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Liu Xiaofeng: How does the East Asian Cultural Sphere Celebrate the New Year?
Liu Xiaofeng
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Liu Xiaofeng: How does the East Asian Cultural Sphere Celebrate the New Year?

As long as one year of 365 days is recognised, humans will gradually develop a cultural tradition of welcoming the New Year.

Different peoples have different cultures and have chosen different moments and cultural customs to welcome the New Year. In ancient East Asia, China was the most prominent birthplace of East Asian culture, and its culture of the time had an irreplaceable authority. When the ancient Chinese calendar spread into its neighbourhood in East Asia, the various Chinese customs for welcoming the New Year would also influence the surrounding area. Thus, for a considerable period of time in history, East Asia has had many common or very similar New Year customs. At the same time, East Asian countries were influenced differently by their relations with China.

The New Year is the beginning of the year. It is the start of the year, of the month, and of the day. As the Chinese Song Busy for the New Year says, "On the twenty-fourth, clean the house", a thorough cleaning is necessary to welcome the new beginning with a fresh look. In ancient East Asia, the New Year was preceded by a spring cleaning. Busily preparing for the New Year was a common custom in East Asia. The Customs of An Nam records the New Year in Vietnam, "In the middle of the twelfth lunar month, people from all over the country travelled a long way back to their home, made clothes, cleaned yards and houses, dusted the utensils, and made everything neat and clean......near New Year's Eve......discarded the old stove in a clean place and replaced it with a new one". Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and the ancient Ryukyu also have the custom of busily preparing for the New Year.

Dragon lanterns were hung in Yokohama Chinatown to welcome the Chinese New Year. Photo by Lu Shaowei.

Cleaning a room also includes driving away unclean things, which is the ancient Nuo ritual of chasing out demons and diseases. The Nuo ritual is used to expel unclean and malevolent demons. It is often believed that Nuo has existed in China since the Zhou Dynasty. In the Offices of Summer of Rites of Zhou, it can be found that“the fangxiangshi wore a bearskin with four golden eyes to expel malevolent spirits." In the Han dynasty, the practice of Nuo ritual in the palace had developed, including the fangxiangshi led the twelve gods and one hundred and twenty "children for the ritual" to expel tigers, mountain demons, the Grim, and other malevolent spirits (Etiquette in The Book of the Later Han).

In Japan, The Engishiki (Procedures of the Engi Era), written in the tenth century, records that the Official Bureau for Yin and Yang Cult, which was responsible for the Nuo ritual, had a procession of exorcists led by an official waiting outside the palace gate at dusk on the last day of the twelfth month, and entered the palace at night to expel the malevolent spirits. Bows and arrows were used in the Nuo ritual. The bows were made of peach wood, and the arrows were made of pampas grass. This is very close to the Chinese Nuo ritual and is clearly influenced by China.

In ancient China, the Chinese calendar was based on the Stems-and-Branches. In Korea, a method of divination has its roots in the ancient Chinese culture of the Stems-and-Branches. This is a method of divining the number of years a state will reign: from the first day of the first month, the next twelve days are divided into hairy days and hairless days according to the animals of the earthly branch. According to this division, the rat on the Zi day, the ox on the Chou day, the tiger on the Yin day, the rabbit on the Mao day, the horse on the Wu day, the sheep on the Wei day, the monkey on the Shen day, the rooster on the You day, the dog on the Xu day, and the pig on the Hai day are all hairy days, while the dragon on the Chen day and the snake on the Si day are hairless days.

If New Year's Day falls on a hairy day, it will be a good year; if it falls on a hairless day, it will be a bad year. The first rat day after New Year's Day was called the Top Zi Day, when farmers had to go to the fields and light fires to burn weeds and crop residues; the first ox day was called the Top Chou Day, which was supposed to be the slack season, and on this ox day, the old ox had to be fed more soybeans because they would soon be used to help people again; on the Top Yin Day, people tried not to go out, especially young girls, and if they urinated or defecated in someone's house on this day, it would bring tiger disaster to that family (these customs have gradually become less influential as the tigers population has crashed); Mao means birth, so the Top Mao Day is a very effective day to pray for long life in Korea.

Chinese New Year decorations with Chinese elements in a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo by Zhao Shengyu.

The Japanese also have festival traditions for the first month of the Lunar New Year, shaped by the Stems-and-Branches culture. In Japan, there are feasts and tours on the Zi Day of the first month, which are said to be ancient Chinese customs but are very unfamiliar to us. In ancient Japan, there was a banquet on the Zi day of the first month, known as the "Banquet on the Zi Day". The emperor and his ministers played music, and the emperor gave them clothes and salaries, which was a vivacious event.

Then there are the New Year firecrackers. Firecrackers are a typical feature of the New Year in East Asia. The Chinese have firecrackers, and so do the Koreans and Vietnamese, but it seems that Japan is the only country that does not have firecrackers. In fact, Japan also has them. Because their firecrackers are the oldest ones, many people don't recognise them anymore.

The 15th day of the first month in Japan, the Lantern Festival, is called the "Little New Year", of which the counterpart is the "Big New Year", the New Year's Day. Since the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese have shifted all the traditional festivals that were originally part of the lunisolar calendar to the Western calendar, so the Japanese call it "Koshogatsu", the fifteenth day after New Year's Day each year. However, because of the direct adoption of the Western calendar, there is no guarantee that the fifteenth day will be a full-moon day, which is more like a mix in the East Asian cultural tradition of the time.

However, there is a traditional ritual associated with fire in the Little New Year, known in most regions as "dondoyaki" and in some regions as "sagicho", which is translated as "The Firecracker Festival" in the Japanese-Chinese Dictionary published by Shogakukan.

In sagicho’s practice, a dozen pieces of bamboo are set up in a triangular shape, tied with ropes and topped with dry straw to fuel the fire. In the middle, a tall bamboo pole is set up with a fan and money hanging from it. When the fire is lit, the children sing "tondo ya tondo" around the fire, and the popular folk name for this custom, "dondoyaki", is derived from this way of singing.

In Japan, the practice of sagicho also varies according to the cultural characteristics of the region. In some places, for example, people burn the characters written throughout the year, which is said to make them good calligraphers; in other places, rice balls or sticky cakes are baked over the fire of sagicho to keep them free of tooth decay and diseases and trouble for a year; in some places, the sagicho custom has also become a local tourist attraction and has been designated as an intangible cultural heritage.

The burning of firecrackers for the New Year was already a custom in China during the Northern and Southern Dynasties. The Records of the Seasons of Jingchu records, "the first day of the first month is also the day of the Three Primaries. The Spring and Autumn Annals called it the beginning month. When the rooster crows, the firecrackers are set off in front of the garden to drive away the mountain monsters and evil spirits." The mountain monster is a strange-looking creature, over a foot tall, with only one foot, and has the superpower to make people sick, but is very afraid of the bursting sound of burning bamboo. According to this account, burning bamboo to frighten the mountain monster was the origin of firecrackers in ancient China. The Japanese sagicho has maintained the prototype of firecrackers in time and form. However, when the custom of burning bamboo came into Japan can not be known as relevant literature is not available. In fact, the two Japanese names for the "Firecracker Festival" imitate the sound of the air expanding through the bamboo joints after burning the bamboo.

The Chinese community in Yokohama, Japan, celebrated the traditional Chinese New Year with a dragon and lion dance. Photo by Teng Jianfeng.

The New Year in East Asia is marked by a myriad of festive customs, but its spirit is no more than a good wish to welcome the New Year and drive away disasters and seek good fortune. The region of East Asia that once shared the use of Chinese characters is known as the Sinosphere. This is where Chinese culture has had the most profound influence and where the various New Year customs are closest to us.

In Singapore and Malaysia, there is a unique folklore item for Chinese New Year - the "Yusheng Toss". Many people gather around a table and compete to toss the fish, sides, and sauces from a large plate, shouting, "Let's go! Get rich!". The higher the yusheng is tossed, the higher the diners' growth in fortune will be. Originally from Guangdong, China, yusheng was brought to Singapore and Malaysia by Cantonese people who went to the South Seas to settle down in the early years. In the 1960s, four chefs - Tham Yui Kai, Sin Leong, Hooi Kok Wai, and Lau Yoke Pin - improved the dish by serving yusheng with various sides in various sauces, and diners toss them while shouting auspicious words, making it colourful and prosperous.

Songkran, also known as the Thai Water Splashing Festival, is similar to the Dai Water Splashing Festival in China. It takes place from 13 to 15 April every year. After worshipping the Buddha at the temple, respected monks douse devotees' bodies with water infused with spices to ward off evil spirits. The devotees then sprinkle perfume on the Buddha and Nang Songkran to pray for a happy New Year. A water-splashing frenzy follows the prayer ceremony to pray for prosperity and good luck in the coming year. Some even take elephants out into the street and splash water on pedestrians as a blessing.

The common folklore, history, and culture are the ties that bind the people of East Asia to each other, and are the common cultural genes that history has left us, which should be cherished and carried forward.


Liu Xiaofeng is a professor in the Department of History at Tsinghua University, a doctoral supervisor, the vice-president of the Chinese Society of Japanese Philosophy, the executive director of the Chinese Society of Japanese History, the president of the Specialised Committee on Ancient Japanese History, and the vice-president of the Beijing Society for the History of Sino-Japanese Relations. He is engaged in teaching and research on Japanese history and culture, and has endeavoured to open up the research horizon of the Sinosphere consisting of Japan, Korea, Ryukyu, and Vietnam, looking back at the ancient Chinese civilisation, and has made most efforts in the study of the culture of the time. His representative works include Reception of Annual Events in Ancient Japan (Katsura Bookshop, Japan), Qingming Festival (China Society Press), Time in East Asia - A Comparative Study of the Culture of the Seasons (Zhonghua Book Company), The Faces of Japan (Central Compilation and Translation Press), Duanwu (SDX Joint Publishing), A Treatise on the History of the Ryukyu (co-author, Zhonghua Book Company), Time and the Ancient World of East Asia (Social Sciences Academic Press), etc.


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