10 Questions You Always Had About Chinese New Year

10 Questions You Always Had About Chinese New Year


Shasha Dania •  Jan 26, 2024

As a Muslim child of a Malay father and a Chinese revert mother, I grew up celebrating both Chinese and Malay festivals without a second thought. Over the years, it’s become second nature to me to remember to buy new clothing for both Chinese New Year (CNY) and Eid and to gorge myself on tasty snacks that inevitably arrive in my living room throughout the year. Growing up like this was normal to me, so it never really occurred to me that misconceptions still exist about both festivals until I started talking to my Muslim friends. We’ve talked to some reverts about the differences in celebrating CNY before, but we know that there are many of you who still have burning questions about the festival. And that’s ok! As we live in a multi-racial society, it’s important for us to learn and gain a deeper understanding of each other’s beliefs and culture. Here are some of the most common questions about CNY - if we missed anything out, let us know!

10 Questions You Always Had About Chinese New Year

1. Is CNY a religious festival?

As our HHWT co-founder Mikhail mentions in the video above, CNY is a product of centuries of Chinese culture and is not limited to a particular religion. During CNY, Chinese families - regardless of religion - gather together to share a meal and catch up after a year apart. This is why lots of people ‘balik kampung’ (go back home) to visit their hometown and see their loved ones. While Buddhists and Taoists may give offerings on this day, this is a religious practice and not a cultural one. Chinese Christians and Muslims can also be found celebrating CNY with their families!

2. How is the ‘New Year’ determined?

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When it comes to determining the New Year, it boils down to the start of spring according to the traditional solar calendar. This calendar doesn’t have the same number of days as the Gregorian calendar, which is why CNY will alternate between being in late January or early February. This year, CNY falls on 1-2 February 2022! 

3. What is “auspiciousness”? Is it similar to a religious concept of fate like Qadar?

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Always wondered why you see crowds of people gathering around the horoscopes posted in shopping malls during the CNY period? You may have even seen the twelve displays - one for each animal in the Chinese zodiac - sometimes mentioning an ‘auspicious colour/number’. But what is auspiciousness?

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Some people think auspiciousness is similar to fate or destiny, but it’s not the same at all. Auspiciousness originates in the belief that the world is made out of energy or Qi. By influencing the Qi around you - such as through wearing a ‘lucky’ colour - you turn the Qi in your favour. Simply put, auspiciousness is more akin to ‘luck’ than ‘fate’. If you see entire families decked out in red, gold, or yellow during CNY, it’s because these colours are considered auspicious shades thought to bring good luck. Lion dances are also considered auspicious and lucky (which is why they're performed during occasions such as weddings or a store's opening too)!

4. Why is it inauspicious to wear black during CNY?

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If you’ve ever wondered why Chinese people can’t wear black during CNY it’s because black is considered an inauspicious colour that can take your luck away! This is also why some people avoid washing their hair or sweeping the floor during CNY, as they don’t want to ‘wash’ or ‘sweep’ the luck out of their lives. While I (as a Muslim) do not believe in this, I try not to wear black when I visit my extended family out of respect for these beliefs.

5. What is inside red packets?

If you’re a Muslim celebrating Eid in Singapore, Malaysia, or Indonesia, you would be familiar with ‘duit raya’ or ‘green packets’ and are wondering if red packets are the equivalent. The short answer is - yes! Red packets are traditionally given by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents, to the children of the family. Though the origins of the custom are grounded in traditional beliefs, today they’ve become a simple sign of goodwill and positive hopes for the child’s future.

6. How do you determine when you start giving and stop receiving red packets?

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The traditional belief is that getting married signals the point where you stop receiving red packets and start exclusively giving them out. These days, those who choose not to marry may start giving out red packets once they have a stable income. It really depends from family to family! As for whether you’re supposed to give a red packet to others - you’re really not obliged to unless you’re a close relative of the supposed recipient.

7. Do I have to give a red packet to my Chinese friends or relatives?

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If you’ve been invited to a friend’s house to celebrate and know that there will be young children there - it’s not compulsory to hand red packets out, so don’t stress out over it too much! Handing out a small amount to acquaintances’ children is still seen as a polite act, so depending on how close you are to the parent you can always prepare red packets with a small amount inside (Fun fact: $4 is considered a number to avoid as it sounds like ‘die’ in Mandarin, but some like to include $8 inside because it sounds like ‘make a fortune’!) just in case.

8. What exactly does Yusheng mean? Is it a traditional dish?

Yusheng is actually a uniquely Southeast Asian CNY tradition! The characters for Yu Sheng (魚生) mean ‘raw fish’ but also sound like ‘abundance of wealth or life’, signifying a hopeful wish for the future. The higher the toss, the more auspiciousness it’s supposed to bring. Fun fact: in Cantonese, Yusheng is known as Lo Hei, which means the ‘tossing up of fortune’ and refers to the way in which the Yusheng ingredients are tossed into the air before being eaten!

9. Why do my Chinese friends say auspicious phrases while adding Yusheng ingredients? 

Each ingredient in Yusheng has an auspicious meaning behind it, and at some restaurants during the festive season, servers may even individually add the ingredient to the plate while reciting a short auspicious phrase. For example, raw fish (Yu) is added because the phrase 年年有余 (Nian Nian You Yu) means ‘more abundance each year’, and crispy golden-fried biscuits are added because you’re wishing for 满地黄金 (Man Di Huang Jin) which means ‘the whole floor is covered with gold (wealth)’.

10. Is it okay to bring oranges when visiting someone during CNY?

Oranges are the go-to CNY gift for almost everyone as they symbolize wealth and prosperity. This is why you’ll always see a huge display of oranges in a prominent spot in Chinese houses during CNY, and why some brands even get in on the CNY fun with orange-shaped packaging for everything from hand creams to snack boxes.It’s tradition to present your host with the oranges (always in pairs, as even numbers are thought to be more auspicious!) and greet them with a simple 恭喜发财 (Gong Xi Fa Cai) or 新年快乐 (Xin Nian Kuai Le). Depending on the house, your host will usually return a pair of oranges to you as you leave which is meant to be a wish for good fortune on your behalf. There are no religious connotations to this exchange, and when I go visiting I always make sure to thank my relatives for the oranges and for their hospitality.

CNY has always been a time to get together with my extended family, share a delicious steamboat meal, and catch up with everybody after a year apart. As we usually only meet during CNY, it’s become a momentous occasion that I look forward to each year as a time to renew that family bond!