Spring Festival basics
The first day of Spring Festival — called danian chuyi (大年初一) in Chinese — falls on February 12 this year. At midnight, the Year of the Rat will come to a close and the Year of the Ox will begin, no doubt with a bang. If you do not understand what exactly is going on during all the festivities, you are not alone.
The Chinese zodiac is a slippery and convoluted beast. Throw in related astrology, numerology and thousands of years of tradition and things get even more complicated. Below is a quick primer on what motivates people to do what they do during Spring Festival, and what you should expect if this is your birth year. It is a basic overview and not intended to be an exhaustive catalog.
At precisely midnight, huge metropolises and tiny country villages alike will explode with the sounds and lights of millions of fireworks. Traditionally fireworks were used for scaring away bad spirits from the previous year and keeping those lurking in the new one at bay. More generally, a new year is seen as a new beginning, and fireworks help to clear the way of bad luck and misfortune.
This tradition has its roots in Chinese mythology. Setting off firecrackers was an effective way to intimidate the marauding monster Nian (年兽). Legend has it the demon repeatedly attacked a village during the new year and had a predilection for carrying away small children. Villagers eventually found the Nian could be frightened away by loud noises and the color red. The Nian story is reenacted during cacophonous new year's lion dance performances and accompanied by firecrackers and traditional Chinese instruments.
Also at midnight, under a canopy of fireworks, Buddhist and Daoist temples across the Middle Kingdom will be inundated with people. Temple-goers will pray and light incense and candles to gain merit. It is considered especially auspicious to release fish or turtles into temple ponds at the stroke of midnight. Less common, but still considered propitious, is to release birds.
In Chinese, releasing any of these animals is referred to as fangsheng (放生), which loosely translates to 'letting a life go.' In a Western sense, this is akin to doing good deeds to cleanse oneself of sins. It is considered auspicious to burn incense as close to midnight as possible, which is called touzhuxiang (头柱香). It is best to do this in a temple, but can also be done at an altar located in the home.
Spring Festival family affairs
Holidays are always a time for family in China, and Spring Festival — or Chunjie (春节) — is no exception. No matter how far from one another they live, families will get together to blow things up, shower children with red envelopes stuffed with cash and most certainly eat and drink.
New Year's Eve dinner — or nianyefan (年夜饭) — is especially important, and in preparation families will clean their houses from top to bottom. It is conventional for people to dress in new clothes for the meal, further marking a fresh start. The feast kicks off more than two weeks of celebration — each day with its own specific traditions — which come to a close during Lantern Festival (上元节) on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
Shazhufan – 'kill the pig meal'
Many rural families, especially in Yunnan, raise at least one pig and hold it aside for slaughter on the new year. Every part of the pig is used to make several different dishes, which an extended family will then share, signifying togetherness. The pig can be replaced with a goat or donkey as well, depending on what is hanging around the barnyard.
The meal is called shazhufan (杀猪饭) which translates as 'kill the pig meal'. Dishes made for this feast are often consumed over several days as leftovers depending on the size of the family and of the pig. Having leftovers around is significant because for many people the first day of Spring Festival is a time to do as close to nothing as possible — with the notable exceptions of eating, drinking and spending time with family.
Home decorations and their significance
It is also auspicious to hang red-backed poems outside of one's home and to mount the character fu (福) — symbolically marking the arrival of good fortune — upside down on a door. Often people paste hand-painted or woodblock prints of Yu Lei (郁垒) and Shen Tu (神荼) on their doors as well. These two door gods — or menshen (门神) — ward off evil spirits and prevent them from entering homes. Pictures of the gods can be put up at any time of the year, but are often pasted up just before new year to replace old ones weathered by sun, rain and time.
Entrances to homes can thus become quite cluttered, as many families also hang inverted sugar cane stalks outside of their front doors to accompany the couplets and other totems. This comes from the saying 'cong tou tian dao wei' (从头甜到尾), which means 'a sweet year from beginning to end.'
The Great Race: Year of the Ox
The traditional Chinese calendar is of course a lunar one, and Spring Festival jumps between January and February depending on the year. This new year is the year of the Ox, represented in the Chinese zodiac by the character 'niu' (牛), the second of all zodiac animals. Customarily, oxen are associated with diligence, intelligence and reliability. However, they are considered poor communicators and a tad bit stubborn as well.
Chinese mythology is not particularly full of stories about oxen, but there certainly are notable exceptions. One of the best known is entitled The Great Race (伟大比赛). This folktale explains why 12 animals are used in the Chinese zodiac and why they are ordered as they are today. The Jade Emperor, so the story goes, once called a meeting of animals — especially those that are useful to humans — who were required to participate in a race.
The top twelve animal finishers in the race would from then on each represent a year according to how they placed in the competition. As part of the race, all of the animals were required to cross a fast-flowing river.
The ox, being the strongest animal, had the easiest time crossing the river and carrying rat and cat, both poor swimmers, on his back. Rat, however, pushed cat into the river, and managed to jump on shore to finish before ox, making ox the second animal to finish and therefore the second animal in the Chinese zodiac.
The Chinese zodiac and the lunar calendar
In China, oxen are also in charge of the twelfth lunar month, a time of year rightfully associated with the end of winter. Additionally, as if it wasn't enough responsibility to be in charge of an entire month, each of the 12 zodiacal animals represents a specific time of day. The Chinese double hour of 1-3am have been allotted to the ox, supposedly when oxen begin to chew the cud.
We could throw in how the five Chinese elements — earth, fire, metal, water and wood — affect the lives of people born in the year of the ox, but we will decline. Diving down this sort of rabbit hole leads to discussions of 'metal oxen', wooden ninth lunar months and every other combination you could imagine. Suffice it to say, this Year of the Ox is a metal year, meaning babies born over the next twelve month are notably sensitive, active, hardworking, and popular among friends.
Cultural significance of oxen in China
Idioms and slang
It is not an exaggeration to say the world of Chinese idioms (成语) can take a lifetime to master. Clever linguistic phrases concerning oxen are quite numerous – in fact, too many to explain here. One of the more interesting ox-related sayings is duì niú tán qín (对牛弹琴).
Broken down into its constituent parts, this phrase, at its simplest means "playing guqin to a cow", where guqin (古琴) is a traditional Chinese instrument, and is often translated as "to play the lute to a cow". The expression means that one has chosen the wrong audience, or "to preach to deaf ears".
There are many Chinese idioms related to the word ox, but the most common usage nowadays of the word, apart from referring to the animal, is to express something is awesome! "Tài niúle" (太牛了) means exactly that in modern slang. There's a slightly more vulgar version of the expression many may be familiar with, but which we shall omit in this introduction.
Journey to the West
In Chinese literature, the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (西遊記) — often known to Western audiences by the abridged translated version called Monkey — has an ox as one of its central characters. The book concerns a Buddhist pilgrimage to India, with the Ox King or Bull Demon King (牛魔王) being one of the most popular villains from the sweeping tale.
The Bull Demon King becomes sworn brothers with six other demon kings in the Chinese classic and was ranked as the most senior of the seven. He eventually gets captured by Nezha to be delivered to the Jade Emperor.
Oxen in astrology
Were you born in the Year of the Ox, or do you know someone who was? Well, here are a few stereotypes about this zodiacal sign you should know. Many of these character traits — both positive and negative — stem directly from the anthropomorphic attributes we humans assign to our truffle-foraging, wallowing and delicious companions.
Still waters run deep. Oxen are considered strong and reliable, while also maintaining a sense of calm. They don't take shortcuts and finish what they start with diligence. They are observant, intelligent and have remarkable memories.
Nonetheless, oxen can be stubborn and have fierce tempers. Dogmatic in nature, oxen stick to their believes, which are often rather black and white, and are generally deaf to others' advice.
Oxen are a great match with roosters, snakes and rats, and get along quite well with rabbits and dogs. They should, however, avoid tigers, dragons, horses and sheep. Apparently, an ox and a pig are not likely to become best friends either, despite being rather similar.
What if the Year of the Ox is my birth year?
If your benmingnian (本命年) — or birth year — is that of the ox, there are certain traditional guidelines to follow over the coming 12 months. These are true for anyone celebrating their birth year and are not specific to those of the porcine variety. They may seem a bit strange, but failure to adhere to these rules is thought by many to result in catastrophe.
Benmingnian are considered to be difficult or trying times. At the start of one's birth year, people are often given gifts of red underwear or jewelry. They must be worn every day and are considered talismans against ill fortune. Not wearing these amulets, even for a single day, can spell disaster. People generally avoid eating their birth year animal during their benmingnian as well, which only seems rational. While this may be a simple practice for those born in the year of the dragon, considering the popularity of pork in China, this may prove a bridge too far for people born under the sign of the ox.
It is believed that major life-changing decisions should not be made during one's birth year. Weddings, childbirth, changing jobs or moving house are all out. According to Chinese tradition, things are much more likely to go wrong during a person's birth year and for this reason, talismans such as red underwear, have come into fashion.
Regardless of your birth year, the color of your underwear or the number of protective charms plastered across your front door, GoKunming would like to extend heartfelt best wishes to all of our readers in the Year of the Ox!