From January 29 to February 19, 2019

 

Chinese character: 豬This month I’d like to present you with our Chinese New Year’s Celebration Guide. I’d also like to use this opportunity to demonstrate the concept of “homophone” related to Chinese naming.

 

Chinese New Year of 2019 is on February 5, 2019. It begins the Year of the Pig.

 

China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan together have a huge population with many traditions. At the risk of oversimplification and overgeneralization, I’ve selected ten of the many common celebration activities to share with you for your information and entertainment. I include suggestions of things you can do to share these activities with people you care about.

 

Unlike most other languages in the world, Chinese has hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of possibilities for transliterating an alphabetic name from another language. Most native speakers and translators either fail to grasp this fact or are daunted by the work required to examine all the possibilities; thus they explore only a small portion and miss many great names.

 

How can there be so many possible transliterations? It is because there are many homophones in Chinese. Chinese homophones are similar to the English “dear” vs. “deer,” “bare” vs. “bear,” or “some” vs. “sum.” Unlike in these pairs, one sound in Chinese can correspond to tens of different characters, each with its own meanings and associations. If you also count the different tones, since Chinese is a tonal language, as well as very similar sounds, since an English sound does not often correspond perfectly to a Chinese sound, then you’re looking at hundreds of possible Chinese characters per sound to be considered for transliteration.

 

The new year will be the Year of the Pig (豬). It’s pronounced zhū, or “joo.” A total of 21 different Chinese characters sound exactly like this zhū in the first tone. Moreover, 16 other characters have the identical pronunciation in the second tone, 12 in the third tone; and 35 in the fourth tone.

 

I want you to get a feel of how homophones influence naming. So I have selected 10 of the 21 “zhū” characters in the first tone; I will explain one in each box below.

 

Chinese New Year’s Celebration Guide

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Between January 21, 2019, and Before the Lunar New Year

 

Before the lunar new year, there’s a tradition of bosses throwing big dinner parties to thank their employees for the past year of work. The parties are usually held on a day between the 16th of the lunar December, known as “Weiya” (尾牙, wěi yá), which was January 21 this year, and the end of the lunar year. Year-end bonuses and gifts are given during the banquet.

 

Weiya (尾牙, wěi yá), literally “tail” and “tooth,” is the name of the last traditional twice-a-month festival for the earth god of the year. It’s the last festival; thus the “tail.” At the festival, food is offered to the earth god and people feast on the food; thus “tooth.”

 

At the banquet, people dine at round tables, often ten to twelve per table. One might see a dish in the middle of the table holding a cut-up whole chicken. The only thing one needs to watch for is where the chicken’s head is pointed. If the chicken head points in an employee’s direction, it is a subtle hint that the person is fired! It’s a sign of relief when the head is pointed at the ceiling or to the boss.

 

Character of the day: 誅 (zhū) is “to execute or to punish.” Having a chicken head pointing at someone is like putting the person’s job to death.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019 Kitchen God Festival

 

Today is the 24th of the lunar December and known as “Kitchen God Festival” (送神, sòng shén), literally “sending [away]” and “god.” According to tradition, it’s the day the kitchen god and other gods go back to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor whether people have been naughty or nice. People place food offerings before the statue of the god and smear its lips with honey to sweeten his words. People start to do deep cleaning of their houses after this.

 

Character of the day: 蛛 (zhū) is “a spider.” As you do the clean up today, make sure you remove all those spider webs!

2

Monday, February 4, 2019 Chinese New Year’s Eve

 

Today is the last day before the new year — make sure your house is spotless and all laundry is done. Cook as much as you can because in the next few days you’re not supposed to use anything sharp or dangerous, such as a knife, for cooking in the kitchen. If fish is served, leave some on the plate; don’t eat the whole thing. The Chinese phrase “have fish every year” (年年有魚, nián nián yǒu yú) sounds the same as “have surpluses every year.” Prepare to stay up all night tonight with your family members after you all have dinner together.

 

Character of the day: 諸 (zhū) means “all” or “every.” Wishing you 年年有餘 (nián nián yǒu yú), meaning have surpluses every year, and 諸事大吉 (zhū shì dà jí), meaning everything will be great!

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019 Chinese New Year’s Day

 

Today your phone might ring off the hook and text message greetings might be nonstop. Slightly bow your head and say, “Gong Ssee Gong Ssee (恭禧恭禧, gōng xǐ gōng xǐ),” literally, “Congratulations, congratulations!” to everyone you meet. You should personally visit relatives, good friends, and people you care about. Fill red money envelopes with cash and give them to the elders in the family, your kids, and other children and teens close to you.

 

Character of the day: 豬 (zhū) is “pig.” Today is the official beginning of the Year of the Pig.

4

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 Second day of the new year

 

Second day of the new year. Today is the day married daughters should visit their parents. Don’t forget to bring a gift, preferably something tasty and sweet. Never visit anyone empty handed, especially your in-laws. It’s a good day to express your gratitude to those who have helped you.

 

Character of the day: 朱 (zhū) is red. It’s also a Chinese surname. Red is the luckiest color in China, so during the new year just stick with red and you won’t go wrong.

 

5

Thursday, February 7, 2019: Third day

 

It’s inappropriate to visit relatives and friends today for those who are adamant about the old traditions. You should rest and go to bed early since you’ve done a lot for the last few days.

 

Character of the day: 硃 (zhū) is “vermilion or cinnabar,” a red mineral. The character consists of the stone radical (石) and red (朱).

 

6

Friday, February 8, 2019:  God Welcoming Day

 

Today, the 4th day, is known as “God Welcoming Day” (接神, jiē shén), literally “receiving” and “god.” According to tradition, it’s the day the kitchen god and other gods come back to resume their duties. To put it in modern terms, their vacation is over and they go back to work. It’s believed to be a good sign if it rains on this day. To celebrate the day, how about visiting people you haven’t been able to visit in the last few days? Have some noodles. Noodles, especially long and uncut ones, represent long life.

 

Character of the day: 櫫 (zhū) is “a wooden peg or a post.” It also means to reveal or to announce. It’s a pig (豬) on top of wood or tree (木). This is not a frequently used character. You can use it to test how much a native Chinese speaker really knows!

 

7

Saturday, February 9, 2019:  Businesses Re-Open

 

Today, the 5th day, is the day many Chinese businesses re-open. Some businesses light a long-fused string with 100s or even 1000s of firecrackers and hang it along the outside of a high-rise building. The explosive, loud, popping noise could last for 10 minutes or more. It signifies a joyful and long, prosperous time to come. Eat some dumplings. They look like ancient Chinese gold ingots and are therefore considered lucky. The gods came back yesterday so people need to start working today too!

 

Character of the day: 株 (zhū) is “a measuring unit for plants.” It’s also the rootstock. In Japanese, this same character means stock or share.

 

8

Wednesday, February 13, 2019: Jade Emperor

 

Ninth day. Said to be the birthday of the Jade Emperor. Traditionally, prayers, offerings, and loud noises of firecrackers will be heard, starting at midnight. It’s said the heaven takes pleasure in the welfare of living things, so food offerings for the Jade Emperor ought to be vegan today, even though offerings for other gods tend to be pork, chicken, and fish. Today would be a good day to enjoy a salad.

 

Character of the day: 茱 (zhū) is “cornelian cherry.” It consists of the grass radical (艹), representing plants, on top and red (朱) at the bottom. It’s a character often used in a transliterated female name.

 

9

Tuesday, February 19, 2019: Lantern Festival

 

Fifteenth day. Lantern Festival. Many children and teens enjoy walking around the neighborhood carrying lighted lanterns at night. Go to your favorite Chinese restaurant and ask if it serves sweet and glutinous rice balls brewed in a soup called Tangyuan (湯圓, tāng yuán) because it’s the traditional food eaten on this day. The round rice balls symbolize union or reunion. I just read a BBC article titled “A Chinese sweet that’s a homophone for reunion.” You can Google it! This is the last day of the Chinese New Year’s celebration.

 

Character of the day: 珠 (zhū) is “pearl” and a general term for bead. If you can’t find Tangyuan, the big rice balls symbolizing union, you might be able to find Boba Tea, also called Pearl Tea, named because of the small tapioca balls added to the tea. I wonder if you find it interesting that pearl (珠) and swine (豬) are pronounced exactly the same in Chinese.

 

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I hope you like this Chinese New Year’s Celebration Guide by Good Characters. Let me know what you think!

 

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