We chat with Executive Director of the Confucius Institute of the University of Kansas, Sheree Willis about the significance of the Chinese New Year, and what it means to the vibrant Chinese community in Kansas City.
Chinese New Year is the first day of the lunar year, based upon the calendar used in pre-modern China. In modern China, the western calendar is the official calendar, but the traditional lunar calendar still determines the dates of many traditional holidays. According to the lunar calendar, the first day of the first month of the year is also the first day of Spring.
The first day of the Chinese New Year is February 19, which begins the Year of the Ram.
“You can also call it the year of the goat or sheep. The word in Chinese does not distinguish between the two. I think ‘Ram’ sounds more majestic,” said Willis.
So babies born on or after February 19, until Chinese New Year of 2016, will be Rams. Some of the characteristics traditionally associated with people born in the Year of the Ram are creativity, kindness, cooperativeness and tradition-loving.
Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China. There are many traditional activities associated with the holiday, but the most important tradition is bringing the family together.
“Families usually have a celebratory meal on New Year’s Eve, and the meal typically includes traditional foods that symbolize prosperity and good luck,” said Willis. “The most popular dishes include dumplings, fish, because the word for ‘fish’ is a homophone with the word for surplus; long noodles, which are symbolic of long life and sticky rice cakes.”
Families also put up decorations symbolic of wishes for happiness, health and prosperity for the coming year.
“One of the most interesting decorative traditions is the practice of hanging New Year’s couplets on the front door. These are typically two line poems about prosperity or other good wishes, written vertically on strips of red paper,” said Willis.
Other traditions include cleaning the house to get rid of any remaining problems from the previous year, paying off all debts, wearing red for good luck and giving hongbao (small red envelopes with cash inside) to children. Today, many families gather around the TV on New Year’s Eve to watch an extravaganza gala variety show of traditional dance, music, skits and other performing arts, produced by Central China TV.
Hey hey we’re the monkeys
The fun aspect of the traditional Chinese calendar is the 12 animal rotations.
“Everyone in China knows what animal year they were born in. It’s even a convenient and euphemistically polite way of asking how old someone is,” said Willis. “Each of the animals has good characteristics, although some may seem especially desirable, for example, the dragon, but there are no ‘bad’ animals.”
The order of the animals is as follows: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.
Keeping it local
For the Kansas City Chinese heritage community, the friends and family of that community, and others interested in China and Chinese culture, Chinese New Year is a time to celebrate family, friendship and Chinese culture.
“Many immigrants from China in our community feel some homesickness at this time. Many Chinese also generously wish to share their culture with others. For these reasons, the Chinese heritage community typically stages several celebrations during this period,” said Willis.
The Kansas City Chinese American Association (KCCAA), the largest Chinese heritage association in our area, produces a gala performance each year of traditional Chinese performing arts, to celebrate the culture, the New Year and share it with Kansas City.
The gala is being held in the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College this Saturday, January 31. Performances include both local and guest artists from China. The producers of the show also include one or two acts from non-Chinese groups in Kansas City to share in the celebration. Other activities include a Chinese speech contest in the morning, a Chinese culture fair in the afternoon and a piano and violin recital. Tickets for the gala are available at kccaa.org.
Here are a couple other events celebrating Chinese New Year around Kansas City: