Discover Legend, Myth and Folklore of the Chinese New Year in Georgetown- Penang. Read about Customs, Rituals and Taboos and the many gods that are worshiped during the Spring Festival. And how the people celebrate this special time of the year.
In this Article
Zhù dàjiā xīnnián kuàilè, gōngxǐ fācái!
Wishing you all a happy and prosperous Chinese New Year!
An ancient China legend tells of a big horned monster called 年 Nian who lived at the bottom of the sea all year, but came out on Spring Festival Eve. Nian would come to devour livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. Therefore, all the people would flee from their home to remote mountains to escape the danger.
One Spring Festival Eve, villagers of Taohua- Peach Bloom Village were preparing to flee, closing the doors and windows, some were pulling cows and sheep and the whole village was scared. An old beggar with a stick and a bag in his hands came to the village to beg, his grey hair and beard fluttered with the wind. But no one has time to care about a beggar except for an old woman who gave him something to eat and suggested that he in the mountains to get away from Nian.
The old beggar smiled and said: “Lady, if you let me stay one night in your house, I will get rid of Nian for you.” The old woman was surprised and looked at the old beggar carefully and found that the old beggar, with white hair and ruddy complexion, was hale and hearty and that there was something different about him. She still tried to convince him to flee to the mountain but the old beggar only smiled without reply. Having no alternative, the old woman ran away to the mountains leaving only the old beggar in the house.
On the stroke of midnight, the monster Nian rushed into the village, but immediately found that there was something different in the village. He quivered all over on seeing the red paper glued on the door of the old woman’s house. The house was well-illuminated by candlelight. Nian scowled at the house for a moment and howled fiercely to throw himself at the house. Approaching the door gate, he heard fireworks exploding. At that moment, the door was opened and the old beggar dressed in red came out and burst into laughter. Nian turned pale with fright and took flight with great haste.
The next day villagers came back home and were very surprised to find everything was in good condition. At that moment, the old woman suddenly recalled what the old beggar said and told the other villagers. Villagers rushed to the old woman’s house to see what had happened. There was red paper glued on the door, the fireworks in the yard were still exploding and all of the candles were alight. They then understood that the Nian was afraid of color red, the sounds of fireworks explosion and the light.
Wild with joy, villagers celebrated the coming of the New Year and the good fortune. They all dressed up with new clothes and hats, greeting with each other. The ways to get rid out the Nian spread from mouth to mouth and became prevalent quickly.
From then on, every Spring Festival Eve, every family would glue red paper with couplets written on them, and stay up late or all night- Shousui to wait for the New Year’s coming, lighting lanterns and setting fireworks.
On the first day of New Year people like to visit friend and neighbors (Bainian) with a present. According to legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called Nian, who had the body of a bull and the head of a lion. It was said to be a ferocious animal that lived in the mountains and hunted for a living.
Towards the end of Winter when there was nothing to eat, Nian would come on the first day of New Year to the villages to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people.
The villagers would live in terror over the winter, but over time they learned that the ferocious Nian was afraid of three things: the color red, fire, and noise.
So when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. They also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, Nian never came to the village again.
Other versions tell that, the Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk, and Nian became Hongjun Laozu’s mount.
After Nian was captured, everyone had a big celebration and the ritual involved in banishing him was repeated the following year, and so the ritual was passed down from generation to generation and the custom of celebrating New Year with fireworks, a lot of fireworks,- firecrackers, noise, and the color red has persisted to this day.
The 春节 Spring Festival
Though in winter, Chinese call their New Year holidays 春节 Spring Festival, because spring starts between the 4th–18th February according to the traditional solar calendar. While wintry weather prevails, ‘Start of Spring’ marks the end of the coldest part of winter, when the Chinese traditionally could look forward to the beginning of spring.
The celebrations go on for up to 16 days:
|New Year’s Eve
|Pasting couplets on the doors; have reunion dinner; stay up late or all night to welcome the new year.
|The first day
|Welcome the gods of the heavens and earth; Visit families and friends to pass on your good wishes for the New Year. Many Taboos.
|On the second day
|Chinese people pray to their ancestors as well as to all the gods.
|The third and fourth days
|Married Women will come back to their parents’ home with the husband and children to pay Spring Festival visits and extend New Year greetings. Families by tradition welcome back the Kitchen God.
|The fifth day
|Known as ‘Po Woo’. On the day people stay home to welcome the God of Wealth. No one visits relatives and friends on this day because it will bring both parts bad luck.
|On the sixth to the 10th day
|Visit relatives and friends freely. People also go to temples to pray for good fortune and health in the coming year. In addition, the seventh day of the New Year is the day for farmers to display their produce. The seventh day is also considered as the birthday of human beings. Noodles are eaten to promote longevity and fish for affluence.
|The ninth day
|Present the offerings to the Jade Emperor, the God of the Heaven in Chinese legend. Hokkein new Year.
|From the 10th to 14th
|Friends and relatives should be invited home to have dinner. After such a sumptuous feast, on the 13th day people are supposed to have simple meals to cleanse the system.
|On the 15th day
|People celebrate the Lantern Festival by eating Sweet Dumplings, making and displaying lanterns.
An old custom is to cyclical name the years by one of 12 animals in their zodiac cycle, 2018 will be the year of the DOG.
The legend of the Chinese Zodiac
The Jade Emperor (Emperor of Heaven) decided to call for a contest: a race! All the animals of the kingdom were invited to participate in this event that incidentally took place during the emperor’s birthday. There will only be 12 winners. In order to win and gain a permanent place in the Zodiac Years, the animals must cross a swift current river and reach the designated spot on the shore.
While we are all aware of the hatred between a cat and a rat, these two animals were actually very good friends once. Good friends they may be, but these two animals are the worst swimmers in the animal kingdom. Although bad swimmers, they were both intelligent. They decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river is to hop on the back of the ox. The ox, being a naive and good-natured animal, agreed to carry them across.
However, when there is a carrot dangling in front, it is sometimes difficult to stick to friendship and the crafty rat decides that in order to win, it must do something and promptly pushed the cat into the river. Because of this, the cat had never forgiven the rat, and no doubt, hated the water too. After the ox had crossed the river, the rat jumped ahead and reached the shore first, and it cleverly claimed first place in the race!
Following closely behind was the strong ox, and it was named the 2nd animal in the zodiac. After the ox, came the tiger, panting away while explaining to the emperor just how difficult it was to cross the river with the heavy currents pushing it downstream all the time. But with powerful strength, it made to shore and was named the 3rd animal in the cycle.
Suddenly, from a distance came a thumping sound and out pop the rabbit. It explained how it crossed the river: by jumping from one stone to another in a nimble fashion. Halfway through, it almost lost the race but the rabbit was lucky enough to grab hold of a floating log that later washed him to shore. For that, it became the 4th animal in the zodiac cycle.
Coming in 5th place was the gallant dragon, flying and belching fire into the air. Of course the Emperor was deeply curious as to why a strong and flying creature such as the dragon should fail to reach first. The mighty dragon explained that he had to stop and make rain to help all the people and creatures of the earth, therefore he was held back a little. Then on his way to the finish line, he saw a little helpless rabbit clinging on to a log so he did a good deed and gave a puff of breath to the poor creature so that it could land on the shore.
The emperor was very pleased with the actions of the dragon and he was added into the zodiac cycle. As soon as he had done so, a galloping sound was heard and the horse appeared. Hidden on the horse’s hoof is the slimy sneaky snake whose sudden appearance gave the horse a fright thus making it fall back and gave the snake 6th spot whilst the horse took the 7th.
Not long after that, a little distance away, the sheep, monkey and rooster came to the shore. These three creatures helped each other to get to where they are. The rooster spotted a raft, and took the other two animals with it. Together, the sheep and the monkey cleared the weeds, tugged and pulled and finally got the raft to the shore. Because of their combined efforts, the Emperor was very pleased and promptly named the sheep as the 8th creature, the monkey as the 9th, and the rooster the 10th.
The 11th animal is the dog. His explanation for being late although he was supposed to be the best swimmer among the rest was that he needed a good bath after a long spell, and the fresh water from the river was too big a temptation. For that, he almost didn’t make it to finish line.
Just as the emperor was about to call it a day, an oink and squeal was heard from a little pig. The term “lazy pig” is due here as the pig got hungry during the race, promptly stopped for a feast then fell asleep. After the nap, the pig continued the race and was named the 12th and last animal of the zodiac cycle.
Chinese New Year in Georgetown
1/4 of the world’s population is celebrating Chinese new year, having some days of public holiday in China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Brunei, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia.
Nearly 40% of Penang’s population are of Chinese ethnicity. Most are the descendants of laborers and immigrants from southern China who moved to the Malay Peninsula between the 18th and 20th centuries. However Chinese sailors had explored the seas off Penang Island as early as the 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty.
Normally closed to all except their members and devotees, over 20 clan houses and temples within Penang’s historical district open their doors to visitors, to show traditional Chinese performing arts, interesting, just as it was sampling the special food that comes with the Chinese New Year celebration.
For the locals, this celebration is first and foremost a family affair and on New Year’s Eve people visit the clan houses and temples to pay homage to their ancestors before gathering in their homes for the annual reunion dinner.
Much feasting is enjoyed, with each dish having symbolic and auspicious meaning. Mandarins are eaten for good luck. The most common Chinese New Year foods includes dumplings, fish, spring rolls, and niangao. Nien gao (glutinous rice cakes of different shapes and colors), sounding like “going high” in Chinese, is served for the celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year as a good luck symbol.
Dumplings or Ears
Some people say that dumplings are shaped like gold and silver ingots. Others say they look like ears.
That may be due to a myth about the goddess 女娲 Nǚ wā or Nuwa.
Nwā has the body of a snake and is known as the mother of all life.
She created humans out of yellow clay. But she realized that the ears would freeze and crack off in the winter. To solve this problem, she sewed the ears in place and put the end of the thread in the humans’ mouths.
Later, to thank Nǚ wā, people molded dough into the shape of ears. They then stuffed it with meat and vegetables rather than thread.
More spring festival rituals related to the use of rice.
Firecrackers and beating drums go on for days, and Lion dances and Chingay performances are easy to witness. 真艺 zhēnyì means “true art” in the Penang version, and it is called 妆艺, zhuāngyì– “a decorated miniature stage” in Singapore. The Chingay performer balances a giant flag that ranges from 25 to 32 feet, or 7.6 to 9.8 m in height and about 60 pounds, or 27 kg in weight.
踩高跷 cǎi gāo qiāo, Stilts performances are an ancient act. They stem from Chinese opera and the performers sing and dance while on stilts. Depending on their character, they have difference costumes and heights.
Troupes of lion dancers and drummers on open trucks usually do the rounds of houses and businesses on New Year’s Day, scaring away bad spirits and ushering in luck and prosperity for the coming year.
舞狮子 wǔ shī zǐ, Lion dance is an ancient art form brought from China by early Chinese immigrants, and over time has evolved into a distinctive Malaysian style.
Lion dances are performed by two “dancers” in a lion costume, rather like a pantomime horse. The performers become the body of the lion: the one in front is the head and front limbs, the one behind is the back and hind legs. Performers’ legs are dressed the same color as the lion’s body, and sometimes the costume extends to shoes the shape and color of the lion’s paws. The lion head is usually over-sized and dragon-like, like many stone lions in China.
The Chinese lion dance is associated with good luck, power, strength, majesty and happiness.
The origin of the 耍龙灯 shuǎ lóng dēng, Dragon Dance can be dated back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). It was then used in a ceremony for worshiping ancestors and praying for rain.
The dragons body is woven in a round shape of thin bamboo strips, segment-by-segment, and covered with a huge red cloth with dragon scales decorating it. The whole dragon is usually up to 30 meters in length — and people hold rods every 1 to 2 meters to raise the segments.
Chinese dragons symbolize wisdom, power and wealth, and they are believed to bring good luck to people.
FOLKLORE- Customs and Traditions
The streets of central Georgetown are decked with red lanterns, and surrounding the front doors of many of the shop houses hang traditional red cloths, symbolizing joy, virtue, truth and sincerity.
Couplet poems and Calligraphy
One of the red decorations that Chinese people love is 春联- chūn lián Spring Festival couplet poems, pasted on both sides of the doorframe.
They guard against demons who wander around the human world at night looking for trouble, at dawn the demons must return to the underworld. To safeguard their homes, people began to carve the gods’ names into peach wood tablets. By placing them outside their doors, they were able to scare the demons away. Through time couplets became much longer and more complex poems.
Another decoration is calligraphy. The most common word is 福 fú, meaning happiness or fortune. But you’ll rarely see it upright.
It is said that in the Ming dynasty, the Emperor ordered every household to decorate by pasting fu onto their doors. On New Year’s Day, he sent soldiers to check. They found that one illiterate family pasted the word upside down.
The Emperor ordered the family to be punished by death. Thankfully, the Empress was there and came up with an explanation: 倒-dào “Upside down” is a homophone of 到-dào“here”. When it’s upside down, it means that fu is here.The explanation made sense to the Emperor and he set the family free. From then on, people would hang the word upside down, both for fortune and in remembrance of the kind Empress.
HONG BAO – The red envelope
Red pocket, red packet, … Regardless what term is used, 红包 hóng bāo or ang pau and also known as 压岁钱 yā suì qián, are great because they contain money. The money in red envelopes is given in even numbered amounts of money- odd numbers are for funerals. Literally, it is “money to anchor the year(s).” It is also known as “lucky money” or “New Year’s money.”
By giving the money to children, teenagers or unmarried adults are hoping to pass on a year of good fortune and blessings. Another version is given by the younger generation to their elders as a blessing of longevity and a show of gratitude.
The Nian is again part of the red envelope legend as the steps, taken to protect against him during New Year’s Eve transformed into the Spring Festival celebration.
Parents give children money the night the Nian comes. This way, the children would have something to bribe the monster or other evil spirits with.
In another popular story, there is a demon called 祟 Sui.
On New Year’s Eve, it would come and pat children’s head while sleeping. His touch was tainted. To protect their children, parents would stay up the entire night, guarding them, one couple gave their child a coin to play with. When the child fell asleep, they placed the coin next to the pillow. At midnight, an eerie wind snuffed out the candle. When Sui reached for the child, the coin flashed in the darkness and scared him away. The next day, the couple wrapped the coin in red paper to show their neighbors.
Thanks to technology and platforms like WeChat and Alipay, digital red envelopes are the new trend. Even the government-sponsored Spring Festival Gala, a night of performances, has digital red pocket activities.
FOLKLORE- New year Taboos
Taboos to be observed include no house cleaning or dumping the trash for the first four days of new year, for fear of sweeping aside the newly arrived luck and knives and scissors that may in turn, cut the threads of good fortune should be hidden away.
If it is really necessary, the house owner should start the sweeping from outside to inside of the house, which intimates collecting money. Besides, pouring water outside should also be avoided, as flowing water indicates movement of money; in this case, money leaving the home.
Also the chopsticks have to be the same length otherwise the investments or travel plans for the year may go astray.
Negative words should be avoided in daily conversation, such as breaking, running out, death, ghost, killing, sickness, pain, losing, and poverty. All these words should be replaced by euphemisms during the whole of Spring Festival.
If not in severely ill, people should not take medicine, or see the doctor till Lantern Festival; otherwise they may suffer from disease all the year round, and barely gain recovery.
Never break a bowl, plate, glass, vase, or mirror, because breaking may result in money loss and family split in the future. The fragments should be collected and wrapped in a red paper or cloth, and then littered on the fifth day of the New Year. Another remedy is to say, “Sui Sui Ping An,” which means safe and sound every year. The pronunciation of Chinese character 岁 Sui for Year and 碎 Sui for Broken are the same, so people use the homophones to expel bad luck.
The first two days of the Chinese New Year are considered the birthday of the Water God, people think washing clothes will offend him.
It is believed that the cry of children forebodes disease and misfortune, which may bring bad luck to the whole family. Therefore, to avoid children’s crying during the festival, parents should not punish their kids, even if they make mistakes or are naughty.
Do not lend or borrow anything on the first day of lunar Year, especially money. Lending money is an unlucky omen, which means economical loss, so people should not offend friends or neighbors by borrowing something from them. Asking the return of debts owed is also a taboo.
If a woman gets married and lives apart with her husband’s parents, she cannot visit her own parents on the first day of the New Year. Daughters are viewed as outsiders after they get married. If they return home on the first day, their parents would be stricken by poverty. Sometimes, parents live together with sons, and therefore the bad luck would also goes to women’s brothers.
According to the Spring Festival superstition, women are not expected to do needle work during the festival, which may give rise to unnecessary squabbles and quarrels with family members or neighbors. Making shoes is also a definite don’t, for that may bring evil home.
Just like doing needlework, using scissors is also an omen for possible quarrels with others. If people want to go through the year peacefully.
People should not get their hair cut during the first lunar month, for it indicates the death of their uncle.
During the New Year, don’t ask others to take things from your pocket, otherwise, all year others will take away your fortune.
Porridge and meat should not be served at breakfast on the first day’s morning. In the past, poor people could only afford rice porridge, so porridge reflects a down and out life. It is a favorable omen to eat the leftovers of the reunion dinner on the New Year’s Eve as breakfast, which forebodes that people always have more than they need.
Meat is also a taboo on the first morning’s breakfast table. It is said that, ‘Gods’ Fair comes in that morning when all gods come out to celebrate the festival.” Meaning, people should show respect to the Buddhist gods by avoiding killing and eating meat, because Buddha is vegetarian.
The rice jar indicates people’s living standards. If it gets empty, there may be some days of starvation waiting for them in the near future. So filling the rice jar to the brim before the New Year’s Eve, attract a healthy financial situation.
People should not awaken others who are asleep on the first day of Spring Festival; otherwise, the one wakened up would be urged to do their work all the year around, exhausted and nervous.
It is believed that people would become lazy all the year around if they take an afternoon nap on the first day of the Spring Festival. Besides, if they have visitors on that day, it is considered impolite behavior.
“On the first day, if you use an axe and split firewood, it can never come back (be mended).” Another play on words, it means is that you will not have wealth because firewood in Chinese is “chai,” which sounds a lot like the word for wealth, “cai.”
On Spring Festival, people wear new clothes, even underwear and socks are all new. People will wear red underwear and socks as if the coming year would be their year. Wearing new clothes means also a new start, so ragged or dirty dressing symbolizes poverty and misfortune, and should be avoided.
Besides, dressing in black and white is only applicable to woefully dour occasions like funerals and mourning ceremonies. Therefore, it is inappropriate to wear black or white clothes during the festival. I have seen a lot of ladies with red dresses on the streets, maybe an omen for good luck.
THE GOODS of Chinese New Year
Meet traditional deities who play starring roles during the Chinese New Year.
灶君 ZàoJūn- The Kitchen God
The Kitchen God protects the household and oversees its moral health, which is somewhat ironic since his human-to-deity transformation came after he abandoned his wife for a younger woman.
In this story, Zao Jun’s earthly form goes blind, so the fickle younger woman leaves him and he must resort to begging on the street. He ends up being taken in by his former wife, unable to recognize her true identity. As he relates his tragic story and sincere regret to her, his vision is miraculously restored. The sight of his long suffering wife overwhelms him with guilt and he leaps into the hearth where he is burned to death. She praises him with a stove shrine which leads to him taking on a divine role.
Chinese celebrate the Kitchen God on the 23rd day of the 12th month each lunar year, a day many call “Little New Year.” The family burns a paper effigy of the Kitchen God to send him to Heaven and report to the Jade Emperor whether the family members were naughty or nice. Before the Kitchen God departs, however, they might smear his lips with honey to sweeten his words, or perhaps to keep his lips stuck together!
Families by tradition welcome back the Kitchen God from Heaven on the 4th day of Chinese New Year by hanging a new paper effigy above the hearth, a practice which has suffered neglect in the age of modern gas and electric stoves.
门神 MénShén- The Door Gods
Chinese door gods protect families and businesses by safeguarding their fortunes and dispelling evil influences. They appear in many embodiments and incarnations.
The earliest recorded door gods were Shentu and Yulü , tasked by the Jade Emperor to protect the Peaches of Immortality.
An old legend relates that in the earliest times there grew on Mount Tu Shuo, in the Eastern Sea, a peach-tree of fabulous size whose branches covered an area of several thousand square li. The lowest branches, which inclined toward the north-east, formed the Door of the Devils (kuei), through which millions of them passed in and out. Two spirits, named Shentu, Shên Shu or Shu Yü and Yulü or Yü Lü, had been instructed to guard this passage. Those who had done wrong to mankind were immediately bound by them and given over to be devoured by tigers.
When Huang Ti heard of this he had the portraits of the two spirits painted on peach-wood tablets and hung above the doors to keep off evil spirits. This led to the suspension of the small figures or plaques on the doors of the people generally. Gradually they were supplanted by paintings on paper pasted on the doors, showing the two spirits armed with bows, arrows, spears, Shentu on the left, Yulü on the right.
In later times, however, these Door gods were supplanted in popular favor by two ministers of the Emperor T’ai Tsung of the T’ang dynasty, by name Ch’in Shu-pao and Hu Ching-tê.
T’ai Tsung had fallen sick, and imagined that he heard demons rampaging in his bedroom. The ministers of State, on inquiring as to the nature of the malady, were informed by the physician that his Majesty’s pulse was feverish, that he seemed nervous and saw visions, and that his life was in danger.
The ministers were in great fear. The Empress summoned other physicians to a consultation, and after the sick Emperor had informed them that, though all was quiet during the daytime, he was sure he saw and heard demons during the night, Ch’in Shu-pao and Hu Ching-tê stated that they would sit up all night and watch outside his door.
Accordingly they posted themselves, fully armed, outside the palace gate all night, and the Emperor slept in peace. Next day the Emperor thanked them heartily, and from that time his sickness diminished. The two ministers, however, continued their vigils until the Emperor informed them that he would no longer impose upon their readiness to sacrifice themselves. He ordered them to paint their portraits in full martial array and paste these on the palace doors to see if that would not have the same effect. For some nights all was peace; then the same commotion was heard at the back gates of the palace. The minister Wei Chêng offered to stand guard at the back gates in the same way that his colleagues had done at the front gates. The result was that in a few days the Emperor’s health was entirely restored.
Thus it is that Wei Chêng is often associated with the other two Door-gods, sometimes with them, sometimes in place of them.
From the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256BC) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911AD), even into the communist new China, ordinary people have chosen legendary heroes, religious masters, respected judges and revolutionaries to secure, bless and empower their households.
Many modern Chinese families continue to hang Door Gods on each side of their front entrances to keep out the bad and usher in the good. Pictures of these mên shên, elaborately colored, and renewed at the New Year, are to be seen on almost every door in Chinatown.
财神 Cái Shén- The God of Wealth
The most prominent and popular divine being during Spring Festival is the God of Wealth. People go around wishing each other
“may you get rich in the new year!”
Chinese gods of prosperity have appeared in many representations across the ages, though the most memorable is the legendary hermit 赵公明 Zhao Gongming, one of Cai Shen Ye (财神爷) personifications, who fought to save the collapsing Shang Dynasty in the 11th century BC. The colorful Zhao rode into battle on the back of a tiger, armed with an iron cudgel that could turn stone into gold and magic pearls that explode like grenades. Zhao was defeated when a supporter of the incoming Zhou Dynasty shot arrows through the eyes and heart of a straw man bearing Zhao’s name to cause his death. As the God of Wealth without eyes or a heart, it’s claimed that people of any background can receive his blessing and discover their path to abundance.
People welcome back the God of Wealth on the 5th day of Chinese New Year, which is said to be his birthday, by setting off firecrackers as they reopen their businesses.
Author Deng Mingdao in The Lunar Tao reminds us:
The God of Wealth doesn’t merely dole out riches. While people make offerings to him in their homes, and business people keep him in their stores, everyone still has to work. The God of Wealth may accept the offerings on the altar, inhale the incense, and thrill to the firecrackers, but the real offering he requires is hard work.
Over the following few days, the festivities continue with a flurry of parties and open houses, and a whole lot of food.
HOKKIEN New Year- Thni Kong Seh
The Thni Kong Seh- Hokkien New Year festivities, are held on the 9th day of Lunar New Year. The Hokkien – Chinese group is the biggest community in Penang.
Many centuries ago, Penang’s Hokkien ancestors had to miss the first days of New Year when they hid in a sugar cane plantation to escape oppression by the imperial army. They emerged unharmed eight days later, when they were finally able to celebrate, and since the date coincides with the birthday of Jade Emperor God.
Offerings of red cakes, pineapples, bottles of whiskey and, of course, sugar cane are made in his honor. There are long tables groaning with food, and sugarcane stalks that decorate big tables on the streets and in every household. The biggest Jade Emperor’s birthday celebrations will take place at the Jade Emperor temple at Chew Jetty and Thni Kong Tnua, or Jade Emperor’s Pavilion, a Taoist temple at the foot of Penang Hill in Air Itam, Penang. During this time, the Chew Jetty is decorated festively with colorful lights and bright lanterns.
Traditional Glove puppetry goes on for hours, it is an ancient art of storytelling. The myth of Yü Huang- the Jade emperor is shown.
Ang Ku Koay’, literally translated as red tortoise cake which is a kind of red glutinous rice cake made in the shape of a tortoise are offered. ‘Huat Koay’, which are light and fluffy pink cupcakes made from fermented glutinous rice flour; and more, will be used as offerings for the Jade Emperor along with Chinese dishes and sometimes even a whole roast pig. During night time, an altar for the Jade Emperor will be set up with the offerings placed on the altar.
Come midnight, prayers are offered to the Jade Emperor God, with sacrifices of food, tea, liquor, and more sugarcane stalks, later, paper offerings (‘Thni Kong Kim’) are burned. Firecrackers and fireworks seam to never stop.
Yü Huang- The Jade Emperor
Yü Huang means ‘the Jade Emperor,’ or ‘the Pure August One,’ jade symbolizing purity. He is also known by the name Yü-huang Shang-ti, ‘the Pure August Emperor on High.’
The history of this deity, seems to be as follows:
The Emperor Ch’êng Tsung of the Sung dynasty having been obliged in 1005 C.E. to sign a disgraceful peace with the Tunguses or Kitans, the dynasty was in danger of losing the support of the nation. In order to hoodwink the people the Emperor constituted himself a seer, and announced with great pomp that he was in direct communication with the gods of Heaven. In doing this he was following the advice of his crafty and unreliable minister Wang Ch’in-jo, who had often tried to persuade him that the pretended revelations attributed to Fu Hsi, Yü Wang, and others were only pure inventions to induce obedience. The Emperor, having studied his part well, assembled his ministers in the tenth moon of the year 1012, and made to them the following declaration:
“In a dream I had a visit from an Immortal, who brought me a letter from Yü Huang, the purport of which was as follows: ‘I have already sent you by your ancestor Chao, or T’ai Tsu, two celestial missives. Now I am going to send him in person to visit you.’”
A little while after his ancestor T’ai Tsu, the founder of the dynasty, came according to Yü Huang’s promise, and Ch’êng Tsung hastened to inform his ministers of it. This is the origin of Yü Huang. He was born of a fraud, and came ready-made from the brain of an emperor.
Another Legend of Yü Huang
The legend of Yü Huang relates that in ancient times there existed a kingdom named Kuang Yen Miao Lo Kuo, whose king was Ching Tê, his queen being called Pao Yüeh. Though getting on in years, the latter had no son. The Taoist priests were summoned by edict to the palace to perform their rites. They recited prayers with the object of obtaining an heir to the throne. During the ensuing night the Queen had a vision.
Lao Chün appeared to her, riding a dragon, and carrying a male child in his arms. He floated down through the air in her direction. The Queen begged him to give her the child as an heir to the throne. “I am quite willing,” he said. “Here it is.” She fell on her knees and thanked him. On waking she found herself enceinte. At the end of a year the Prince was born. From an early age he showed himself compassionate and generous to the poor. On the death of his father he ascended the throne, but after reigning only a few days abdicated in favor of his chief minister, and became a hermit at P’u-ming, in Shensi, and also on Mount Hsiu Yen, in Yunnan. Having attained to perfection, he passed the rest of his days in curing sickness and saving life; and it was in the exercise of these charitable deeds that he died. The emperors Ch’êng Tsung and Hui Tsung, of the Sung dynasty, loaded him with all the various titles associated with his name at the present day.
Both Buddhists and Taoists claim him as their own, the former identifying him with Indra, in which case Yü Huang is a Buddhist deity incorporated into the Taoist pantheon. He has also been taken to be the subject of a ‘nature myth.’
The Emperor Ching Tê, his father, is the sun, the Queen Pao Yüeh the moon, and the marriage symbolizes the rebirth of the vivifying power which clothes nature with green plants and beautiful flowers.
The Spring Festival is a time reserved for families. There is the reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve, visits, 拜年- bài nián to in-laws on the 2nd day and neighbors after that. Stores reopen on the 5th and society basically goes back to normal.
But on the 15th day of the Spring Festival, everyone- regardless of age or gender- go out onto the streets to celebrate. Though the Lantern Festival symbolizes reunions, it’s also a time of socializing and freedom.
In Ancient China, women usually weren’t allowed out the house. But on this night, they can stroll freely, lighting lanterns, playing games and interact with men. Because of wild and romantic stories, some say the Lantern Festival is the true Chinese Valentine’s Day, rather than 七夕 Qixi.
In Penang, the fifteenth and final day of Chinese New Year is known as Chap Goh Meh. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was when unmarried Chinese women were escorted by their families through the streets of Penang and down to the shoreline where they would throw mandarin oranges into the sea in order to bring luck in finding a husband. The tradition is still continued today and we saw many mandarins bobbing around in the shallow waters.
Emperor Wu designated this day for worship rituals for 太神 tài yī shén, or Taiyi, one of the universal gods. Intense power play and unrest came after his reign. The new emperor was Emperor Wen. To celebrate the return of peace, he made the 15th a national holiday. Every household would light candles and lanterns. It became known as 闹元宵 nào yuán xiāo. “Nao” can be interpreted as having fun, or going wild with excitement.
Emperor Ming of the later Eastern Han was a devout Buddhist, hearing that on the 15th, monks would light candles for the Buddha, he ordered the palace and temples to light candles, and for the citizens to hang lanterns.
Both events combined eventually developed into the Lantern Festival known today.
George Town- Penang
George Town, is a part of Penang Island and a historic city of the Straits of Malacca.
Together with Malacca they are UNESCO World Heritage sites, we visited Malacca and lived in Penang for several months.
Penang bears testimony to a living multi-cultural heritage and tradition of Asia, where many religions and cultures coexist. Reflecting the coming together of cultural elements from the Malay Archipelago, India and China with those of Europe, to create a unique architecture, culture and townscape. George town has developed over 500 years of trading and cultural exchanges between East and West.
Named after Britain’s King George III, George Town was strategically located to participate in the trade with the expanding British Empire and some of the city still reflects that past. However, nowadays it is a predominantly Malaysian- Chinese city, with all of the bustle and color that this implies, which also blends in Little India, center of the Indian community, and Kampung Siam – an area bequeathed by the East India Company on behalf of Queen Victoria to the Thai and Burmese communities in 1845.
The heart of George Town offers a unique blend of British colonial, Chinese, Indian, Malay and Thai contributions, including an impressive collection of Chinese shop houses and British mansions, Chinese clan houses, markets, Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and churches.
In among this rich multi-cultural heritage come equally strong multi-cultural food influences and fusion, easily making George Town the food capital of Malaysia and, many argue, center of by far the best street food in Asia. In George Town street food is not just a necessary part of the day but a culinary experience, unique to this beautiful city.
52 steel rod cartoons called “Voices from the People”, display the character of Georgetown and it’s people in a playful and funny way.
These Legends, Myths and Folklore of the Chinese New Year Celebration in Georgetown- Penang, are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more stories and interesting traditions to be discovered.
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Works Cited & Multimedia Sources
- 10 Interesting Facts about Chinese New Year.
- 15 Taboos You Avoid on Chinese New Years Day. EpochTimes.
- Arnold Sally. Penang. 2017.
- Chinese New Year Dragon Dance.
- Chinese New Year legends.
- Chinese New Year Lion Dance.
- Illustrations by © WIKIMEDIA
- Meet the Gods of Chinese New Year.
- Melacca and George Town, Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca. UNESCO.
- Red Pockets. Lantern Festival. Chinese New Year Taboos. Chinesenewyear2018.com
- Werner Edward T.C.. Myths and Legends of China. 1922. sacred-texts.com