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


? 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.


  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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
    贴窗花和倒贴 put on windows flowers and an “upside and down” happiness

  4. 守岁 to see the Old Year out and the New Year in

    放爆竹 set off fireworks

    拜年 extend new year greetings

    蒸年糕 Steam ney year cake

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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