New Year, Old Superstitions


Happy Year of the Monkey! If you were in China these past few days it was impossible to miss the celebrations that shook the nation – according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, the eve of the 7th February marked the end of the Year of the Sheep and the arrival of the Monkey. 

Comparable in its cultural importance with Christmas and New Year’s eve, for those of us with Chinese spouses this is the time of year we are dragged back to their respective hometowns (in some cases more willingly than others). While it is becoming more and more common for young Chinese to spend the one week they get off work traveling the country, for Mr. Li there is only one possible destination at this time of year; Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, or as my colleague has aptly named it “Jewel of the North”. For me it is the time of year to mentally kick myself in the ladyballs that I chose a husband from Inner Mongolia, where winter regularly reaches -20 degrees Celsius. In the weeks running up to CNY I often find myself daydreaming about what the holidays would be like had my prospective husband been a native of Shenzhen, Sanya or Xiamen. Love withstands all…except icicles dangling from your nose. As it were though, my Shenzhenian prince never showed up. In his place came Mr. Li, the broad-shouldered, big-nosed King of Hohhot, to whisk me away to the country of lamb and sauerkraut (just one of the strange things Inner Mongolia and Germany have in common).

 

Yesterday saw the coming to a close of two weeks of partying and fireworks and food, food, food with the Lantern Festival, the final event of the season. By now enough time has passed for me to recover not only from the festivities but the renewed culture shock I experience each time I visit my husband’s hometown. Chinese New Year is truly the biggest test for any Sino-Western relationship; CNY is in effect a fatal dose of cultural difference shaking one’s weird Western ideas of how the world works. If you do manage to get through a week of eating till your buttons burst, Chinese relatives and enough superstitions and rules to last you a lifetime, you can be fairly certain nothing will break you up! Unless your partner does not share your love of cheese, that might just be a deal breaker. 

 

In any event, CNY will always give us bloggers lots to talk about; and to start off my three-part series of post-CNY musings I would like to return to the topic of superstition. Though I have written about superstition at length during our wedding prep, to think you have seen or heard it all would be ludicrously naïve. You know it’s bad when not even Xi Dada, the purger of all things corrupt and extravagant cannot, despite his best efforts, eradicate the deep-rooted beliefs in the supernatural so engrained within many people in this country. 

 

Hohhot, being a third tier city, has a level of superstition probably corresponding very well with its status as a city; there are a lot more reasonable assumptions about how the world works than in a small village in some far off province where the iPhone is a mythical creature but to suggest the city is on par with Beijing or Shanghai in terms of modern mindedness is a bit of a stretch, to put it as mildly as the local climate.

 

Note that traditions and beliefs vary according to province and even among different cities, so this is mainly representative of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. 
There are countless superstitions that you need to follow in daily life and especially during the holidays, and in many cases no one really knows why; it’s just the way it is and the way it has been for as long as anyone cares to remember.

 

The most common tradition is burning paper money for the dead during CNY (and tomb-sweeping day) to make sure they live well in the afterlife and don’t come back to haunt you. Paper money in modern times can take any type of shape of form, I remember news reports in 2013 announcing the paper iPhone 5 was the latest must-have in the paper burning community. Walking the streets of the Ho (so naughty) the second day of the New Year, I found circles painted with chalk everywhere on the streets. These were areas reserved by family members of deceased, who had burned their paper here and marked their territory; meaning one is not allowed to stand inside the rings on purpose. Luckily I resisted the urge to jump from one ring to the next like we used to do as kids. That might have been awkward. 

 

Another rule that also seems to be more widespread, not just limited to Hohhot, is that if a family member dies, for the next three years you are not allowed to set off any fireworks. No one could really tell me exactly why; maybe as a sign of respect to the dead person, because being happy and forgetting about them would be bad. On the other hand, it might just be a practical way of limiting the use of fireworks and the unpleasant aftereffects of eye-watering, lung-singeing smog.

 

The superstition that upset me personally again relates to death; if a person is close to death many people might not go and visit said person for fear of “catching their ghost”, such is the case with Mr. Li’s paternal grandmother and her husband. The 80-year old man fell a few months ago and has since been taken care of by his daughter (from another marriage), while his wife of 30 or so years has not and probably won’t see him ever again. She also told us to stay away, since ghosts apparently love to attach themselves to young freshly married couples. The fear of ghosts is in fact so strong that commonly pregnant women are not allowed to attend funerals, not even if it was their own parent who had passed, since the fetus is deemed particularly vulnerable. 

 

If a close relative does die, you also need to express your grief for 100 days, during which among other things you are not allowed to cut your hair, put up couplets, that are usually stuck to doors for luck, or wear red. The dead person may also not wear red according to some beliefs, otherwise they will…you can probably guess by now…turn into a ghost and haunt you.

 

Well, these are all fairly depressing instances, so let’s finish off with a quirkier one, or we might end up jumping on the next plane back. During the month after CNY called 正月 you are not allowed to cut your hair because of the famous saying “正月剪头发会死舅舅 – if you cut your hair in the first month of the year, your uncle dies”. Naturally. So much for non-death related superstitions…

 

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11 thoughts on “New Year, Old Superstitions”

  1. Most of these superstitions are rather amusing for people who didn’t grow up with any. Oh how people were shocked in China when they heard that we went with out 1 year old son to a funeral in Germany…some even say that they can see the spirit of the old man behind Nathan! (Though the person who died was a woman and it was the only funeral there for the whole week…)

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    1. Ah you see ghosts are genderless 😉 or so they say! Yes most of the time superstitions can be funny or at the least perplexing – but some such as the grandma “abandoning” her dying husband just make me a little bit (or rather very) upset and outraged. Ah but nothing to be done I guess haha. Did they shave off Nathan’s hair btw? You know, so it will grow back thicker haha

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  2. Interesting post, Laura! I’ve never heard of the superstition about cutting your hair in the first month of the year…I’m actually thinking of going soon, so I’ll let you know if an uncle dies. 😉

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  3. I sometimes wonder why my prince charming didn’t show up when I was still living in Yunnan. We also eat sauerkraut here, made from 白菜. My father-in-law makes a mean sauerkraut all from scratch, so I’m always looking forward to the time when it’s already fermented enough so we can eat it.

    I think the not-setting-off-fireworks after the death of a loved one is connected to the thought that fireworks drive away ghosts, so if you have a recently deceased family member and their ghost is still hanging around trying to finish unfinished business, you wouldn’t want to drive them away. That’s at least my explanation for it, not sure if I make any sense.

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