Call it the Year of the Rabbit or the Year of the Hare, as you please. The Chinese Lunar New Year begins today. Let’s hope that this will be a peaceful year. And, of course, we want more. We also want the new year to bring us well-being, happiness and prosperity. In fact, the most popular new year’s greetings among the Chinese are:
新年好 xīnnián hǎo Be Well on New Year
新年快乐 xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year
恭禧发财 gōngxǐ fācái Congratulations on Auspiciousness and Prosperity
You already know that 好 (hǎo) means “good”. You could have guessed that 新 (xīn) means “new” and 年 (nián) means “year”. It’s a cinch to say 新年好 (xīnnián hǎo). You could also try 新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year), where 快乐(kuàilè) means “happiness”. 发财 (fācái) means to get rich.
More often than not, when the Chinese people make the rounds to visit their relatives and friends on this day, they will wag their clutched hands in front of their chest and holler jubilantly:
恭禧恭禧! (gōngxǐ gōngxǐ Congratulations!), or 恭禧发财! (gōngxǐ fācái Congratulations! Hope you’ll get rich!)
And, don’t forget about promotions. (People’s wants and desires have no bounds.) It’s customary for the Chinese to serve a sweet rice cake on the first few days of the Lunar New Year. This 年糕 (niángāo New Year cake) is made of glutinous rice flour. Unlike a sponge cake or even a dense pecan pie, this is a viscous, sticky mass that cools down to a rocky hard slab. What’s the significance of eating this particular cake? Well, the word for cake is 糕 (gāo), which sounds exactly like 高 (gāo), the word for high or height, which indicates a high position. The word 升 (shēng) means to rise or to elevate. So, 高升 (gāo shēng) means to be elevated to a high position. Therefore, 年糕 (niángāo) is taken to represents the phrase 年年高升 (nián nián gāo shēng), or “promotion year after year”. The Chinese believe that things you do on the first few days of the Lunar New Year have important bearing on the rest of the year. The hope is that by eating this cake at the start of the year, you will be more apt to get a promotion this year. By the same token, there are also things that one should not say or do during these crucial days for fear that they would bring bad luck. This is, of course, pure superstition.
As it turns out, 年 (nián year) is a homonym of 黏 (nián), which means “sticky”. You can use it as a mnemonic for sounding out the more complicated character 黏 (nián). Actually, the word 粘 (zhān) has the exact same meaning as 黏 (nián). Many Chinese use these two characters interchangeably.
Please don’t get me wrong. The sticky sweet rice cake is actually a delicious treat. You’d cut it into small wedges or sticks, dip the pieces in beaten egg then deep fry them in hot oil. Take a small bite. When you try to pull the remainder away from your mouth, it will draw out like stringy melted cheese. The sweet, warm, soft and moist interior part of the rice cake, combined with the rich aroma of the deep-fried exterior, rewards your palate and heart with an indescribable fulfilling sensation.
I have a simple recipe for making the sweet rice cake but I won’t give it to you. For one thing, it’s about as wholesome as a glazed Krispy Kreme donut. Secondly, it’s so sweet that most likely one small wedge of it will satisfy your sweet tooth, and you’d wonder what to do with the leftover. Last but not the least, it’s a potential choking hazard for those of you who are uninitiated and fail to take small bites of this sticky dessert and chew well.
Instead, I’ll give you an assignment – Look up the Chinese character for rabbit in your dictionary, textbook or supplemental Chinese instruction book. (The answer will be in my next weekly post.)
May you all have a new year filled with peace, health, happiness, prosperity, and promotions, too!