Variations on the lunar holiday theme

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Variations on the lunar holiday theme

For young Korean children, the Lunar New Year holiday is often the best time of the year. They get to wear colorful traditional clothing, eat special treats and collect a gift they have been looking forward to: money.
But the holiday, which will be celebrated next week, is one of the biggest events for Chinese and Vietnamese, as well as for Koreans, although it is known as chunjie, or spring festival, to the Chinese, and Tet to the Vietnamese.
While many of the ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese here have assimilated into Korean culture and absorbed the Korean language, they also maintain some of their traditions in celebrating the holiday.
There are an estimated 20,000 ethnic Chinese, known as huaqiao, living in Korea, with most of them holding Taiwanese passports. Vietnamese families number an estimated 200.
Just like Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese often travel long distances to visit their families. Especially in China, because of the country’s vast size, people travel for days, and some even take a month-long holiday.
“Chunjie is the biggest holiday in China,” said Zhu Yingjie, director of the Chinese Cultural Center in Seoul, who is currently visiting his family in northeastern China.
But because many ethnic Chinese here moved to Korea with their families, they are less likely to visit their homeland during the holiday.
“It is unlikely for ethnic Chinese in Korea to visit their families in China during chunjie unless they have parents living there,” said Wang Bi-ming, a second-generation ethnic Chinese who teaches his native language at Yi Er San School in central Seoul.
The term chunjie was introduced in 1911, when the reform-minded Chinese government adopted the solar calendar and gave the holiday a new name.
For the Vietnamese, Tet is a huge celebration lasting three days. Families save up money, cook and store three days’ worth of food, clean their houses, buy new clothes to wear during the holiday, pay off all debts and make amends to rid themselves of negative feelings. Cleaning needs to be done before Tet because doing it during the holiday is seen as sweeping away good luck.
Food plays a central role in the holiday celebration for all three ethnic groups.
Koreans eat tteokguk, or rice cake soup, after the ritual for ancestors on the morning of Lunar New Year’s Day, while Chinese eat jiaozi (dumpling soup) at midnight or on the morning of Lunar New Year’s Day.
The Chinese characters pronounced jiao have several meanings, one of which is “meet.” The Chinese believe that the passing year and the new year “meet” at midnight on that day, and eat jiaozi to rejoice in meeting with their entire family.
The Vietnamese eat “earth cake,” a square cake made of rice, beans and pork. Watermelon is also served, and they believe that the redder the flesh, the more luck they will have.
With regard to the ritual table set for ancestors, while Koreans remove the foods from the table after the ceremony, the Chinese maintain the table for 15 days, burning incense and candles each day. Thus, relatives can visit and pay tribute to their ancestors and gods until the last day of chunjie, called yuan xiao jie.
The Chinese set one table in the kitchen for the kitchen gods and another in the living room for ancestors and the other gods, and pay tribute to ancestral tablets, or portraits, placed on the table.
The color red is believed to be auspicious, and Chinese traditionally decorate their houses with red paper lanterns.
The character fu, which means luck, often appears, written in black on a red background. But it is often placed upside down. That’s because the character for “arrive” is pronounced the same as the one for “upside down.” Thus, the character fu placed upside down is meant to stand for “coming luck.”
The Vietnamese hang paper or ceramic ornaments on a tree to create a holiday atmosphere. Families choose a Tet tree, or tac, a cone-shaped tree with miniature oranges that are beginning to ripen. The more fruit on the tree, the luckier the family.

To the Chinese, if a minor mishap, such as cracking or breaking pottery, happens before Lunar New Year’s Day, it is a sign of good luck, since it is a small price to pay to avoid bigger misfortune in the coming year. Some people intentionally break dishes in an effort to guard themselves from bad luck.
“The Chinese believe that if they have a good start for the new year, the remainder of the year will be good,” said Shun Xianhua, a Chinese woman married to a Korean. She also teaches Chinese language at Yi Er San School.
“If someone accidentally breaks pottery during the Lunar New Year holiday, they should not be scolded.”
For entertainment, the Chinese often play mahjongg, a board game that uses tiles. Koreans play yut, a game that involves four sticks, chips and a paper gameboard, in which participants throw the sticks, like dice, to determine how far they can move their chips.
It is considered an honor to be invited to a Chinese family’s home during the holidays because that means there is mutual trust and friendship between the guest and host.
The Vietnamese believe that the first guests of the Lunar New Year holiday will bring good luck, and thus some people invite wealthy family members or high-ranking officials. But the first day is reserved for family members only.
One thing for guests to remember is that it is a nice gesture to bring a red envelope (hongbao) containing money, which is called yasui qian in Chinese and li xi in Vietnamese, for the children. Koreans, in contrast, often just hand money to the children.
In many cities with large Chinese immigrant populations, a huge street parade is a major part of the celebration. One of the main attractions of the parade is the “lion dance,” in which people in a vibrant lion costume vigorously move through the streets.
While Incheon has a significant ethnic Chinese population, no parade will be held there because the number of people is considered too small to support such an event.
No matter what activities are involved, the purpose of the holiday is for people “to have a chance to spend time with their families and friends whom they haven’t seen for a long time,” Ms. Shun said.
While most people have already said “Happy New Year!” to their family and friends, it might be nice to say it again, or to say it the Chinese way, “Chunjie Yukuai!”


by Limb Jae-un
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