Ask an International Etiquette Expert: Chinese New Year Legends & Traditions

01/23/2017 07:32 pm ET
Flickr | Zexsen Xie

Chinese New Year is a fascinating occasion rich with legends and traditions and a key holiday in Asian cultures. On January 28th, 2017, families worldwide will celebrate the new year with traditions rooted in ancient myth and historic practice. To commemorate this holiday, we delve into a few of the legends surrounding Chinese New Year.

The Legends of the Zodiac Cycle

According to the 12-year Chinese Zodiac cycle, a different animal is associated with each birth year. The Zodiac animal influences personality, and the Chinese believe that “the animal hides inside your heart.” Although no one knows exactly where the Chinese Zodiac cycle originated, there are two legends associated with its beginning.

In the first legend, the Yellow Jade Emperor of Heaven’s birthday contest asked all animals to swim across the swift-flowing river. The first dozen animals to reach shore would be honored with a Zodiac year named for them. One by one, twelve animals swam across the swirling river, and the Emperor named the years in the order of their arrival. The Rat was first, followed by the Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and finally the Pig.

The second legend states that Buddha invited all animals to a special gathering before his last departure- but only 12 animals attended. To demonstrate his appreciation, Buddha named a year after each animal in the order of their arrival.

The Legend of Spring Couplets:

For New Years it’s not uncommon to see red decorations hanging on the doors of Chinese families. These festive decorations are Spring Couplets,or Chulian in Chinese, short verses hearkening the start of spring, a tradition rooted in the Shentu and Yulei legend, ghost world guardians.

According to ancient myth, a large peach tree grew on a mountain top within the ghost realm. Two guards, Shentu and Yulei, stood at the ghost world entrance, catching and sending malicious spirits to the tigers. All ghosts were apparently afraid of the two guards. Hanging peach wood with the two guards’ names engraved warded off evil spirits. During the Song Dynasty, the wood was replaced with red paper, and substituting the two guards’ names, the Chinese wrote Spring Couplets for a new year of wealth and happiness.

The Legend of the Red Envelopes

During Chinese New Year, families and friends exchange red envelopes with gifts of money. Like Spring Couplets, this tradition originates from a famous tale of protecting people from evil spirits and misfortune.

According to legend, Sui the demon roamed the country terrifying sleeping children on New Year’s Eve. Those touched would suffer a terrible fever and nightmares. So protective parents stayed up all night with candles lit in their homes to protect their children from the demon. One year, an official gave his child eight coins to play with so that he would stay awake all night and avoid the demon’s curse. The boy wrapped the coins in red paper, opened the package, unwrapped it, and reopened it, until he was so tired that he finally fell asleep. His parents placed the coins under his pillow. When Sui came to touch the child, the coins glowed brightly and turned into eight fairies that protected him from the curse. From then on, giving red envelopes filled with money became a way to protect children and bring good luck for the New Year.

These legends teach us that hope brought by a new season has been celebrated for centuries. To all of those celebrating - our team wishes you a prosperous Chinese new year!

Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, an international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management with the HOFSTEDE center, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial and Banquet Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People and NTD Television Canada. She is the resident etiquette expert for two popular morning lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, National Business Journals, Reader’s Digest and Stylecaster. Her international award-winning, best-selling book Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its second printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. Sharon is the winner of the British Airways International Trade, Investment & Expansion Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.

Photo Credit: Flickr | Zexsen Xie

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