January 25 marks the start of Chinese New Year and, with it, 15 days of luminous, colourful, Hongbao (Ang Pao/Red Envelopes) – filled festivities. The Chinese do most of the decorations for Chinese New Year, a day earlier, although some people begin to decorate their houses around 10 days before the celebration. As this year’s quick thinking little rat is expected to usher in an exceptionally prosperous 2020, what better way to welcome good fortune than with a celebration in the company of friends, delicacies, and festive decor?
We feature the significance behind some must-have Chinese New Year decorations to usher in the Year of the Rat!
Drive Off Bad Luck with Chinese Red Lanterns
According to China Highlights, lanterns were originally used in China to provide illumination and were eventually incorporated as a part of Buddhist worship. Nowadays, bright-coloured lanterns are regarded as a status symbol and communal pride. Lanterns can often be found in homes and public spaces. There are three main types of Chinese lanterns:
- Hanging lanterns, which are the decorations you often see in houses and public places. Lanterns hanging during Chinese New Year are said to be lucky charms that frighten away the Nian monster, which, according to legend, is a fierce beast with sharp teeth and horns that would eat both animals and people.
- Flying lanterns, also known as Kong Ming which are propelled by hot air produced by the flame inside, and released on special occasions like the Mid-Autumn Festival.
- Floating lanterns, which are set adrift on bodies of water during festivals like the Dragon Boat Festival. Make your own Chinese-style lantern
Historically, Chinese lanterns were made of soft, delicate paper or silk, with bamboo, wood, wire or rattan used to hold it all together. These ornaments are usually decorated with cut paper, tassels, paint, embroidery and/or calligraphy. Making your own Chinese lantern is a fun way to get bring family and friends closer this festive season!
Follow the steps in the video below:
Door Couplets — Best Wishes for the Coming Year
New Year wishes of prosperity and wealth in Chinese calligraphy on red or bright-coloured paper (also known as Chinese New Year Couplets (对联 duìlián /dway-lyen)) are pasted on both sides of a doorway. These good wishes are posted in pairs (i.e. couplets), as even numbers are associated with good luck and auspiciousness in Chinese culture. These couplets usually remain up until the next Chinese New Year. A four-character idiom of good wishes is often added to the crosspiece of the door frame as well.
Luck and Happiness Paper Cuttings
Literally, these are designs cut out of paper (typically red for the Spring Festival), which are pasted on a surface, for example, a transparent surface (e.g. a window). It is customary for people in northern and central China to paste red paper cuttings on doors and windows. The paper cuttings feature images of an auspicious plant or animal. Each animal or plant is symbolic of a type of wish.
For example, peach symbolises longevity; the pomegranate, fertility; the mandarin duck, love; the pine tree, eternal youth; the peony, honour and wealth; while a magpie perched on the branch of a plum tree is an indication of a lucky event due in the near future.
Luck ‘Poured Out’ with Upside-Down Fu Characters
Basically, these are big diamonds (squares at 45°) of paper calligraphy with the inverted Chinese character 福 (fú /foo) pasted on doors. Fu means ‘good fortune’, and pasting the upside down Chinese character symbolises an abundance of good fortune.
It is believed the right side of the character was originally a pictogram for a jar. In fact, there is an interesting tale behind the inverted fu character – servants of a prince once decorated a manor for the holiday by pasting fu onto all the doors. However, because they were illiterate, one of the fu’s ended upside down. The prince was enraged and demanded an answer. To avoid the wrath of the prince, a quick-thinking servant replied, “I’ve always heard people say that Your Highness is full of fortune. And now, the fortune really is here.”
Kumquat Trees — a Wish for Wealth and Good Luck
In Cantonese, the kumquat is called gam gat sue. The word gam (金) is the Cantonese word for ‘gold’, and the word gat sounds like the Cantonese word for ‘good luck’. Likewise in Mandarin, the kumquat is called jinju shu (金桔树 jīnjú shù /jin-jyoo shoo/), and the word jin (金) is the Chinese word for gold. The word ju not only sounds like the Chinese word for ‘good luck’ (吉 jí /jee/) but also contains the Chinese character if written 桔.
To put it simply, the presence of a kumquat tree at home symbolises a wish for both wealth and good luck. Kumquat trees are commonly displayed during the Chinese New Year holidays, especially in South China’s Cantonese-speaking regions of Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong, and Guangxi.
Chinese New Year, like other Chinese celebrations, represents the rich heritage of the community. Ancient traditions are passed down and still practised in present times. By taking a closer look at traditional Chinese New Year decorations, one can appreciate its cultural essence and tales behind each carefully thought out detail.