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In the video above, Brian Chin (SMG’12) performs Chinese yo-yo tricks to the song Explosive by Bond. Performers from the Lion Dance Troupe of the East Boston Buddhist Temple (below) demonstrate a upper level trick at the Lunar New Year celebration in 2009. Photo by Kim Phan (CAS'10). Additional photos provided by Flickr Creative Commons
Sunday marked the Lunar New Year, a holiday recognized in China and other Asian cultures and steeped with traditions involving family, fortune, and food.
Over the holiday weekend, some students flocked home to celebrate. But as the holiday continues for 15 days, many are back and sharing traditions.
Beginning tonight at 7 p.m., the Asian Student Union (ASU), Alpha Kappa Delta Phi, Lambda Phi Epsilon, and BU’s Japanese Student Association are hosting a mantou-eating (a mantou is a Chinese sweet bun) contest and calligraphy workshops, and a dance troupe from the East Boston Buddhist Temple will perform a traditional lion dance, at the George Sherman Union Backcourt.
“There’s a story behind the dance,” says Annie Wu (SED’11), ASU vice president. “While colorful lions move rhythmically to drum beats, a masked performer lures a dragon to bring good luck and fortune for the new year.”
Festivities continue tomorrow night at 5 p.m. at the Howard Thurman Center, where Chinese yo-yo artist Brian Chin (SMG’12), winner of BU’s Got Talent 2008 contest, will perform choreographed tricks, adding to a lineup of musical performances, poetry readings, and traditional food and drink. Students enrolled in First-Semester Chinese will put their writing skills to the test in a Chinese characters writing contest. The celebration is sponsored by the College of Arts & Sciences Modern Languages and Comparative Literature Chinese Program, the Center for the Study of Asia, the Chinese Conversation Club, the Chinese Student Association, and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of Boston.
CAS lecturer Hsiao-Chih Chang, who teaches Third Year Modern Chinese, offers context and insights into the celebrations surrounding the Chinese Lunar New Year.
BU Today: When is the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrated?
Chang: The celebrations have been occurring for thousands of years, and mark the beginning of spring. In fact, the way to say “new year” in Chinese is “chun jie,” which translates to “spring festival.”
In previous years, China used both solar and lunar calendars, because both were important to daily life. As an agricultural society, farmers used the calendars to determine when to plant crops.
The lunar calendar is still used today, which is why the date of the Chinese New Year changes each year, from late January through mid February on the Gregorian calendar, the one used in the United States.
The new year is China’s most important holiday. Approximately one third of China’s 1.3 billion people travel home to celebrate, overburdening the railway system. But on New Year’s Day, the trains are empty. It’s similar to Thanksgiving in the United States.
Why is it celebrated?
Chinese New Year celebrations are performed to get rid of all the bad luck and ill fortunes from the previous year. It’s an opportunity for a fresh start.
Which rituals are performed?
There is not a dominant religion in China. Instead, there are many local variations, and different gods.
Some believe that the god they worship at home monitors their behavior throughout the year and reports on it to a larger emperor god. To facilitate communication between the local gods and emperor gods and to bring good fortune, people burn old pictures of their local god to send them to heaven. They replace the old ones with new pictures of their local god.
Starting out the year, everything — even god’s picture — has to be new to bring luck.
Many people in China eat a basic diet consisting of grains and vegetables. At the start of a new year, however, people want the best feast possible, and often incorporate fish, a symbol of surplus.
Rituals such as setting off fireworks, dressing in new clothing, displaying the color red, giving money to younger generations, and cleaning up at home to sweep away dirt and bad spirits are performed.
How did those rituals begin?
One story traces these rituals to a monster named Nian, meaning “year,” who came out on New Year’s Day to eat livestock and children. People started leaving food at their doorways, so Nian would eat that instead.
Later, they discovered Nian feared the color red and loud sounds. So they began wearing red clothing and hanging red lanterns and decorations to scare away the evil spirit. They burned bamboo, because when it’s heated, the air inside expands and bursts the shoots open with loud cracking noises. After the advent of gunpowder in the 10th century, people lit fireworks rather than burning bamboo to scare away Nian.
It is now the year of the Tiger — what’s the significance?
Instead of referring to each year by number, the Chinese zodiac relates each year to an animal, according to a 12-year cycle.
On February 14, the year of the Tiger began. Previous Tiger years include 1998, 1986, 1974, and so forth.
People born in the year of the Tiger are believed to share the animal’s common strengths — power, fearlessness, and determination — as well as its shortcomings — inconsistency, hastiness, and acting sporadically.
But according to Confucius, everybody can change through education and discipline. So if you were born a tiger, it doesn’t mean you have to remain a tiger.
The Lunar New Year Celebration begins at 7 p.m. tonight, February 16, at the George Sherman Union Backcourt, 775 Commonwealth Ave., and is free and open to the public.
The Chinese New Year Party starts at 5 p.m. tomorrow night, February 17, at the Howard Thurman Center, 775 Commonwealth Ave., and is free and open to the public.
Robin Berghaus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.