Beth Williams says:

      I agree! Tradition is so, so, SO important! Growing up in the US and having my heritage be from a mix of European cultures, I’ve never experience any strong relationship to my own culture or traditions. Now that my fiancé is Chinese, I’m so excited to be taking part of all of these traditions year after year.

      I love my adopted culture, and can’t wait to share it with my children someday.

      Enjoy London this weekend! I’m sure their Chinatown will be bustling.

  • Kristen says:

    Wanna know something sad? I grew up 20 miles away from Chicago, and I have never been to Chinatown. It’s on my list of things to do. My parents have friends who adopted a little girl from China, and they take her every year. You have inspired me to go.

    • Beth Williams says:

      That’s so great that they take her each year!

      I also grew up in the suburbs, ~30 miles away. Are you still living in IL? You should def head down to the city and visit Chinatown sometime.

  • rochkirstin says:

    We’re traditional Chinese but we didn’t get to celebrate CNY this year because we’re too busy with work. But for sure we will be having a blast this weekend and the next weekend together with other family members. Last year I led a dragon dance and paraded all over Chinatown! :)

    • Beth Williams says:

      That seems so fun! I’ve always wanted to do a dragon dance or lion dance– but I’ve never seen any females perform! Good to know they can.

  • Nancy says:

    Your beautiful images aren’t loading for me, so I can’t see what the Tong Yuen looks like. But from what you describe, a lot of the Chinese food sounds like something I’d really love. I’ve always had the North American type of chinese food, but never authentic.

    And ain’t that the truth – it’s always about family and being together. Sometimes not so much about the food :) I miss my family – I’m about a 10 hour flight away from them.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Oh no, I wonder why they weren’t loading! Well, whatever the reason, they seem to be fine now. North American Chinese food is quite different from authentic… but you can find good stuff in Chinatowns sometimes!

      I know what you mean! I spent the past three years being a 15 hour flight from my family, and hadn’t seen them in over two of those years.

  • I’ve heard of these traditions before but I’ve not had the pleasure of attending any parties. I would love to create a Tray of Togetherness of add all sorts of goods to it. Seeing a lion dance would be so amazing. I’ve watched them on TV before but I’ve never seen one in real life. I’m so deprived of fun here in Georgia :).

    • Beth Williams says:

      Aw, but Georgia has a lot of fun! I’m jealous that you guys have an amazing cherry blossom festival in Macaon. I’m hoping to go next year!

  • Jeanine says:

    Im so glad to be reading about Chinese new year! We’ve never celebrated. My kids have been learning a lot about it in school and I have no idea about it. I think it’s so neat to learn about different traditions and cultures. This is really great!

    • Beth Williams says:

      That’s awesome that your kids are learning about it in school! Our public schools don’t teach about it anymore thanks to budget cuts and stricter curriculums– such a shame.

  • Bailey K. says:

    What a great post! I love learning about traditions from other cultures. I think I’d really enjoy the tong yuen, as I LOVE mochi. I’d also love seeing the traditional fai chun being written in calligraphy instead of store-bought. The writing is so pretty. And can you send me some of the candied lotus root?! That sounds amazing! I once went to a Chinese New Year festival here in Austin, so I know I’ve experienced some of the traditions, but I only remember the lion dances. Those are kind of hard to forget! :)

    • Beth Williams says:

      If you love mochi you’ll love tong yuen, as they’re pretty similar! From what I’ve heard, Austin has some pretty good CNY festivities! I’d love to visit someday.

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