Chinese New Year – Myths & Practices

The Lunar New Year represents the beginning of a calendar year in which months are moon cycles, based on the lunar calendar or lunisolar calendar. As we approach the Year of the Tiger, we want to dive deeper into the myths that influenced certain practices and traditions you see today.


Myth 1: Fortune Has Arrived

Calligraphy is a common decoration used during Chinese New Year. The most common word is fú (福), meaning happiness or fortune. But you’ll rarely see it upright.


It is said that in the Ming dynasty, the Emperor ordered every household to decorate by pasting fu onto their doors. On New Year’s Day, he sent soldiers to check. They found that one illiterate family pasted the character upside down.


The Emperor ordered the family to be punished by death. Thankfully, the Empress was there and came up with an explanation: “Upside down” (倒 / dào) is a homophone of “here” (到 / dào). When it’s upside down, it means that fu is here.


The explanation made sense to the Emperor and he set the family free. From then on, people would intentionally hang the character upside down, both for fortune and in remembrance of the kind Empress.


Myth 2: Origin of Red Packets

According to legend, there used to be an evil spirit named Sui (祟). It would appear on New Year’s Eve and pat the heads of sleeping children three times. The children would wake up with a fever. Even if they recovered from the fever, they would never be the same again.


A couple entertained their child with some coins at night. When he fell asleep, they placed the coins on red paper and left it by the pillow. When Sui came, the coins flashed and frightened it away. From then on, parents would give children money in red packets every New Year’s Eve to keep Sui at bay and as a form of blessing.


Myth 3: The 12 Zodiac Animals

The order of the Chinese Zodiac was said to have been chosen by the Jade Emperor through a race. If you’re wondering how the tiny Rat managed to beat the others, well, it’s because he was a cunning fellow.


Rat and Cat planned to take part in the race together. However, Cat overslept because Rat had slipped something into his tea the night before.


On the way, Rat ran into Ox and they struck up a deal; Ox would carry Rat while Rat would sing for him. With Rat’s encouraging singing, they quickly made it to the finish line. However, just as they were crossing over, Rat jumped down and landed in front of Ox, coming in in first place.


Tiger and Rabbit arrived soon after. Dragon could have finished the race earlier, but he took a detour to save a village from a flood. Snake arrived at the same time, but he was too small to be seen at first. Horse and Goat travelled together, but Horse was a little bit faster with his long legs.


Monkey, Rooster and Dog arrived together after helping a god in another country.


Have you heard of any of these myths? While they may sound ridiculous in this day and age, we cannot deny that they greatly influenced the traditions we so happily take part in and are proud to call our culture.


IRYNE wishes everyone a very Happy Chinese New Year, may the year of the Tiger bring you good health and good fortune!