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
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 桔 and 吉 don’t just sound similar, they are exactly the same (“gat1”). Anyone outside Cantonese Land see tangerines at Spring Festival time?
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.
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.
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)?
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.”
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
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.
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 蚝) and it’s chopped into “thin strips” (sī 丝). 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.