Spring festival is the most important festival in China since it’s the first day of the year according to the Chinese lunar calendar.
In different parts of China, people have different ways to celebrate this festival and the celebrations have been changing all the time. Some of them have a long history like giving 红包(Hóngbāo red envelop), cleaning the house on the new year’s eve, posting couplets on the door, lighting fireworks at 12 at midnight, and having 年夜饭(niányèfàn new year’s eve dinner).
The new year’s eve dinner is not just a regular big meal with family, but there are very strict rules about what to eat on those days, and what people eat differs from place to place for different reasons in China.
The new year’s eve dinner is the most important thing in the Chinese spring festival. The dinner is not only varied but also have a lot of implied meaning. People would worship the ancestors before the dinner, and according to the tradition, dinner can only begin after the candles are burned out.
On the Cantonese dinner table, there would be some certain food on the dinner table for luck and blessing in the coming new year. For example chicken, the pronunciation of chicken(jī) sounds like jí ( luck), also sounds like jì (having solutions to all the difficulties); and fish yú (having Surplus every year); oyster háoshì (good market); lettuce shēngcài (creating wealth); toufu skin fǔzhú ( àn (being).
Let’s have a look at the Cantonese new year’s eve dinner menu and the implied meaning.
In Cantonese, the pronunciation of chicken 鸡(jī) sounds like 计(jì) which means strategy and plan, so 有 鸡(yǒujī)which means have chicken sounds like 有计(yǒujì) which means having a solution for problems.
This dish has the implied meaning of being able to solve problems and overcome difficulties in the future.
Oyster 蚝豉 (háoshì) sounds like 好市(hǎoshì)in Cantonese， and hǎoshì means good market, very good meaning for business people.
Long thread moss (fācài) got the name because of its hair-like appearance (fà in Chinese means hair), but fācài also sounds like 发财(fācái)which means getting rich.
横财就手(hēng cái jiù shǒu) is a very famous Cantonese dish with the implied meaning of getting unexpected wealth. There are two main ingredients in this dish: Pork trotter and Lettuce. Lettuce(生菜shēngcài) means wealth, and Pork Trotter(zhūshǒu) means getting something smoothly.
Eating fish on new year’s eve is not only a tradition in Guangdong but also almost everywhere in China. The reason is 鱼(yú) has the same pronunciation as 余(yú) in Chinese, which means surplus. According to the tradition, you should not finish the fish, so you will 年年有余(nián nián yǒuyú), meaning having a surplus every year and accumulate more and more year by year.
Lettuce 生菜(shēngcài)sounds like 生财(shēngcái), and shēng means to create, cái means wealth, so shēngcái has the meaning of creating wealth.
Rice cake (niángāo) is made of sticky rice. 糕(gāo) has the same pronunciation as 高(gāo) which means high and improve, so 年糕 (niángāo) has the meaning of having improvement every year.
Toufu skin (腐竹 fǔ zhú) has similar pronunciation as (富足 fùzú) which means prosperity.
Except for all these food for dinner, there are several snacks that people eat during the spring festival, like fried 油角(Yóujiǎo) that are made from sticky rice and red beans; fried 煎堆(Jiānduī ) (for the native Cantonese people, having fried Jiānduī means having a lot of gold and silver in the house). Snacks and fruits like taro cake, sugar lotus seed, fried rice noodles, Sesame crisp, and Peanut crisp are also very typical on the dinner table.
In Shenzhen and Hongkong, there is a special dish that people eat for new year’s eve dinner------盆菜Péncài, several different cooked meat and vegetables piled on a plate and served at the dinner table. Known as a very traditional Chaoshan style, people would have hotpot for the new year’s eve dinner, and Péncài is very important when having new year hotpot dinner because Péncài symbolize birds returning to the nest, like the reunion of the family and wealth. It’s a special dish not just for spring festival but also for other festivals.
Most of the families in the south of China have the tradition of eating Tangyuan together in the morning during spring festival. It is said that eating Tāngyuán means the reunion of the family and everything goes as you wish.
年夜饭(niányèfàn new year’s eve dinner) is the last meal in the passing year and the first meal in the new year. It is a very important meal for people. Everyone wants to be blessed and have a good start at the beginning of the year, and choosing what we eat is very significant. That’s why all the dishes on the menu are the expressions of good wishes and pursuits.
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Contents are provided by Hanlin language center.