Another Chinese New Year is right around the corner. Just like Thanksgiving in the U.S., people in China will travel miles to be with their families on Chinese New Year and feast on many delicious foods. My father often tells me that his favorite childhood memories are of Chinese New Year celebrations prior to 1949.
His favorite food is dumpling. Dumplings have been part of Chinese food culture for a long time. Their history can be traced all the way to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Back then, dumplings were not an everyday food. Chinese people ate dumplings only on special occasions, such as on Chinese New Year or before a loved one leaves for a trip.
These crescent-shaped dumplings with pleated edges are normally filled with pork and leeks. In the old days, one could tell a household’s wealth by the proportion of pork versus leeks inside a dumpling. The filling ingredients are enclosed in flour-based dough that is thicker than a wonton wrapper. A traditional custom is to put something special inside one of the dumplings. Whoever eats the dumpling with the special filling is said to be a lucky person who will have good fortune in the coming year. Some families will make a dumpling filled with candy. In my family, my grandmother would fill one dumpling with coins.
Besides food, Chinese New Year celebrations are full of traditional rituals, passed on from one generation to the next. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, my great-grandfather would put the family genealogy book on display in the center of the living room. A genealogy book (家谱) was the most valuable possession of a traditional Chinese family. Many families and clans have genealogy records that extend over several hundreds of years or more.
My father told me that the Zhou clan’s genealogy book covered 50 generations. Like other traditional genealogy books, it contained a generation poem. The poem had four lines, with five words in each line. The tradition was to use one word from the poem as the middle name for each generation. For example, all the members of my great-grandfather’s generation shared the same middle name—Dian (殿), which means palace. My father’s generation shares the middle name Yu (玉), which means jade.
After all the words in the generation poem were used, the next generation would start from the first word of the poem again. For a big clan like ours, it was not someone’s age but his middle name that told us his seniority. Our genealogy book was our closest connection to our ancestors. It also functioned like a thread: No matter where a clan member lived, he was always connected with his family through the genealogy book. The worst disgrace for a Chinese person, especially a man, was to be eliminated from his family genealogy book. It meant he was rootless and had no ties to anyone.
Because the genealogy book played such an important role in our family, Great-Grandfather only put it on display once a year, on Chinese New Year. Next to the genealogy book, in the center of the room, fruit and meat dishes were served. Nobody was allowed to touch these dishes, because they were meant for our ancestors. Since my father was the firstborn grandson of the family, my great-grandfather normally took him to visit our ancestral tombs and burn incense. My father would bend his knees and bow to our ancestral tombs, while Great-Grandfather invited our ancestors to come home for the New Year’s feast. Afterwards, Great-Grandfather and my father would return home and wait. This was the time that everyone had to be careful. No one was allowed to speak loudly or cry because it could disturb our ancestors’ spirits while they enjoyed the feast. If someone cried, it was considered a bad omen.
On New Year’s Day, everyone got up before dawn. My father and the other children lit firecrackers to welcome the New Year and drive away evil spirits. My grandma cooked dumplings. After everyone finished eating dumplings, the kids would begin an activity called Bai Nian, which meant they knelt down and bowed. They first bowed down to our ancestors, then to the most senior people of our families, and then to the extended families, relatives, and so on. In return, kids always received Hong Bao — money wrapped up in red paper (red is considered a good luck color in China).
The day after New Year’s Day, everyone would bow to our genealogy book and light firecrackers to send our ancestors’ spirits away. Afterwards, my great-grandfather would put the genealogy book away, because on the third day of the New Year, it was customary for in-laws to visit, and it was considered bad luck to let anyone outside your direct family see your genealogy book.
After 1949, many of these New Year’s rituals and customs were banned because Chairman Mao decided that, in order to build a new Communist China, Chinese people had to destroy the Four Olds — old ideas, old cultures, old customs, and old habits. This kind of obliteration broke the traditional family and community bonds. Our family genealogy book, which had survived hundreds of years of dynasty changes, wars, and floods, didn’t survive Mao’s movement. A young and overzealous clan member threw our genealogy book into the fire, along with other antiques.
Information about our ancestors was lost forever. Ever since, the Zhou clan has been living like a tree without roots. My father explained to me that that was why neither my siblings nor I had middle names: no one remembered the generation poem from the genealogy book. The loss of that book brings him endless sorrow even today.
Nowadays I live in the U.S., far away from families and our ancestral tombs. I will soon become a mother. Although I can’t recreate the Chinese New Year experiences my father had for my son, I will make sure my son has a middle name after his grandfather. When my son is old enough, I will tell him about the traditions of Chinese New Year and our family stories. I will let him know that no matter how the world changes, the most important things we can hold on to are family and love.