The afternoon is dedicated to foreign students because the object of the lesson is myth and traditions of Chinese New Year celebrations.
China is a place where myths were born in the ground just like mountains and rice. It’s a place where everything has a story or a much deeper meaning that it appears to have. And the myth behind the New Year makes no exception.
Once upon a time, in China, there was a monster called Nian (年兽). We don’t know much about him except that he really liked to get out of his cavern once a year to eat humans, especially kids. An undefeatable monster? Of course not.
During one of his days of rampage, while the village inhabitants were trying to hide from him, an old man appeared looking for a revenge on Nian. The man covered the streets in red paper and set up firecrackers. The following day, the villagers came back to find that nothing had been destroyed by the monster so they assumed that the old man was some kind of God.
They also understood that Nian was afraid of the color red, fire and loud noises. For this reason every 12 months China celebrates the New Year by singing, lighting up lanterns, setting up firecrackers and coating everything red. Beautiful, isn’t it?
As well as this story there are lots of traditions that still resist today. Of the terrible monster, for example, we still have a representation in the form of the lion dance (wǔ shī 舞狮) which, together with the dragon dance (wǔ lóng 舞龙), is one of those many customs people use to remove bad luck and make space for the good one.
This dance take place the first day of the year. Two or three people wear the lion costume and dance through the city followed by a crew playing drums. They stop in front of shops and restaurants and perform their ancestral dance until some firecracker (fàng biānpào 放鞭炮) makes them, the demons, as well as the bad luck run away.
The two cores of the Chinese celebrations are good luck and money. Texts, figures, rituals and food are all part of this big setup that finds its purpose in a lucky and, most importantly, very rich year. The traditional gift is, in fact, a red envelop named hóng bāo (紅包) that can contain any amount of money.
In the days before the celebrations, families dedicate themselves to cleaning the house and shared spaces. The meaning behind this rite, because of course it has one, is to wipe out the bad luck of the past year and prepare the house for the arrival of new luck. Their homes, in addition, are decorated with red banners and plaques which, placed in a certain order, welcome good luck, health and money.
It is a huge celebration that lasts 16 days although only the first three days are commonly regarded as public holidays. Unlike the Western New Year, this is considered an occasion for family reunions and this often leads to a mass migration from around the world and inside China itself.
At the end of this lesson we tried our hands at the traditional paper cutting, the creation of symbols and patterns cut out from a single sheet of paper. These pieces of art are then attached to windows and doors to bring good luck and happiness.
There are some people who with a single square of red paper can make crazy designs. Too bad they’re not among us. Betty shows us how to create the symbol of spring 春, as this is the Spring Festival, and her one is pretty good looking.
Us students and volunteers, on the other hand, with our disproportionate or totally wrong cuttings don’t properly honour such an ancient and profound culture but Sharon and Betty are very kind and still compliment us. After all, this is a celebration for all of us.