Tangerine Luck for the Niu Year

The fireworks have died down and, judging by the fact that everyone’s using the gōnglì 公历 again (see number 7 here), I think it’s safe to say that Chinese New Year is officially behind us. Real bloggers would deem this post “too late,” but I subscribe to a more open-minded blogging philosophy that can be summarized as: “better posted than in my teeming drafts folder.”

As my students rolled back into the classroom at the beginning of this Year of the Niu, discussion turned to Spring Festival. Rather than let them talk about what exciting times they didn’t have sleeping and playing computer games at home punctuated by inevitable overeating at the mandatory relative/friend bàifǎng 拜访 tours, I decided to let them try to explain some Spring Festival customs. I quickly discovered that a huge number of customs are pun-based. This proved problematic to them in English until I put the following on the board:

“The Chinese word for ____ sounds like the Chinese word for ____. So, during Spring Festival, we like to…”

I’ll now fill you in on the words they used to fill in those blanks. I knew some of these, but I had no idea how many there were. There are even a few “questionables” that I’ll put at the end because I think there was a glimmer in the eyes of some smarty-kùzi students who saw a overly-gullible foreign teacher standing before them and just couldn’t resist making stuff up. Hopefully someone can confirm or deny them.

OK, here we go. See if you can spot a theme besides shuāngguān 双关 (puns).

Spring Festival Customs Derived from Puns

1. “Tangerine” (jú ) and “Lucky” (jí )

So the Chinese like to give and eat tangerines as a way of bringing good luck (and money). Dà jí dà lì 大吉大利 means “big luck big profit,” so the bigger the tangerine the bigger the luck. Our college gate has potted tangerine trees sitting in front of it even now. I suspect this is more of a Cantonese custom because the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters for and don’t just sound similar, they are exactly the same (“gat1″). Anyone outside Cantonese Land see tangerines at Spring Festival time?

2. “Upside Down” (dào ) and “Arrive” (dào )

So they hang the character (fú) upside down on doors. Since fú means lucky, “luck upside down” sounds exactly like “luck arrives.”

3. “Lettuce” (shēng cài 生菜) and “Make Money” (shēng cái 生财)

So they throw lettuce into a river. I think the bell rang before I could get the students to explain what the aquatic element to this ritual stands for, but I think they also eat lettuce as well as playing a veggie version of Poohsticks.

4. “Fish” (yú ) and “Surplus” (yú )

So they like to eat fish during Spring Festival. When I said, “But don’t you like to eat fish all the time?” students started looking around nervously for the exit. Ok, ok. I’ll keep my ex post facto theories to myself. It’s still a charming custom.

5. “Year Cake” (nián gāo 年糕) and “Year Higher” (nián gāo 年高)

So they eat this cake during Spring Festival so that their salaries and luck will be higher this year. Is it just a coincidence that the cake is kind of sticky and the word for “sticky cake” sounds exactly the same (nián gāo 黏糕)?

6. “Dumpling thingys” (tāng yuán 汤圆) and “Reunion” (tuán yuán 团圆)

So they eat “tangyuan” during get togethers with classmates and family. Also, as students were quick to point out, “Tangyuan are round and money is round so it means more money.”

7. “Long Thread Moss” (fàcài 发菜) and “Get Rich” (fācái 发财

So they eat the stuff. Here’s where I started raising my eyebrows more and seeing other students in the class just as surprised as I was. This turns out to have actual, verifiable hanzi which only leave the ubiquity in question. This wraps up the non-questionable section

Questionables

? 8. “Pig hand” (zhū shǒu 猪手) and “Make Money” (jiù shǒu 就手)

So that’s why they like to eat pig hooves? First of all, I can’t actually confirm that jiùshǒu 就手 means make money. Can anyone? Secondly, when I’ve been asking around about this I get weird looks like I made it up. I didn’t, but I think that guy in my class did.

? 9. “Walnut” (hé tao 核桃) and “Reunion” (hé tao ?)

What would that second “tao” be? Anyone?

? 10. “A Kind of Seafood” (hao si / hao shi ? ?) and “Good Market” (hǎo shì 好市)

10. “Dried Oyster” (háochǐ 蚝豉) and “Good Market” (hǎo shì 好市) [update from Ho Sun Yan]

[update:] “The Cantonese word involved here is 蠔豉 (simpl. 蚝豉) “dried oyster”, which differs (pronunciation-wise) from 好市 only in the tones.”

This seems to me like it’s a Cantonese tradition because the mandarin doesn’t sound that similar. For those of you that can read Yale romanization of Cantonese, 蚝豉 is read hou4 si6 and 好市 is read hou2 si5.

Maybe it’s related to “oyster” (háo ) and it’s chopped into “thin strips” (sī ). Don’t worry that “háo sī” and “hǎo shì” are not minimal pairs. Down here in Cantonese Land, they would be (“si” and “shi” are often both pronounced as “si”). This may be another one of those in-Cantonese-they-sound-the-same situations. Anyone heard of this?

Please let us know if there are any punny Spring Festival Customs in your part of the country or if you can confirm that any of these are national standards.


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  1. 18 Responses to “Tangerine Luck for the Niu Year”

  2. Nicki CHINA said:

    1. We have tons of tangerines here in Haikou (Hainan) where most people do NOT speak Cantonese.

    3. Ah, that explains the little lettuce statues you sometimes see for sale: so odd!

    7. At a Chinese wedding we were served the thread moss and given a similar explanation. It wasn’t very good tasting. Or looking for that matter.

    8-10. I’ve never heard of these at all!

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2009

  3. zhu CHINA said:

    Item 2,4,5 and 6 are national standards.

    As in my hometown,it is not good to break things such as a plate or a bowl on the first day of new year,but if we really do break something then we will say“碎碎平安”which sounds exactly the same with “岁岁平安”.
    Old people would like eating all kinds of “瓜子”because “”means son. The more“瓜子”they eat the more sons and grandsons they will have. But for the younger generation, they dont eat “瓜子”any more.

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2009

  4. Tom CHINA said:

    扫尘 wipe out the dust
    腊月二十四,掸尘扫房子,据《吕氏春秋》记载,我国在尧舜时代就有春节扫尘的风俗。按民间的说法:因谐音,新春扫尘有除陈布新的涵义,其用意是要把一切穷运、晦气统统扫出门。这一习俗寄托着人们破旧立新的愿望和辞旧迎新的祈求。 每逢春节来临,家家户户都要打扫环境,清洗各种器具,拆洗被褥窗帘,洒扫六闾庭院,掸拂尘垢蛛网,疏浚明渠暗沟。到处洋溢着欢欢喜喜搞卫生、干干净净迎新春的欢乐气氛。

    贴春联 put on the couplets
    春联也叫门对、春贴、对联、对子、桃符等,它以工整、对偶、简洁、精巧的文字描绘时代背景,抒发美好愿望,是我国特有的文学形式。每逢春节,无论城市还是农村,家家户户都要精选一幅大红春联贴于门上,为节日增加喜庆气氛。这一习俗起于宋代,在明代开始盛行,到了清代,春联的思想性和艺术性都有了很大的提高,梁章矩编写的春联专著《槛联丛话》对楹联的起源及各类作品的特色都作了论述。
    贴窗花和倒贴 put on windows flowers and an “upside and down” happiness
    在民间人们还喜欢在窗户上贴上各种剪纸——窗花。窗花不仅烘托了喜庆的节日气氛,也集装饰性、欣赏性和实用性于一体。剪纸在我国是一种很普及的民间艺术,千百年来深受人们的喜爱,因它大多是贴在窗户上的,所以也被称其为窗花。窗花以其特有的概括和夸张手法将吉事祥物、美好愿望表现得淋漓尽致,将节日装点得红火富丽。

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2009

  5. Tom CHINA said:

    年画 put on Nian Hua (New Year scrolls of pictures)
    春节挂贴年画在城乡也很普遍,浓黑重彩的年画给千家万户平添了许多兴旺欢乐的喜庆气氛。年画是我国的一种古老的民间艺术,反映了人民朴素的风俗和信仰,寄托着他们对未来的希望。年画,也和春联一样,起源于门神 随着木板印刷术的兴起,年画的内容已不仅限于门神之类单调的主题,变得丰富多彩,在一些年画作坊中产生了《福禄寿三星图》、《天官赐福》、《五谷丰登》、《六畜兴旺》、《迎春接福》等精典的彩色年画、以满足人们喜庆祈年的美好愿望。 我国出现了年画三个重要产地:苏州桃花坞,天津杨柳青和山东潍坊;形成了中国年画的三大流派,各具特色。

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2009

  6. Tom CHINA said:

    守岁 to see the Old Year out and the New Year in
    除夕守岁是最重要的年俗活动之一,守岁之俗由来已久。最早记载见于西晋周处的《风土志》:除夕之夜,各相与赠送,称为馈岁;酒食相邀,称为别岁;长幼聚饮,祝颂完备,称为分岁;大家终夜不眠,以待天明,称曰守岁

    放爆竹 set off fireworks
    中国民间有开门爆竹一说。即在新的一年到来之际,家家户户开门的第一件事就是燃放爆竹,以哔哔叭叭的爆竹声除旧迎新。爆竹是中国特产,亦称爆仗炮仗鞭炮。其起源很早,至今已有两千多年的历史。放爆竹可以创造出喜庆热闹的气氛,是节日的一种娱乐活动,可以给人们带来欢愉和吉利。随着时间的推移,爆竹的应用越来越广泛,品种花色也日见繁多,每逢重大节日及喜事庆典,及婚嫁、建房、开业等,都要燃放爆竹以示庆贺,图个吉利。现在,湖南浏阳,广东佛山和东尧,江西的宜春和萍乡、浙江温州等地区是我国著名的花炮之乡,生产的爆竹花色多,品质高,不仅畅销全国,而且还远销世界。

    拜年 extend new year greetings
    新年的初一,人们都早早起来,穿上最漂亮的衣服,打扮得整整齐齐,出门去走亲访友,相互拜年,恭祝来年大吉大利。拜年的方式多种多样,有的是同族长带领若干人挨家挨户地拜年;有的是同事相邀几个人去拜年;也有大家聚在一起相互祝贺,称为团拜。由于登门拜年费时费力,后来一些上层人物和士大夫便使用各贴相互投贺,由此发展出来后来的贺年片
    春节拜年时,晚辈要先给长辈拜年,祝长辈人长寿安康,长辈可将事先准备好的压岁钱分给晚辈,据说压岁钱可以压住邪祟,因为谐音,晚辈得到压岁钱就可以平平安安度过一岁。压岁钱有两种,一种是以彩绳穿线编作龙形,置于床脚,此记载见于《燕京岁时记》;另一种是最常见的,即由家长用红纸包裹分给孩子的钱。压岁钱可在晚辈拜年后当众赏给,亦可在除夕夜孩子睡着时,由家长偷偷地放在孩子的枕头底下。现在长辈为晚辈分送压岁钱的习俗仍然盛行。

    蒸年糕 Steam ney year cake
    年糕因为谐音年高,再加上有着变化多端的口味,几乎成了家家必备的应景食品。年糕的式样有方块状的黄、白年糕,象征着黄金、白银,寄寓新年发财的意思。

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2009

  7. Albert CHINA said:

    Tom,

    Ummm…WOW! Thanks for all that. I’m afraid some of the lower-level readers will miss out on all the wisdom contained in the hanzi you’ve posted (not me of course, *cough* *cough* I understood all of that on first read *cough*).

    Would you mind just summarizing the puns for us…umm…I mean them?

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2009

  8. Nicki CHINA said:

    To clarify on no. 1: by have I meant they use them in the new year traditions in the same way you described. Right now the trash is full of half dead tangerine bushes/trees that were used to put in front of every business but aren’t wanted anymore.

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2009

  9. Tom CHINA said:

    真正过年的前一夜叫团圆夜,离家在外的游子都要不远千里万里赶回家来,全家人要围坐在一起包饺子过年,饺子的作法是先和面做成饺子皮,再用皮包上馅,馅的内容是五花八门,各种肉、蛋、海鲜、时令蔬菜等都可入馅,正统的饺子吃法,是清水煮熟,捞起后以调有醋、蒜末、香油的酱油为佐料沾着吃。也有炸饺子、烙饺子(锅贴)等吃法。

    因为和面的字就是的意思;饺子的谐音,又有相聚之意,所以用饺子象征团聚合欢;又取更岁交子之意,非常吉利;此外,饺子因为形似元宝,过年时吃饺子,也带有招财进宝的吉祥含义。一家大小聚在一起包饺子,话新春,其乐融融。
    Because the He2 in He2mian4 meaning preparing the noodle synonymizes the he2 of gathering, and the pronunciation of Jiao3zi is the similar to that of jiao1, meaning gathering, happiness and harmony, which is very aupicious.

    The shape of Jiao3zi looks like old Chinese gold or bronze made coin, therefore, Jiao3zi symbolizes richness and abundance.

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2009

  10. Ho Sun Yan NORWAY said:

    No. 10: The Cantonese word involved here is 蠔豉 (simpl. 蚝豉) “dried oyster”, which differs (pronunciation-wise) from 好市 only in the tones.

    This pun is also mentioned on the Wikipedia page for 蠔豉:

    http://zh.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%E8%A0%94%E8%B1%89&variant=zh-hant

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2009

  11. c. callosum UNITED STATES said:

    In Singapore and Malaysia we have what is probably the punniest dish in the world, eaten at Chinese New Year – yu2 sheng1, also called lo hei (the Cantonese for “tossing luck”). It’s a mixture of shredded vegetables, raw fish and various other things, and is really delicious.

    And as you “compile” the dish, you say auspicious sayings that tie in somehow with the dish, often by way of puns.

    While adding the raw fish: 年年有余 (may every year bring a surplus/bountiful harvest) – because (yu2) sounds like (yu2).

    While adding the green radish: 青春常驻 (something about maintaining youth) – because of the double meaning of – young vs green.

    While pouring the flour crisps at the end: 篇地黄金 (let yellow gold cover the floor) – because the fried flour crisps are supposed to resemble gold, because of their deep-fried golden-ish colour.

    And the list goes on. Not everyone knows all of them but most people know some portion of them and will try to say the right thing when compiling and tossing the lo hei.

    Here’s the Wikipedia article on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yusheng

    And a blogpost describing what you’re supposed to say at each step: http://superfinefeline.blogspot.com/2009/02/cny-how-to-lo-hei-yu-sheng.html

    Comment date: Mar 1, 2009

  12. Albert CHINA said:

    Nicki,
    So now we have to wonder if the tradition originated in neighboring Cantonese Land or if plain ol’ climatic environment plus the “close enough” ju2/ji2 was enough for them to embrace it on the island. I’m not terribly interested in the origin of it though. It’s enough to know that it happens outside Cantonese Land.

    Ho Sun Yan,
    Thanks so much for clarifying that. I’m going to update the original post to include your little note.

    c. callosum,
    Wow! What an epic pun-a-thon that sounds like. Thanks for the link.

    Comment date: Mar 3, 2009

  13. Lesley HONG KONG said:

    I am a catonese so may clarify for you:

    2\4\5\6 are nationwide. But 1 is not only catonese in many southern China provinces I see the same. 3 is probably Cantonese only.

    7\8\10 purely purely Cantonese. No other mainlanders may ever hear of them.

    I never heard of 9.

    Comment date: Mar 3, 2009

  14. Keiko CHINA said:

    I know something that doesn’t have anything to do with Spring festival,but about students.
    it’s “(cōng)”=聪明(cōng míng=SMART,CLEVER.
    and 芹菜(qín cài=勤(qín=work hard.
    so some mothers will give some &芹菜 children to put them into their school bags.
    I think it’s smelly and funny.

    Comment date: Mar 13, 2009

  15. Albert CHINA said:

    I just heard:

    shí hóngzǎo, niánnián hǎo
    食红枣, 年年好
    eat dates, Happy New Year

    Comment date: Feb 13, 2010

  1. 4 Trackback(s)

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