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Fifty Shades of Red: Your Cardinal Guide to Chinese New Year

From savouring slices of chewy bak kwa to receiving red money packets, the colour similarity is no mere coincidence. We discover the significance of the colour red, along with its mythical associations.

A festival remarkably known for its association with the colour red, one can wonder about the real reason behind this shared adoration. The Chinese culture is deeply rooted in history, which also makes it incredibly rich in lore. There might not be one golden answer to this question but in fact, many which we think links to Chinese folklore and legends. To make things easier, we have selected five Chinese traditions that strongly link to the colour red to explore its symbolism.

1. THE LEGEND OF NIAN

Fireworks during Chinese New Year (Image courtesy of Unsplash)

As one of the oldest traditional celebrations, the reason red is widely associated with people can be credited to the legend of Nian, a mythical monster who was believed to dwell in the sea, but only came on-shore during the Lunar New Year to destroy the crops of villagers. On this day, people would flee homes and reside near mountains for safety. The story continues till a traveler arrived and scared Nian off with fireworks; along with pasting red papers on doors – as the creature was afraid of loud noises and the colour red.

2. THE COLOUR OF LUCK

Red Lanterns (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Red is mainly representative of luck as it was a colour that warded off Nian. Using this connotation it can also signify scaring away bad spirits or depicting a fresh start to the year. Furthermore, since Nian was scared away with firecrackers, this colour represents fire as well. This is also a symbol to denote good fortune.

3. RED ENVELOPES

Red envelopes (Image courtesy of Unsplash)

The origins of giving red envelopes stems from the tale of Sui, a demon who was known to attack children – leaving them terrified. However, one family wrapped coins in red paper and left them on their child’s pillow. When it was time for Sui to arrive, the golden light from the coins burst from the red paper and the demon was eventually scared off. Although fairly regarded as a gift-giving tradition, red essentially became a marker against protection.

4. NEW YEAR DELICACIES

Bak Kwa (Image courtesy of Bee Cheng Hiang)

What is a celebration without food? Indeed, food plays a quintessential role. Many ingredients tend to have homonyms with other words relating to larger meanings such as abundance, luck. The auspicious symbolism is based on pronunciation and colour. Take fish for instance: It sounds similar to ‘surplus’, hence represents abundance. Citrus fruits such as mandarin oranges or tangerines are sought-after due to their roundness and bright colour. These fruits act as a symbol of good luck and success. An exception can be bak kwa, as its appearance symbolises prosperity and is enjoyed as a delicacy.

5. SPRING COUPLETS

Spring Couplets (Image courtesy of Unsplash)

They are described to be verses written with black ink, also used as a pieces of decoration during festivities. Again, not a surprise as they’re traditionally inscribed on red paper. The story links back to using a board with inscriptions made of peach wood, believed to drive away evil spirits. It worked as lucky charms and were hung on doors. History as well provides an answer, dating back to the Ming dynasty as the emperor made it a cultural activity. Here, red again acts as a symbol for hope in the new year.

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Ann Mary Mathew

Editorial Intern

An explorer at heart and a bit of a dreamer at times, she’s usually found snapping photographs of people and places from her travels. On other days, you can find her curled up on bed reading alternate theories on Reddit about sci-fi shows or hanging around at the latest brunch spot.

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