Twas the Night Before Chinese New Year’s Day

Twas the night before Chinese New Year’s Day, and all through the house

We were busy preparing for the Year of the Mouse

The red couplets were hung by the doorway with care

In hopes of a lucky year for all who lived here

We had taken a moment to reflect and pray

As we remembered ancestors at the start of the day

The place had been tidied up just great

So we could start off the new year with a clean slate

We had laid out new clothes and dressed in red

To ensure auspicious times for the days ahead

The red envelopes were all stuffed with plenty of money

To promise a new year filled with prosperity

We had cooked up a feast for the year’s most important meal

Which we enjoyed among company with much gusto and zeal

On our comfiest couch did Jun and I stay

As the grand Spring Festival Gala on TV did play

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At midnight, across China there arose such a clatter

But no need to spring up to see what was the matter

After all this was one of those holiday “perks”

Because people love to welcome the year with fireworks

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But since Jun and I live in Beijing, where they are banned,

Surrounding us was a relatively quiet and serene land.

That was just fine, given our exhaustion was deep

And we desperately wanted a little good sleep.

And as we settled into bed, with the new year now in sight,

We said, “Happy Chinese New Year to all – and to all a good night!”

Should You Cave to Pressure to Drink, Smoke at Chinese New Year?

Should you cave to family pressure at Chinese New Year to drink or smoke, even if you’ve never done either, out of politeness to your hosts?

For the author of an article published in Beijing Kids, detailing how she brought her Beijing-born husband to see relatives for one Chinese New Year, the answer was, shockingly, yes:

Now I don’t know whether you’re familiar with Dongbei (Northeastern) hospitality, but it’s intense. If I had to describe it in one word, it would be excess. According to one of my aunts, Dongbei people give their guests the best that they have to offer which, in my family, translated to the most expensive baijiu, extravagant meals breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and non-stop smoking even for my non-smoker husband. According to my husband, it’s impolite to turn down gestures of hospitality, so for a week, he became a smoking baijiu day-drinker.

I understand how sitting around a crowded table at Chinese New Year can function like the social equivalent of a pressure cooker, where people get passed cigarettes or poured baijiu even after multiple refusals. And yes, sadly, many Chinese feel bound by an unhealthy culture, especially in northeastern China, as chronicled by China Daily in the article Learning to Refuse Toasts in the Season of Ganbei, published Jan 26, 2012:

Li Li, 36, from Harbin, Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, said she often feels pressured at business banquets to drink too much with friends and clients and the problem get worse during the holidays.

“Repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly, clients come to me proposing toasts, and they won’t stop until I’m drunk,” she complained. “Unfortunately, in our culture, you just don’t turn down a toast-people would feel humiliated and consider your rejection a put-down. But it seriously hurts my health.”

And among family, people you’ll end up seeing again and again over the years, drinking or smoking, even when you don’t want to, creates a potentially binding precedent that will haunt you every time you return. Everyone will point out how you raised your glass or lit up last time, and clamor for you to fall in line once again.

But who says you have to say yes?

My husband, who is Chinese, doesn’t smoke or drink, and won’t make an exception for holidays merely because of family pressure. Granted, he hails from Zhejiang province, which perhaps has a more tolerant attitude toward people who pass on the cigarettes or baijiu. But he has also found it helpful to trot out this brilliant excuse, which always works: “I have a foreign wife!”

In fact, pointing to a spouse who wouldn’t approve has actually become a bona fide reason for many Chinese to turn down alcohol, as chronicled among the tips mentioned in the China Daily piece Learning to Refuse Toasts in the Season of Ganbei:

Strategy 1: Drive to parties. Since drunken driving has been classified as a major criminal act, even the most enthusiastic drinker would not force a driver to break the law.

Strategy 2: Bring up your spouse, even if he/she is not present. Tell those urging you to drink that your significant other considers drinking too much absolutely unacceptable.

Strategy 3: For health reasons. If you were told for medical reasons to steer clear of alcohol, telling the group, in your doctor’s words, can get you out of forced drinking.

Strategy 4: Complain about your workload. You need not go into much detail, just tell your friends or clients that you have too much work to do after the dinner.

Most of these strategies could also help you say no to cigarettes too. (And you could even use the “health reason” strategy to craft your own “white lie” of a doctor’s excuse.)

Plus, anyone facing forced drinking might also bring up that time-honored Chinese saying – yĭ chá dài jiŭ (以茶代酒, substitute wine with tea) – which has allowed many a person in China to escape that dreaded baijiu.

And if you feel especially courageous, consider reminding your host of the expensive lessons that could ensue from coercive imbibing, such as the case chronicled in the China Daily article Don’t Force Others to Drink:

A court has ordered a 69-year-old woman in Kai county, Chongqing, to pay a fine of 330,000 yuan ($53,000) to her brother, who fell down and injured himself after being coaxed by her into drinking about 600-ml of homemade liquor at her birthday party. The fine should be a warning to people who are in the habit of forcing others to drink beyond their capacity, says an article in Legal Daily.

If you plan to spend Chinese New Year with your family or that of friends, don’t assume you must succumb to pressure to drink or smoke. You can say no, following one of the many strategies I’ve listed in this piece, and still remain in the good graces of your hosts, while leaving the vices to others.

So when it comes to “cheers”, I hope your Chinese New Year is filled with those of happiness!

What do you think?

Photo credit: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vertreter_der_vier_Baijiu_Kategorien.jpg

Don’t Marry in a ‘Widow Year’? On a Chinese New Year Superstition

Did you know that 2019, the Year of the Pig, was a widow year, and it was supposedly “unlucky for marriage?

A “widow year”?

I’ve heard the term “widow”, a woman whose husband has died, used to describe all sorts of things, from the “widow’s peak” on your hairline to, of course, the deadly “black widow spider”. And given the original meaning of “widow”, the term, when paired with a year, struck me as a rather ominous combination.

This piqued my curiosity, which prompted me to do a little research and learn more about this superstition.

Why do people call it a “widow year”? And why is it supposedly bad for marriage?

A “widow year” means any year in the Chinese lunar calendar without lichun or Spring Commences, one of the 24 solar terms that divide up the lunar year. Specifically, lichun or Spring Commences marks the coming of the spring season.

According to the China Daily article Couples Rush to Tie Knot Ahead of “Widow Year” (published Feb 3, 2010), some Chinese people think of lichun or Spring Commences as “a time of Yang (masculine) energy.” To them, a year without lichun or Spring Commences equals a year without Yang energy as well.

The article provides further clarification:

Superstitious people believe women who get married in a year without the “Spring Commences” day will become widows. … Tradition-bound parents also fear consequences like husbands coming to harm, marriages breaking down and children getting bad luck.

Should you postpone your wedding plans during a “widow year”?

If you’re newly engaged, should you put the nuptials on ice or opt for a speedy elopement before the “widow year” begins?

Well, consider what that China Daily article also said:

Regarding the idea of a “widow year”, Guo Hu, director of Beijing’s Bureau of Meteorology, says that on average, there are seven so-called “widow years” every 19 years. But there are also seven years with two “Spring Commences” days in the same 19 years.

“It is totally groundless to say a year without a Spring Commences day is unlucky,” Guo told the Beijing Daily.

In other words, it all depends on your perspective and what you consider auspicious.

After all, imagine all the hundreds of thousands of people who marry in any given “widow year” around the world. Every single one of these couples could not possibly suffer the same marital misfortune. If a “widow year” truly posed a threat to people everywhere, then why didn’t anyone ever pass the warning on to me while in the US?

And, apparently, a growing number of young Chinese people don’t mind flouting this superstition either, as the China Daily article Vowing to be different with the nuptials notes:

Wang Xiaoqiang, a 26-year-old white collar worker in Shanghai, doesn’t really care that the Year of the Snake 2013 is not regarded as a propitious year for weddings.

“I was told Lunar 2013 is not a good year to get married but that is something believed by elderly people,” said Wang.

In other words, when a “widow year” comes, worry less about the superstition — and follow your heart instead.

What do you think about the “widow year” superstition for Chinese New Year? Would you marry in a “widow year”, or would you postpone your wedding?

Correction: Updated original post, which incorrectly named 2020 as a widow year.

Red Clothes, a Perfect Chinese New Year Gift for Someone’s Zodiac Year

Usually when we send anything for Chinese New Year to my husband’s parents here in China, it invariably elicits a very standard response that shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Chinese culture: “You shouldn’t have spent that money!” In fact, Jun’s parents already used this phrase on us twice – once after receiving the Chinese New Year gift boxes of Chinese jujube dates and walnuts, and then again after sending some whole root ginseng.

But when Jun told his father in a phone conversation that a gift box of auspicious red socks were also headed his way, he perked up with an uncharacteristic note of excitement in his voice. “Eh, your mother told me to buy some red socks and underwear!”

(That was my father-in-law’s way of saying: I love it, thank you!)

Those who know something about Chinese New Year culture and superstitions won’t find it surprising that he embraced this delivery more than the others.

First of all, wearing red in your Chinese zodiac year supposedly wards off the potential bad luck that might threaten anyone born under that zodiac sign. And second, people say the red clothing offers stronger protection if someone else buys it for you.

So since I bought him pairs of red socks, that could make these an especially propitious and welcome way to ring in this Chinese New Year, his own zodiac year.

Red socks or underwear (from actual briefs, boxers or panties to long johns) can present easy options to buy for your friends and family, provided you know their sizes. But when in doubt, go for anything painted in brilliant red: hats, scarves, gloves, wraps and even necklaces or bracelets.

Have any Chinese family or friends about to enter their zodiac year? Don’t forget them on your Chinese New Year shopping list – and remember, this is one time that someone might actually cheer to receive underwear or socks! For ideas, visit my post Great Gifts For Your Chinese Zodiac Year (Ben Ming Nian).

Need more Chinese New Year gift ideas for your Chinese loved ones? I’ve written extensively on the subject of gift-giving and recommend the following posts:

P.S.: If you’re shopping this Chinese New Year on Amazon.com, you can actually support Speaking of China — at no additional cost to you — by making a purchase through one of my affiliate links. Thanks!

7 Favorite Chinese Brands for Chinese New Year Gifts

As Chinese New Year will light up homes and skies around the world at the end of this month starting Jan 24 (the eve of Chinese New Year), many of have already begun the annual shopping “shuffle” to find those perfect Chinese New Year gifts. And many Chinese brands you might not know happen to shine as splendid gift choices for Chinese New Year.

Here are 7 favorite Chinese brands – featuring foods and supplements — that you should consider while shopping for Chinese New Year, along with links to online stores in China and also around the world, including Amazon (where your purchases help support this site).

Three Squirrels (三只松鼠)

Chinese have gone nuts (pun intended!) over this label, which reigns as one of China’s best-selling snack brands and boasts an adorable trio of squirrels as its mascots. Naturally, things such as pecans, macadamias, pistachios, almonds and more stand out as favorites, but Three Squirrels also sells dried fruits, fruit and nut combos, plus a wide array of products that cover practically every snack category in China (from cookies, crackers and cakes to smoked/dried tofu and, yes, even potato chips). If you live in China, buy from the official Three Squirrels online stores on Alibaba’s Tmall or JD; you can also find Three Squirrels on Amazon.

Prince of Peace (太子牌)

This Hong Kong brand has won fans across the world and become one of the most ubiquitous ginseng brands in Chinese supermarkets across America for its quality and potent American ginseng products. While Westerners tend to like the convenience of the teas, capsules and powders, most Chinese will prefer whole root ginseng or ginseng slices. In China, you can buy on JD’s online marketplace. Otherwise, visit the Prince of Peace online store or Amazon.

Honey West (楼兰蜜语)

This brand name captures the sweet allure of the many popular snack foods of western China that have enchanted peoples’ tastebuds. Unlike Three Squirrels, Honey West specializes in western Chinese snacks such as large Chinese jujube dates, walnuts, raisins, figs and much more. As much as I love Three Squirrels, Honey West has become my go-to choice for Chinese New Year gifts for the family – their boxed Chinese jujube date/walnut combos always bring a delicious helping of joy (and good fortune, thanks to their clever packaging design) to the table at the holidays. You can find Honey West on Alibaba’s Tmall or on JD.

By-Health (汤臣倍健)

As vitamin brands from abroad have multiplied in the Chinese market, the domestic brand By-Health still flexes its muscles as one of the top choices for Chinese consumers looking for quality supplements at a good price. And since By-Health imports many of its key ingredients, buying from them can be like opting for an overseas brand. Even better – By-Health offers a selection of nearly every major vitamin, from vitamin B and C to multivitamins and calcium to even specialty supplements such as spirulina and garlic oil. You can purchase By-Health online at their Alibaba Tmall official store or their JD official store, and also visit its English website.

Olivoila (欧丽薇兰)

For years I’ve watched olive oil pour into supermarket shelves – and kitchens – across China, to the point where the country has risen to become one of the world’s major importers of this product. While Spanish and Italian imports vie for customers, the Chinese brand Olivoila, which promotes its own blend of imported olive oils tailored to the Chinese market, continues to sizzle among leading choices. In fact, my employer even gave a special boxed set of Olivoila olive oil for Chinese New Year. Here in China, you can purchase Olivoila at the Alibaba Tmall official store or its JD store.

Great Wall (长城葡萄酒)

The Alibaba Tmall supermarket listed a gift box of Great Wall red wine among its hottest selling products for Chinese New Year, a testament to how beloved this time-honored brand remains, despite the diverse range of imported wines that have flooded the Chinese market. For Chinese New Year, choose wines in red, the most festive color of the season. You can purchase Great Wall at the Alibaba Tmall official store or its JD official store.

White Rabbit (大白兔)

For many Chinese, White Rabbit candies, which date back to 1959 and represent one of the first treats in modern China, recall the sweet taste of nostalgia with every bite. And since generous bowls of candies always feature in Chinese New Year celebrations, consider surprising your Chinese loved ones with a box or some bags of these. They come in the traditional white milk candies as well as some newer and more innovative flavors (such as wasabi!). You can buy White Rabbit candies at the Alibaba Tmall official store or the JD official store, as well as on Amazon.

Photo credit: By David290 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77127042

What do you think? What are some other favorite Chinese brands you would recommend for Chinese New Year gifts?

Need more Chinese New Year gift ideas for your Chinese loved ones? I’ve written extensively on the subject of gift-giving and recommend the following posts:

P.S.: If you’re shopping this Chinese New Year on Amazon.com, you can actually support Speaking of China — at no additional cost to you — by making a purchase through one of my affiliate links. Thanks!

4 Last-Minute Holiday Gift Ideas for Chinese Loved Ones

If you’ve saved your holiday shopping for the last minute and wonder what to buy for Chinese loved ones on your list, we’ve got you covered on this blog. Here are four last-minute holiday gift ideas to consider:

#4: Hats, gloves, scarves

People love getting new clothes for the holidays in China (so they can dress in a completely new outfit from head to toe), so winter clothing is always in season as a gift.

Hats, gloves and scarves offer the easiest options — you don’t need to know sizes to buy the perfect gift. Still, quality counts here and, if you’re buying for someone younger, style as well. To play it safe, opt for major brands such as Esprit, Gap, Uniqlo or Zara.

#3: Jewelry

Quality watches, earrings and necklaces in classic styles also shine as gifts for Chinese — and if you’re buying outside China, you can often find those with precious stones at better prices too. Unless you know the recipient well, stick to the most traditional pieces and settings from established brands or jewelers. Watches work well for men, while women will love earrings or necklaces.

#2: Foreign wines

Top-shelf wines from abroad bring great holiday cheer — and easy gift ideas as well, particularly for men. French wines remain favorites, but almost anything from Europe will make a splash. Learn more about buying foreign wines in this post.

#1: Fruit baskets and gourmet food baskets

If you’ve read every suggestion on this list and still feel stumped, then repeat after me — get a fruit basket or gourmet food basket. For more specific advice on this, see 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China.

Need more last-minute holiday gift ideas for your Chinese loved ones? I’ve written extensively on the subject of gift-giving and recommend the following posts:

What did I miss? What other last-minute gift ideas would you recommend for Chinese loved ones?

P.S.: If you’re shopping this holiday season on Amazon.com, you can actually support Speaking of China — at no additional cost to you — by making a purchase through one of my affiliate links. Thanks!

Romance in the Chinese Lantern Festival – Why the Holiday Lights Up Hearts Too

In Chinese culture, the Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the lunar new year (Feb 19 this year), sees celebrations marked by elaborate displays of colorfully illuminated lantern installations. Even in the coldest of weather, people will brave the elements just to get out and visit lantern exhibitions all across Asia.

But just as the Chinese Lantern Festival lights up the night, it has also traditionally lit up young hearts as well.

A few years ago, I discovered its connection to romance when the holiday happened to fall on Valentine’s Day:

In China some have dubbed the Lantern Festival the real Chinese Valentine’s Day. In the past, unmarried women were not allowed to freely leave their homes. But during the Lantern Festival, they had the chance to come out with chaperones and enjoy the lanterns in public, a wonderful opportunity to meet potential romantic partners as well.

The fact that this holiday traditionally served to encourage courtship has led people to dub it the true Chinese Valentine’s Day, instead of the Qixi Festival or Double-Seven Festival, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar.

Plus, anyone who has ever visited displays of lanterns knows just how romantic the entire atmosphere can be. The bright, colorful glow of the lanterns at night creates this magical backdrop certain to warm the hearts of any couple. And in this scenario, to borrow the lyrics of the Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen song, “…the night belongs to lovers”.

Whether you have romance on your mind or not, a visit to a lantern display in your area will surely light up your heart. And who knows? Maybe you just might meet that someone special during the Chinese Lantern Festival.

What do you think about the romantic side of the Lantern Festival in Chinese culture?

How Are Age and Chinese New Year Connected? – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM just published my post titled How Are Age and Chinese New Year Connected? Here’s an excerpt from that piece:

Years ago, when I went to have my fortune read at the Shihlin Night Market in Taipei, the fortune-teller gave me quite a shock when he declared me two years older than what I considered my actual age.

“But I’m not that old yet!” I insisted. Had this guy misread my birthdate? While I could live with one extra year — something I had become accustomed to from living in China, a culture where you’re considered 1 years old the day you’re born — two was pushing it.

What I never realized at the time, however, was that this “extra year” had something to do with Chinese New Year.

As I mentioned before, I’ve known for a long time that people in China count your age differently, with newborns being 1, not 0, years of age.

So how does Chinese New Year fit in with age?

To read the full post, head on over to WWAM BAM. And if you like it, share it!

China Daily Videos: Watch Me Discuss Family Small Talk, Delivery for Chinese New Year

Recently, I served as a guest for two Chinese New Year-themed videos for China Daily, where we discussed online delivery of Chinese New Year goods and also how to navigate family small talk during the holidays. For anyone who has ever wondered, “What does Jocelyn sound like?” here’s your chance to hear and see me in action!

My favorite is Holidays with family: Small talk strategies:

In this video, the staff at China Daily website shares their experiences during family gatherings and summarizes a list of “safe” topics to help you navigate holiday conversations.

The other video is Spring Festival: Tracking the changes in online shopping:

For Chinese New Year, many people shop for a wide range of holiday goods, known as nianhuo in Chinese, and the staff at China Daily website are no exception. In this video, they talk about their nianhuo shopping experiences, and their concerns of the possible dark side of the shopping spree, while also delivering their best holiday wishes to you.

Have a look and let me know what you think! And if you like them, share them.

Wishing everyone a Happy Chinese New Year!

Delivering a Little Love and Care for Chinese New Year – Pub’d in China Daily

China Daily just published my latest monthly column Delivering a little love and care for Chinese New Year.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Less than 24 hours after I had placed an online order on Alibaba’s Tmall Supermarket, my father-in-law’s jubilant voice on the other end of the phone conversation confirmed that everything had been delivered straight to his home in rural Zhejiang province.

Yes, he had received the six bottles of French red wine, the three red-and-gold boxes of assorted Xinjiang dates and walnuts, and the two tins of ginseng — our Chinese New Year presents for the family.

Just as he felt such excitement over receiving the bounty of gifts we had chosen, I was thrilled by the remarkable convenience and ease of the whole online transaction.

Years before, not a single express delivery company guaranteed next-day shipping straight to someone’s door in my in-laws’ mountainous rural village, located over 20 kilometers away from the more urban county seat. Most orders used to take at least two to three days and usually required a trip by the recipient to the local express delivery station for pickup.

But now, I didn’t have to worry about whether my father-in-law could possibly lug all those bottles of wine and boxes of dates and walnuts back home from the station by himself, thanks to Tmall Supermarket and their attentive service.

I’m certain my husband Jun’s family never imagined that one day, they would receive Chinese New Year goods, known as nianhuo, through home delivery. Traditionally, you would present them in person during the holidays. But we wouldn’t be able to reunite with the family this year. And Tmall Supermarket’s promise to deliver right to their house, the following day, made it the next best way to send them something special for the season.

You can read the full column here — and if you like it, share it!