Everything You Ever Wanted Is Coming True: Chinese New Year’s Greetings

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #16

by Martha Dahlen

intro by Amy Chin and Steve Zeitlin

As the Year of the Pig cycles into the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, the writer Martha Dahlen gives us a primer on the many meanings of auspicious New Year greetings to ensure our City Lore family enjoys a happy, harmonious and prosperous year.

 –Amy Chin, City Lore Board Member

 

New Year’s decorations on East Broadway in Chinatown. Photo by Amanda Dargan.

Walking through the twisty streets of Chinatown a few days before the big New Year celebration to take place January 25th, I was intrigued by the ubiquitous red paper signs and greetings.  My friend, Martha Dahlen, who lived for 20 years in Hong Kong, explained to me that these are decorations, but decorations with significant meanings. They are part and parcel of the poetry of everyday life for many Chinese people, especially Cantonese, in China, Hong Kong, and New York. Here is her take on it.

 

 

 

The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is by far the most significant, most widely celebrated holiday in China.  The belief is strong that how you begin the year will influence your fortune throughout the coming months.  Hence, as New Year’s day approaches, people pay off debts, clean house, buy new clothes, prepare gifts, cook auspicious foods, decorate with blooming flowers and fresh fruit (especially round, golden citrus), and hang red banners proclaiming confidence that the coming months will be prosperous and joyful.  When they meet, people exchange greetings but, in addition to the generic “Happy New Year!”, there are many other, more colorful phrases expressing specific aspirations.  Further, the Chinese believe each New Year has its own dynamic energy–something like a new weather system coming in–as represented by the Animals of the Chinese Zodiac.  Thus, the New Year offers the chance for a fresh start on several levels, and the variety of Chinese New Year phrases captures the range of this opportunity.

Gong Xi Fa Cai “Congratulations! Great prosperity!”

Ru Yi Ji Xiang “Your life is blessed according to your wishes”

The New Year greeting most familiar to non-Chinese people is probably Gung Hei Fat Choy, which is the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters which, in Mandarin, are pronounced as Gong Xi Fa Cai.  Gong Xi (Gung Hei) is a two-word combo that means “Congratulations!” with overtones of respect, sheer happiness, and blessings.  Fa (Fat) means to grow, increase (the same word is used to refer to yeasted bread dough).  Cai (Choy) refers to money or wealth.

For Hong Kong Cantonese, the phrase is an exuberant affirmation that life is good, something like, “Congratulations on winning the lottery!”  For other Chinese, the phrase seems crass, and they prefer expressions, such as  Ji Xiang Ru Yi. Ji Xiang means “auspicious”, while Ru Yi means “as wished” or “comparable to your intentions”.  The whole phrase is loosely equivalent to, “May all your wishes come true.”

 

Bu Bu Gao Bi “Step by step ascend the throne!”

Long Ma Jing Shen “Dragon spirit, horse vitality!”

 

There are age-appropriate phrases.  For example, let us say you meet your young nieces or nephews; you might greet them with, Bu Bu Gao Bi (step-step-ascending-throne”), hoping to inspire them to greater efforts in school.  To the entrepreneur in your family, you might say Wan Shi Sheng Yi (ten thousand-things- victory/success) or Long Ma Jing Shen (dragon-horse -vitality-power).  In the latter phrase, the dragon symbolizes heavenly greatness, while the horse represents earthly power, and the whole can be loosely translated as, “Fly high!  Charge ahead!”

 

 

 

For people experiencing the challenges of aging, you could greet them with a fervent Shen Ti Jian Kang (body-strong and healthy) or the poetic  Shou Ru Song Bai (longevity-like –pine-cypress), as both pine and cypress trees are classic symbols of long life with dignity. (Note: Both these phrases are also appropriate birthday greetings.)

By this time, you may have noticed that all of these phrases are four characters; in fact, they may be a subset of the huge group of Chinese aphorisms known as cheng yu.  These are pithy statements that express, in meaning, Chinese culture, and in form, Chinese language.  For example, each Chinese character, in every dialect, is pronounced as a single syllable.  Thus, four words have a fixed, regular rhythm.  Every dialect (the most common being Mandarin and Cantonese) are tonal, so each character has a certain pitch and phrasing.  In other words, a four-word phrase has both rhythm and melody, making them easy to memorize and recite.  Indeed, some families, gathering at Chinese New Year, will compete among themselves to see who can remember more of these colorful expressions, in a kind of musical poetry contest.

Yi Tuan He Qi “In unity, harmony”

Another aspect of the Chinese language at play here is the fact that the number of characters in the language far outstrips the number of ways monosyllables can be pronounced.  The result is that characters differing radically in meaning may be pronounced similarly or even the same.  Linking two characters–in a sense, creating two-syllable words—is one way to avoid confusion in speaking.  For example, the word, Ji, when spoken could refer to the various characters for good, a thorn bush, or the great ultimate (as in Tai Ji).  Similarly, Xiang could mean auspicious, or details/minutia.   But Ji Xiang, the two together, immediately narrows the field, such that the listener automatically hears the intended meaning (good fortune).

Several such pairs occur in multiple phrases; e.g., fu gui (honorable), da ji (big luck).  Ping An, meaning “peace and safety” is another such unit.  So, for example, putting the phrase Chu Ru Ping An above your door confers peace and safety (ping an) on all who leave (chu) and enter (ru).  There is also Si Ji Ping An, meaning “four (si) seasons (ji), peace and safety”.  And Lao XIao Ping An, meaning “old (lao)-young (xiao)- peace and safety” (Lao Xiao Ping An is also the name of a steamed beancurd and fish dish, suitable for those two groups who might lack teeth).

Another characteristic of these phrases is the lack of grammatical nuances.  No little words tell you how the ideas represented are meant to be linked.  For example, Kai Gung Da Ji is translated, word by word, as “Start-work-big-luck”.  Does that mean IF you start work or WHEN you start work you will be lucky? Does it promise luck (or blessing) AFTER working?   No matter: the listener simply understands that work and good fortune are linked.  Furthermore, with no verb tense, these phrases fall squarely in the category of affirmations: each depicts a condition as though it already exists.

Cong Xin Suo Yu “As your heart desires, may it be so!”

Home and family are important themes in greetings as they are in Chinese culture.  For example, Man Tang Fu Gui (Full – meeting hall –wealth –honorable.)  The second character, ‘tang’, suggests the central courtyard of a Chinese extended family. Thus the phrase seeks to capture the deep glow of contentment, pride and honor one feels when beloved children and grandchildren gather at home with their parents.   Speaking of parents, one phrase that mothers love to use, and newlywed children are loathe to hear, is Jin Yu Man Tang, which literally means gold (jin) and jade (yu) fill the home, and figuratively means “I am looking forward to grandchildren any time now”.  Abundance is a major theme.  So we have Nian Nian You Yu (year-year-have-surplus).  As the word for surplus sounds like the word for fish, a whole fish is traditionally served at every New Year’s eve dinner–and it is important that some fish be left, symbolic of surplus in the coming year.   Reportedly, in earlier times, during lean years, a farmer might serve a wooden fish to ensure that it would be leftover, thereby also ensuring surplus in the coming year.

Many of these greetings are codified in rectangular red banners known as fai chun (Cantonese pronunciation, as they are predominantly a Cantonese tradition).  These can be seen throughout the year in homes, offices, businesses and restaurants, but are especially prevalent during the New Year season.  Most people buy their fai chun, but it is generally agreed that writing them yourself will give them more power.

Fai chun make aspirations public and permanent.  Currently in Hong Kong, people are using this traditional form to express their political, as well as their personal, hopes for the coming year.  However, the former is not without risk.  “Satirical” decorations are banned, and people worry about surveillance.   One clever fai chun is a square writing of a traditional four character phrase zhao cai jin bao (finding-wealth-advancing toward- treasure/gems).  When viewed upside down and twisted just a little (the many parts of a Chinese word make this possible), it becomes  zhui qiu zi you min zhu (stubbornly pursuing-freedom- democracy).   Such writing is even more clever because the words for “upside down” in Chinese (dao li) sound like the words for “already arrived” (dao le).  So posting this one upside down not only makes it look innocuous but also increases its power.

As January 25 approaches, prepare to Ying Chun Jie Fu (Welcome spring [as] luck enters) with the fervent hope for Tin Ha Ping An(heaven-earth, peace and safety).   Say it, believe it, live it.  Fu Lu Shou Quan:  All blessings are yours.

 

Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

Nesting Eggs: Planet/Language/Culture/Community/Family/You

The Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #16

Making the Case for City Lore

The interview was ending. I was anxious to get on with my day. But the interviewer had one last question. It came out of the blue: “So what is your hope for the future?” 

As I pondered the question, it occurred to me that there is something even more precious to me than the goals I work toward as the director of City Lore, New York’s center for urban folk culture. Founded in 1986, City Lore works to preserve places that matter, highlight the work of traditional artists, document stories, bring community-based and folk artists into schools, project poems from our POEMobile, and operate a gallery. Our mission is to foster New York City—and America’s—living cultural heritage. All these are, in themselves, reasons to go online and join City Lore this very moment.

Yet my hope for the future, and the reason City Lore is central to our collective future and worthy of your support, goes beyond this mission. My hope is that each soul whose existence happens to manifest itself on the planet will continue through the generations to bring something new into the world, to retain their individuality, to develop their own sense of humor, and to tell their unique story in a distinctive way. Indeed, I was inspired to become a folklorist because of the expressions and humor I share with my brothers. (We still address one another with “Yo, Sire”; and when someone once asked my brother Murray why, he answered, “Respect.”) These expressions were the “language of us,” as the writer Virginia Randall notes.

Joseph Albert Elie Joubert from Quebec’s Abnaki tribe suggests that “the secrets of our culture lie hidden within our language.” I have come to think of the layers of our existence as the set of nesting (matryoshka) dolls that sit in my tchotchke cabinet at home. I imagine the doll within a doll within a doll, first created in Russia in 1892—or the similar brightly colored eggs—as our fragile blue-and-green planet, nesting diverse languages, nesting diverse cultural groups, nesting communities, nesting families, and, finally, nesting the smallest doll, the distinctive individual. Today we witness a corporate assault on each and all of these meaningful layers of our existences.

 

 

Languages nested in our blue-and-green planet. Half of the world’s languages will disappear in this century. Scholars have shown that the areas of the world where languages are disappearing are often the same once-isolated areas where plant and animal species are disappearing. So there is a simultaneous assault on our planet egg and the languages nested within it, a connection between species diversity and language diversity.

 

 

Cultures nested in language. An ancient but renewed clannishness and demonization of our fellow human beings, fueled by social media, pits Americans against one another. Racism and xenophobia disparage cultural diversity, while anti-immigrant policies seek to strangle multiculturalism and cultural variety – a variety that has thankfully been replenished by successive waves of new immigrants who, since our nation’s founding, have been one of the most important wellsprings of our distinctly American creativity and renewal.

 

 

Communities nested in cultures. Our local  communities are threatened with gentrification that erodes the economic, age, ethnic and cultural diversity of neighborhoods, often tearing apart the fabric of community.

 

Individuals nested in communities. And then there’s you and me, the nested individuals.

 

Today, corporations are continually merging into larger and larger entities and increasingly dominating both the global economy and our individual lives with their relentless adherence to the bottom line. On the global scale, they are willing to sacrifice the planet for profit, but their assault affects us on a subtle, personal level as well. If they can put you and me in boxes, know what we watch on YouTube, try to sell us anything we’ve ever googled, they can customize their marketing such that they can shape our tastes and nudge us into market categories, slowly shaping who we are and how we behave. Capitalism runs on homogenization. 

In this new world era, governments are viewed as corporations (small ones at that), and we the people not as citizens, but as consumers. The nuances of art threaten to become simply “content” produced by “creatives” for large corporate entities. From their perspective, minority languages, climate change, diverse cultures, and individuals with unique tastes and personalities are simply hindrances or distractions brushed aside for short term gain.  

So, as poet Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Our job as individuals is to push back, to fight against an assault on the nested layers of our civilization: for a clean planet that sustains diverse life forms, for diverse languages, for diverse cultures, and for diverse communities and families, while at the same finding meaning in our limited time on earth. On top of everything else, our job must also be to protect, maximize, and treasure our own personhood. In the virtual world, people live on their phones rather than in physical places, and develop relationships online rather than with the their neighbors. In this new world where we are continually bombarded with ever-more-subtle advertising, we are tasked with sustaining our sentience, interiority, and free will. “There will be no one like us when we are gone,” wrote British neurologist, naturalist, and historian of science Oliver Sacks when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, “but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled.”

Steve Zeitlin with his nesting dolls. Photo by Amanda Dargan.

In spite of everything, I still believe that there will always be people in search of authentic experiences, art forms, and traditions, created and shared person to person, expressions of individuality nested within cultures and traditions. People will return to those experiences because that’s where meaning lies. It is there that personal, family, community, cultural, and linguistic diversity is expressed. That’s why City Lore is still here—you can access that distinctiveness and singularity by attending any of our programs.

In addition, the work that we and our colleagues in folklore and related fields do and have done to document and preserve folk and community traditions can serve as touchstones for the creativity of future generations. Today, you can find yourself in the diverse cultures, communities, and languages that we share with you at City Lore. The deeply rooted experiences may give us the tools and reasons to fight back.

My hope for the future is bound up with language and an appreciation of cultural diversity. Is that more important than world peace? Perhaps not. Yet if the planet ever does become a “peaceable kingdom,” here’s hoping it’s not because we have been corporatized into sameness but because we have learned to communicate across differences. 

You can join City Lore – “a practical application of a utopian endeavor” – by Clicking Here for the membership form.  You either send it back to us or click on the donation level that will take you to PayPal.

 

 

Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

Upcoming Events


View calendar


EMAIL LIST
MEMBERSHIP
FUNDERS
CONTACT
DONATE