春节 (chūn jié) or “Spring Festival” is the official name of the Chinese new year holiday in mainland China. The official name came into use in 1912, after Sun Yat-sen declared the Republic of China, to avoid confusion over the Gregorian calendar’s new year on January 1st. It feels odd to call it “Spring” anything, when most years it’s very clearly still winter. While most decorations are red and gold and not at all season specific, there are several fake blossom trees outside my building, and it was quite entertaining to see them in the snow!
The decorations are one of my favourite “Spring Festival” customs. Before I left for Christmas, my house helper offered to get some window decorations and put them up for me – which I was more than happy with. She got me cheap and simple versions of circular paper-cut decorations – the red is printed on clear plastic which is then stuck to the window; there’s no finicky slivers of cut paper to deal with. I was very pleased to discover she chose designs I really like, too! There are large ones with the 福 (fú) “blessing” character and the twelve zodiac animals (in order); there are smaller ones with fish, and tiny fish ones in the kitchen, because fish 鱼 (yú) sounds like prosperity 裕 (yù) – a blessing for the coming year; there are medium size ones with two horses, for the Year of the Horse. (I think someone got lazy with the horse design, as it specifies the “metal” element horse. This year is a wood horse year; the last metal horse year was 1990!)
Even more common than circular paper-cut designs on windows are doorway decorations – diamond-shaped 福, long and narrow 对联 (duì lián), stylised horses (this year’s zodiac animal), and at larger doors, red lanterns and sometimes chains of fake firecrackers. You can’t walk around China at this time of year without seeing decoratiosn like these everywhere – around the doors of homes and businesses, in the subway, sometimes even on the fronts of cars or trucks. Of course, the vast majority are red, with black and/or gold writing. It’s all very fun and festive!
对联 (duì lián) are poetic couplets, usually written in a calligraphic style, pasted around doors – both left and right, plus a short phrase over the door. Traditionally, they would have been written in black ink, with a calligraphy brush, on strips of red paper. Now most people buy printed papers with generic phrases wishing blessing on the household/business. Generally, each set will have two lines of poetry for the sides of the door and a 4-character phrase to go above the door. The short phrase is often something generic like 出入平安 (peace/safety both going out and coming in), but the two long phrases are usually a matched pair with reflective meanings and rhythm. There is a huge variety of content, but the important thing is that they evoke blessings for the coming year.
These dui lian fascinate me, probably in large part because they’re so hard for me to understand. The more poetically Chinese is written, the less clear it becomes… all pronouns and most other clarifying words are dropped until it’s just a mass of nouns, verbs and adjectives with little context. So often I can read every character but still not understand what they mean together. This year I asked my lovely friend Evelyn to help me understand some of the dui lian I had photographed.
Together Evelyn and I translated 6 couplets into English, and we had fun doing it! It’s tricky to convey the meaning accurately without sounding nonsensical in English. In Chinese they are read rhythmically, each syllable a single beat. Usually there are 7 characters to each line, with a “rest” on what would be the 8th beat. There are a few rhythms that can be employed when reading them aloud (like DA-da-DA-da-DA-DA-DA), but the accenting is fairly subtle.
开门大吉好运行 – kāi mén dà jí hǎo yùn xíng
进宅平安福星照 – jìn zhái píng ān fú xīng zhài
Good fortune follows you as you leave
Lucky stars light your safe return
顺风顺水顺人意 – shùn fēng shùn shuǐ shùn rén yì
得财得利得天时 – dé cái dé lì dé tiān shí
Smooth wind, smooth water, just the way you wish
Gain fortune, gain profit, at the perfect time*
灯照吉祥岁岁欢 – dēng zhào jí xiáng suì suì huān
花开富贵家家乐 – huā kāi fù guì jiā jiā lè
Lanterns shine bringing good luck and happiness all year
Flowers bloom bringing prosperity and joy to all people
月月笑约八方财 – yuè yuè xiào yuē bā fāng cái
年年喜迎四季福 – nián nián xǐ yíng sì jì fú
Month after month laughter attracts prosperity from every place
Year after year joy welcomes good fortune in every season
春临大地百花艳 – chūn lín dà dì bǎi huā yàn
节至人间万象新 – jié zhì rén jiān wàn xiàng xīn
Spring greets the earth with many colourful blooms
The new year brings renewal to all the world
人兴财旺长福贵 – rén xìng cái wàng zhǎng fú guì
心想事成永平安 – xīn xiǎng shì chéng yǒng píng ān
Working hard to earn money grants lasting prosperity
Every wish coming true grants lasting peace