UBC professor on traditions, celebrations and superstitions of Lunar New Year

Photo courtesy paranormalhaze.com
Photo courtesy paranormalhaze.com

FEBRUARY 19 is Lunar New Year, marked by lion dances, lucky red envelopes and firecrackers. Qian Wang, UBC’s Asian Studies Chinese language program director, says it’s a time for tradition, celebration, family reunion—and a little bit of superstition.


What cultures celebrate Lunar New Year?


Lunar New Year is important for both the Mandarin-speaking and the Cantonese-speaking populations of China. It’s also celebrated by Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, and Nepal cultures.

Our celebrations at the Department of Asian Studies and Asian Library will have both Mandarin and Cantonese elements, as well as Korean traditional games. At the Asian library, we’ll have food sampling from different cultures. All of it is open to the public.


What is the significance of the Year of the Sheep (or Goat)?


Sheep are a very calm animal, so it’s supposed to be a calm year—not too busy, not too crazy. For people who were born in any of the sheep years, it’s going to be a critical year. They either will have a great year with great success or a very difficult year. It’s a Chinese tradition that if it’s their year of your birth, you should wear red for good luck throughout the year—especially red underwear.


What other superstitions are there surrounding Lunar New Year?


For New Year’s Eve dinner you’ve got to have some fish on the table, because it has the same sound as the word “surplus”—so when you have fish on your table, you have savings. But you’re not supposed to touch it at all. I’ve heard stories where foreigners were invited to Chinese New Year’s eve dinners and then the first thing they did was eat the fish. It must seem odd to other people: “Don’t touch the fish!”

There is also a belief that this is not a good year to get married in or to have babies. This past December there was a huge rush of people getting married before the end of the lunar year.


Is this a time of family reunion?


Definitely. In whatever way they can, people in China fight to go back home. People will work for the whole year and sometimes, despite whatever bonus they’re offered to work over New Year, they refuse. It’s really hard to dine out for New Year’s Eve in China because all the cooks go back home.