One of my favorite places in New York City is Chinatown. When I was living in Manhattan it was always a treat to travel from uptown to Mott Street and its surrounding areas. For as long as we lived within the five boroughs we visited the mysterious community several times a year.
The sights, sounds and scents are unique to the area. Banks with pagoda facades. Stores that sold puzzle boxes, incense sticks of Jasmine, sage and all sorts of exotic scents. Restaurants which boasted real Chinese food. The best ones were the restaurants that didn’t encourage tourists, but rather printed their sticky menus half in Chinese. Hunan, and the old-time favorite, Cantonese recipes all cooked up in crowded smokey kitchens.
One of the big draws for me was the live tic tac toe playing chicken who always won the game. You would put your quarter in a slot and a curtain would rise showing the chicken. He would play the game with you until his inevitable win. I still don’t know how they did that, or if it was a chicken or a rooster. Another treat was the fire-breathing dragon kept in the basement of one of the buildings. You could also view him for a twenty-five cent piece. From outside the building you would look through and down a glass slot and suddenly the dragon’s lair would flare up. The beast would emit a deafening roar and strobe. Scared the hell out of me and anyone else that saw it for the first time.
The Chinese New Year celebration brought all the streets alive with people, fireworks and festivities. Bright colors and a huge paper mache Dragon snakes through blaring celebration. Following are some notes about the event and its history, which I enjoyed reading and I hope you do too.
The dragon is a symbol of power.
A dragon can breathe out fire so the person born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon can be a hot head. Watch out if you make them angry!
However, the dragon has a soft underbelly and so in Chinese astrology the dragon person born in this Chinese Zodiac year has a “soft spot” to them. They may get angry at someone who annoys them but they also show great compassion to people in need.
A dragon has a long tongue which is often seen.
So in Chinese astrology the dragon person born in this Chinese Zodiac year has a sharp tongue – they will say things that can be quite sarcastic and biting.
The person born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon can be quite a confronting person but if you can reach their “soft heart” they are worthwhile allies.
2012 is the Chinese year of the dragon. So what does 2012 hold for a person born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon?
Such people such double their efforts in whatever they do – work, education and other projects. Their natural talent and abilities should stand out with great results.
However, watch out for that temper! Keep it in check and do not spoil your good work.
The Ancient Chinese Calendar
The ancient Chinese calendar, on which the Chinese New Year is based, functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide. Oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that it existed at least as early as 14th century B.C., when the Shang Dynasty was in power. The calendar’s structure wasn’t static: It was reset according to which emperor held power and varied in use according to region.
The Chinese calendar was a complex timepiece. Its parameters were set according to the lunar phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and yang, the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world, also ruled the calendar, as did the Chinese zodiac, the cycle of twelve stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos. Each new year was marked by the characteristics of one of the 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
The Traditional Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year period began in the middle of the 12th month and ended around the middle of the first month with the waxing of the full moon. Observance of the New Year period was traditionally divided into New Year’s Eve and the first days of the new year.
Traditionally for the Chinese, New Year was the most important festival on the calendar. The entire attention of the household was fixed on the celebration. During this time, business life came nearly to a stop. Home and family were the principal focuses. In preparation for the holiday, homes were thoroughly cleaned to rid them of “huiqi,” or inauspicious breaths, which might have collected during the old year. Cleaning was also meant to appease the gods who would be coming down from heaven to make inspections. Ritual sacrifices of food and paper icons were offered to gods and ancestors. People posted scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and set off firecrackers to frighten evil spirits. Elders gave out money to children. In fact, many of the rites carried out during this period were meant to bring good luck to the household and long life to the family–particularly to the parents.
Most important was the feasting. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family would join around the table for a meal that included as the last course a fish that was symbolic of abundance and therefore not meant to be eaten. In the first five days of the New Year, people ate long noodles to symbolize long life. On the 15th and final day of the New Year, round dumplings shaped like the full moon were shared as a sign of the family unit and of perfection.
Evolution of Spring Festival
The Western-style Gregorian calendar arrived in China along with Jesuit missionaries in 1582. It began to be used by the general population by 1912, and New Year’s Day was officially recognized as occurring on January 1. Beginning in 1949, under the rule of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976), the government forbade celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year and followed the Gregorian calendar in its dealings with the West. But at the end of the 20th century, Chinese leaders were more willing to accept the Chinese tradition. In 1996, China instituted a weeklong vacation during the holiday–now called Spring Festival–giving people the opportunity to travel home and to celebrate the new year.
In the early 21st century, many Chinese families spent a significant amount of their discretionary income celebrating the Spring Festival with traditional symbols and food. They also spent time watching the televised Spring Festival Gala: an annual variety show featuring traditional and contemporary singers, dancers and magic demonstrations. Although the rites of the holiday no longer had religious value, people remained sensitive to the zodiacal animals to the extent that they considered what, for example, a year of the rat might mean for their personal fortunes or for a child born at that time.
A change in attitude toward the Spring Festival has occurred in China’s young people, with Chinese college students reporting that they prefer surfing the Internet, sleeping, watching TV or spending time with friends to celebrating with family. They also reported not liking traditional New Year food such as dumplings and glutinous rice pastry. With its change of name from Chinese New Year to Spring Festival, for some members of the younger generation the holiday has evolved from an opportunity to renew family ties to a chance for relaxation from work.