Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, January 28, 2011

The tail of the Tiger

Chinese year 2011 begins on February 3, signifiying the return of spring to the ancient agrarian society. (It will be the year of the rabbit; and hopefully a period of calm and comfort between the unpredictable Tiger - 2010 - and Dragon - 2012 - years!)

Traditions of the new year are therefore based on customs of a people who lived closer to the earth, dependent on weather, seasons, storms, trees and general ecology of their areas. Part of the focus would have been skyward - sun, moon, planets and stars.

Who knows whether the new year "nian" was a physical, astronomical or metaphorical monster. But it was necessary to chase the beast away in order to restore balance and secure another cycle of earth's fertility and fruitfulness. The ancients were advised to do this by making noise and putting up red symbols to keep the beast at bay. It's thought that the term "guo nian" originated in the meaning "survive the year/monster beast" which now comes to mean "celebrate" or "welcome the time before the beast returns."

Preparations begin the month before (in winter's harshest grip) and extend two weeks after, but the special celebration takes place on new year's eve, when feasts are prepared. One of the staples is a dumpling whose meaning "sleep together and have sons" is a wish for prosperity in family life. Wontons would be a good choice for your new year's meal.

Wear red since it is the colour that drives the beast away. And take the opportunity to "get over the past," forget old grudges and be open to fresh relationships.

Today, there is the real China that is a metropolis, with its eyes on progress and the challenges of sustaining a billion souls. But worldwide there is a China of the heart where food, culture, myth and metaphor nourish the diaspora. If you happen to be somewhere else but Beijing or Hong Kong, check out the Chinatown nearest you, or pick one of these:

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