Monday, January 31, 2005

Getting Ready

The Year of the Pig started February 18th, 2007.
The Year of the Rat starts February 7th, 2008.

About a week before it is time to start cleaning and decorating and getting flower blossoms. You can and should cut your hair now and sweep your house clean. If you are getting new red clothes, now is also the time. Decide if you will be sending any red round fruits to your teacher(s), or anyone in the community who has been helping you this year. I don't think you can go wrong with flowering bulbs, but do be careful with cut flowers. I know my mother-in-law would find it hard to appreciate mums since they are a funeral flower to her. (She's Cantonese.)

If you want to use calligraphy to decorate your house, learn how to write Fu (luck) at: and see some Chinese New Year's couplets at:

The Kitchen God has already gone up to report to heaven on how you have done this year (that happens on the 24th of the 12th month). Perhaps you offered him sweet sticky rice first. If you did, was it a sweet bribe so he would remember only the good that you and your family have done? or was it so that his mouth would be stuck shut and he would not be able to give a full report? (To help your children imagine this, ask them what they could say with a mouth full of peanut butter!)

Your children might enjoy learning about getting ready at:

Some of the steps on that site require a Flash plug-in, but not “clean sweep”, “get ready for the parade”, and “eat”.

Chinese traditions for welcoming the New Year and creating good fortune in the year ahead.
  • Clean! - Clean your home as thoroughly as possible during the days preceding the New Year to sweep away any accumulated bad luck from past years. There is even a specific day to being this deep cleaning!
  • Decorate! - Decorate your home in red, the Chinese color for good luck. Doors and window panes are also often painted red, considered to be a lucky color. New door guardians. People also like to hang "fu" the character for good luck and papercuts on doors and windows. (Paper cutting is an ancient Chinese art form dating back to the Han dynasty).
Once New Year is here:
  • DO NOT clean your home during the first few days of the New Year. You do not want to risk sweeping away the good luck of the New Year.
  • Try to see as many of your family and friends as possible during the New Year celebration to spread good wishes for the coming year.
  • Serve and eat as many lucky foods as possible on New Year's day. Start with a whole fish on New Year's Eve - but don't eat it all so there will always be plenty in the year to come. Some are using a whole chicken these days! Long life noodles, all citrus (especially those round and golden!) If you're not adventurous enough to cook Chinese food, most Chinese restaurants offer special New Year menus.
  • Don't cry on that day or raise your voice to your children or you'll be setting a tone of discord for the coming year.
  • Give out money packets - On New Years day, children receive hong bao or leisee - red packets decorated with gold symbols and filled with "lucky money".
See "Mostly Food" for more!

Since this is a blog, the entries are in date order. Does this format support my kind readers navigating around to find what they need? (Comments welcome.)

The Year of the Rooster started February 9th, 2005.
The Year of the Dog started January 29th, 2006.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

More on Lantern Riddles - Word Riddles

Lantern riddles can be any of a number of different kinds of riddles. I have found it difficult to find riddles that can be translated into English and still makes sense, as many of them are based on how the word is written, or how written words relate to each other. There are many riddles I have not listed here and can not use when I visit (English medium) schools to talk about Lantern Festival. For example, I remember one that relied on the reader knowing that snail 蜗牛[蝸牛] wōniú contains niú, the character for cow.

Here are some examples of 字谜 (zi4 mi2) word riddles, where the answer is one single Chinese character and you must know how to write to figure them out. I saw these first at They were originally from www., translated (and explained). I am going to try some of these with my elementary Mandarin students – but I don’t see using these in my daughter’s regular classroom when I go in to explain Lantern festival!

  • (1) 九点 jiu3 dian3 lit. “nine dot”, or “nine o'clock”
    This riddle gives you directions for how to write a character. You need to know that dian3, 点, can mean hour or “dot” a type of stroke. To find the answer write the character for nine, 九, and then a dot, or 丸.

  • (2) 十二点 shi2 er4 dian3 lit. “ten two dot”, or “twelve o'clock”
    This riddle, also tells you what strokes to write – you need to think ten and two dots rather than reading it as twelve and dian. Ten is shi2 十, adding two “dots”, gives you the answer: 斗dou4 “fight”.

  • (3) 田中 tian2 zhong1 lit. “(in) the middle (中) of a field (田)”
    The riddle asks what is in the middle of the character 田. The answer, is the horizontal and vertical stroke which make up the number 十 shi2 “ten”.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Lantern Festival - Day 15

The Lantern Festival, or Yuan Xiao Festival, takes place on the first full moon of the lunar year – the 15th day of month 1. It marks the end of Chinese New Year and seems to have started during the Han Dynasty over 2,000 years ago. In the Tang Dynasty, it lasted 3 days. The first lunar month is Yuan-month and in ancient times night was called Xiao. It is not celebrated much in the USA. I started learning more about this because the date of Chinese New Year was so often just not convenient for teachers... and after a few years if you are in the same school, the children know alot about Chinese New Year and are ready for something new. For a real change of pace, check out the riddles elsewhere on this site.

It is a time to appreciate the full moon, the beautiful lanterns hung out, figuring out riddles hung from the lanterns, eat glutinous rice balls (called yuan xiao and tang yuan) and of course, be with family.

Legend of the Lantern Festival's Origin

There are a number of ancient legends about the origin: was it due to Taiyi, the God of heaven; Tianguan, the Taoist god responsible for good fortune; or an Emperor who wanted to promote Buddhism? (When it is called Shang Yuan it is the birthday of the god of heaven.)

Or, perhaps the Jade Emperor in Heaven was so angry at a village for killing his favorite goose, that he was going to destroy it with a storm of fire. However, when a good-hearted fairy heard of this planned vengeance, and the townspeople were warned to light lanterns throughout the town on that day. They did as they were told, so from the Heavens, the village seemed to already be ablaze. The Jade Emperor was thus satisfied that his goose had already been avenged and he decided not to destroy the town. From then on, people have celebrated the anniversary by carrying lanterns of different shapes and colors through the streets on the first full moon of the year. It is also a spectacular backdrop for other festivities, including dragon and lion dances, and fireworks.

Yuan Xiao and Tang Yuan
Yuan Xiao and Tang Yuan are small dumpling balls of glutinous rice, sometimes rolled around a filling which can be sweet or salty, perhaps sesame, peanuts, vegetable, rose petals, or meat. Tang Yuan are often cooked in red-bean or other kinds of soup. The custom of eating Yuanxiao probably comes from the fourth century, during the Eastern Jin Dynasty. It then became popular during the Tang and Song periods.

The round shape symbolizes wholeness and unity.

References included:

Chinese Culture Center's lantern festival page

Pages no longer available from

Find a recipe for yuan xiao at:'s Chiense Culture pages

Other references you may find useful include:

Pages no longer available from an American elementary school in Beijing:

Tuesday, January 11, 2005


The next Chinese New Year is: Wednesday, February 9, 2005. It starts the Year of the Rooster (4702). If you want to do something at school, tell your child's teacher sooner rather than later - especially when it is so close to Valentine's Day they need to plan how to spend their time. Some parents are unable to go in when the teacher can support it and just send in (red) "goodie bags" as if it was a birthday.

If you want detail on the astrology behind this -- and to understand why it is a metal year and a Green Chicken year, see:

According to that site:
The Chinese New Year day is on February 9th, 2005. Because this is a new moon day, it is the first day of the first Chinese lunar month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar system. The new moon time is at 06:28 on 9-Feb-05 in China time zone. However, the new moon time is at 14:28 of 8-Feb-05 in the US Pacific Standard Time and also at 17:28 of 8-Feb-05 in the US Eastern Standard Time, so the Chinese New Year day is on February 8th, 2005 for USA time zones.

I don't know how the local Chinese community views it here, but I can find out.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Mostly Food

Many Chinese traditions for welcoming the New Year and creating good fortune in the year ahead include food. See "Prepare for the New Year" for other things to do.

Offer a Sacrifice to the Kitchen God - Many families have a poster of the Kitchen God in their kitchen. The custom is to offer a ceremonial sacrifice to the Kitchen God, to make sure that he gives a good report on the family's behavior when he returns to heaven. Sticky Cake (Nian Gao) is popular, or children may rub honey on him. (Buy a new kitchen god to post on 1/1.)

Prepare a Tray of Togetherness - This is a circular tray with eight compartments, each containing symbolic foods such as lotus seeds and lychee nuts, that provides a sweet beginning to the New Year.

New Year's Eve
An important tradition on New Year's Eve is for families to gather together and spend the evening preparing jiaozi or boiled dumplings (more for families from north of the Yangtze River). According to Chinese Culture Guide Jun Shan, it is common to hide a coin in one of the dumplings. Whoever gets the dumpling with the coin should have good luck in the coming year.

Start with a whole fish on New Year's Eve - but don't eat it all so there will always be plenty in the year to come. Some families are using a whole chicken these days - the idea is the same but they are missing the auspicious sound "yu" for fish! (I think this is a recent innovation, and not a regional difference.)

Stay up late, have your children stay up late -- or at least leave a light on!

New Year's Celebrations - Here are some of the ways you can celebrate Chinese New Year (the date is different every year):

Serve and eat as many lucky foods as possible on the New Year's day:
  • Long life noodles, my children love to try and eat them without braking them to ensure a long life.
  • Dumplings,
  • Citrus (especially those round and golden!) will be seen on most tables.
  • Turnip cake, or lor bak go, can be served on New Year's Day as a symbol of prosperity and rising fortune.
  • Remember an all vegetable dish too - I can't tell if it must have dofu/tofu in it or not.
Whether or not you think cooking Chinese food is adventurous, most Chinese restaurants offer special New Year menus, many with dishes they don't make at any other time of the year. (If you ask, they might have some large wall-hanging calendars too!)

Serve festive foods - Throughout the New Year's season, certain foods are served because they symbolize abundance and good fortune. Besides preparing special dishes, tangerines and oranges are often passed out to children and guests, as they symbolize wealth and good luck.

For simple recipes especially for large groups of youngsters, try Chinese Food You Can Make. For a bit of related trivia and background, read Tea & Chopsticks. For "only food", read Chinese New Year's Food

Updated: 3/2007.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

A bit on Dragons

While the European dragons from the days of castles and knights in shining armor are usually mean beasts to be killed, Chinese dragons are much more benevolent. Show your students pictures of dragons from different cultures. Read some of the descriptions (head of a horse, tail of a snake, antlers of a deer; or head of a camel, eyes of devil, ears of an ox, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle; or paws of a tiger, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, talons of a hawk or batlike wings) or learn more about Eastern Dragons. Eric Kimmel wrote The Rooster's Antlers: A story of the Chinese Zodiac (with beautiful papercut illustrations) which is a tale of how the dragon got its antlers.

Many elementary students are familiar with thinking maps. Perhaps they could use them and create a bubble map to describe a Chinese dragon and a double bubble map to contrast Western and Eastern dragons. I have been told that in Iran, the "year of the dragon" is the "year of the whale". I could see some interesting "compare & contrast" lists coming out of that!

Dragons for Dancing

The traditional head for the lion dance or the dragon dance is of paper mache with a hinged jaw. Both seem to have eyes that open and close and often ears that can wiggle. Creating one can be a classroom project especially if you can get if you have the art teachers cooperation.

Heads for a preschool dragon have successfully been made from turning a brown paper grocery bag (with handles) inside out and decorated. Decorated boxes and laundry baskets have also been sued. The body can be fabric or even bulletin board paper (although the later would need to be recreated each year).

Dragon Puppets or Decorations

A tissue box, egg carton or other small cardboard box can be used as the head. Even brown lunch bags have been used. The top of an egg carton cut in half makes a nice shape, (everyone finds it easier to paint the inside red for the mouth or fire before it is folded or reattached). Then small paper plates or eggcups can be glued on the eyes. Covering the head with paper is also fine. Making a paper mache head would be the most authentic but is more involved. For a small (personal sized) dragon, pipe cleaners make nice horns/antlers.

Some teachers have each student create their own and some have one dragon with a very, very long tail or body so that everyone can help decorating it. If the tail becomes too long, it might get unsafe to use for a parade dragon dance. (Here's a clip of a parade dragon dance. Wikipedia's Dragon Dance entry has only still pictures.)

For More on Chinese Dragons, especially in the Zodiac, see:

Updated: 3/2007

Chinese New Year Ideas for school

The more notice you can give your child's teacher, the better. If there are other parents of Asian descent or parents of Asians in the class, it would be nice to coordinate. The Chinese are not the only ones to celebrate the lunar New Year.
Reading a book, wearing silk, and bringing in food are the easiest for all ages.

For all classes, but especially for the youngest:
Please remember allergies, especially for the youngest, and be sure to ask the teacher about them. Some 3 year olds have not been exposed to berries, nuts, peanuts, or shellfish and might not even know if they are allergic yet. For preschool, I have done long life noodles with just a bit of oil so they do not stick, and brown sauce (sesame paste and no peanut butter), grated carrots and grated cucumbers on the side. Do show chopsticks even if you are not comfortable using them to serve. I have also bought baozi (the steamed buns), and cut them into 2 or 4 pieces.

A lantern parade or a dragon dance is great fun. One piece of construction paper with slits can easily make a lantern. I made dragon heads one year by turning brown paper bags inside out and decorating them – and stapling on 2 yards of fabric x 22 inches. The handles on the bag really helped them keep the heads on. Most fabric is 45 inches wide so it came to a yard each. Take some music if you can. If everyone can have a bell, triangle or noisemaker that is best. Some preschoolers will not go in/under the dragon. This is fun, not just for preschool although you may need to get a real dragon head for elementary students. Bringing a silk vest or dress that they can touch or try on is fun.

Or each child can make a "personal" dragon. There are several patterns online, including:

If the classroom can be decorated that helps a lot. Anything you can leave for the children to look at is wonderful. Perhaps a tray with chopsticks and popcorn. Perhaps two handleless tea cups and something they can pour back and forth, like rice?

I have a friend who just walks into the classroom and says "ni hao" and walks out waving and saying "zai jian" and she repeats it until the children are speaking to/with her. I have walked into a classroom and just asked what day it is, and pretended I must be weeks late when the teacher said January (or February) -- since I was to come in the the first day of the New Year. That can lead to a discussion of the lunar calendar or the holiday.

More for Lower Elementary Classes:
I still usually bring food, some decorations, and wear a silk vest. Background music is still nice to have. What you do depends in part on what you are comfortable with and what you have already done with the class. As well as, of course, how much itme the teacher will give you.

If you have not discussed the lunar calendar, that is worthwhile. For more ideas on that you can also see my Autumn Moon Festival thoughts.

With elementary students, different years I have:

  • Told the tale of Nian; spoken of new clothes, being with family, and food – with pictures of each, and gave out hong bao (real Chinese money, 10 or 20 fen each!)

  • Discussed lantern festival (the 15th day of the first lunar month) and left lanterns each with a riddle on it (be sure to give the answers to the teacher).

  • Done a simple Chinese writing lesson. I showed them words that were still similar to the pictures (person, big, fire, mouth, mountain). [Please only do this if you are comfortable, and preferably know the stroke order.] For “homework” they had to figure out how to say “volcano” – fire mountain.

  • Made double coin knots of red rattail, and took a longer pieces of gold and maroon rattail so they could trace the knot. They had the option of hotgluing a pinback to the knot when done. We needed about 1 adult for each 5 kids for this. Make sure it is a class that has good fine motor control and can concentrate!

  • Taught the children how to count to ten and showed them finger counting as well. You can teach yourself the Mandarin at Once they can count to 7, you can teach them days of the week. If they can count to 12, you can say months. If they can count to 12, they can count to 99!

    Learning finger counting is a bit harder. I do not know the ancient system I found (although it reminds me of an Indian system that I have heard of) at:
    What I know -- and what I saw in mainland China this summer is much closer to this:
    (except 9 is a bit different and for 10, I make it with one hand...

Monday, January 03, 2005


For my favorites in a different format, see my Amazon Chinese New Year favorites List-mania.

To read-to a group:
  • Dancing Dragon ** by Marcia Vaughn CNY
    Great for Chinese New Year. An accordion-fold book - practice before reading to a group!
  • Red is a Dragon: A Book of Colors by Rosemary Thong
    (not a Chinese New Year story but fun for school this time of year) I prefer her Round is a Mooncake if you did not use it for Moon Festival in the fall. See how many of the things mentioned you can bring in to share and pass around.
  • The Rooster's Antlers: A Story of the Chinese Zodiac * by Eric Kimmel CNY
    Beautiful illustrations.
  • This Next New Year by Janet S. Wong CNY
    Rhyming text. Good for Chinese New Year. RL 4-8 years
  • Paper Lanterns by Stefan Czernecki
    Nice story. I like the pictures of the papercut lanterns even more than the story illustrations.
Celebrating the Chinese New Year cute

More fiction, mostly longer books:

  • Fu-Dog ** by Rumer Godden
    This lovely adventure is set in England where two half-Chinese children meet their Chinese relatives. I like it a lot but it is a “long” book. Refers to Chinese New Year. CNY
  • Silk Peony, Parade Dragon by Elizabeth Steckman and Carol Inouye
  • The Last Dragon by Susan Miho Nunes
    Ten year old boy finds, repairs and then uses a parade dragon. Set in an American Chinatown.

Still good, but not my favorites:

  • Chinese New Year's Dragon by Rachel Sing (Chinese New Year) CNY
  • Lion Dancer: Ernie Wan's Chinese New Year by Kate Waters CNY
    6 year old Ernie performs his first Lion Dance. Good for Chinese New Year. RL 4-8 years
  • Yum Yum Dim Sum (World Snacks) (Board book) by Amy Wilson Sanger
    We love her first book of sushi but this did not seem as good. It’s seems to have gotten mixed reviews.
  • Dragon Dance a Chinese New Year: A Chinese New Year Lift-The-Flap Book by Joan Holub CNY
  • Lanterns and Firecrackers: A Chinese New Year Story (Festival Time) by Johnny Zucker, Jan Barger Cohen CNY
    Chinese family prepares for New Year. Read-to preschoolers. Read by 1st graders. Includes suggestions (to parents) for celebrating.
  • Sam and the Lucky Moneyby Karen Chinn, et. al. CNY
    Fiction. Introduces Chinatown. Forces the reader to think about giving and appreciation. Pre-reading required. Not a personal favorite.
  • The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin (middle grade novel)

Reference books:

  • Happy New Year! Kung-Hsi Fa-Ts'Ai: Kung-Hsi Fa-Ts'Ai by Demi CNY
  • Celebrating Chinese New Year by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith, Lawrence Migdale.
    A young boy and his family prepare for Chinese New Year. Photos. CNY
  • Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz CNY, MAF
    Background, crafts, recipes, and legends for 5 Chinese holidays: Chinese New Year, Lantern Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, Qing Ming and Dragon Boat Festival.
  • Chinese New Year by Sarah Moyse CNY
  • Chinese New Year by Diane M. MacMillan. CNY
  • Chinese New Year for Kids by Cindy Roberts CNY
    Historical background, directions for snacks, crafts and games. Good for teachers.

Other Chinese New Year books:

  • Happy, Happy Chinese New Year by Demi CNY
  • Lanterns and Firecrackers: A Chinese New Year Story (Festival Time) by Johnny Zucker, Jan Barger Cohen. Chinese family prepares for New Year. Read-to preschoolers. Read by 1st graders. Includes suggestions (to parents) for celebrating.
  • Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn, et. al. Fiction. Introduces Chinatown. Forces the reader to think about giving and appreciation. Pre-reading required. Not a personal favorite.
  • Gung Hay Fat Choy (Special Holiday Books) by Jane Behrens CNY
    I have not seen this one myself. Includes photos.
  • In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord
  • The Year of the Dog: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin (I have not read it. Perhaps for the youngest.)
  • The Year of the Pig: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin (I have not read it.)
  • Happy New Year! by Emery Bernhard
    New Year in different cultures
  • Chopsticks by Jon Berkeley (I have mixed feelings about this - it implies that the Chinese New Year starts with a full moon when the 15 day celebration ends with a full moon. On the other hand, I can see my uncle's Hong Kong apartment building in the illustrations.)
  • Chinese New Year for Kids by Cindy Roberts

Last updated: February 2007

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Lion Dance? Dragon Dance?

Sound the gong, beat the drum,

A clamorous racket is all around;
Half seems like a wild animal.
Half like a man.
Inside and out, altogether six ears;
The ears outside can't hear,
But the ears inside can.

What’s the difference between the dancing lion (often looks like a fudog to me) and the dancing dragon?

There are only 2 people under a dancing lion – and there is often a Buddha outside, guiding it. The first person holds the head up with both hands and the second person's head is covered. In fact the second person is usually bent over. However the lion can rear up as one kneels on the back of the other, or as the 'back; person holds up the front person.

Here are some thumbnail pictures of Holland's Hong Ying Chinese Martial Arts Association working on a Lion Dance demo. This lion dance is part of a competition, and this is a longer clip of the same lion. Lion Dance: Bringing Luck and Happiness

Here there be dragons: With the dragon dance, each person holds a pole which is connected to the dragon. There can be many (20, 30, 40) people under a dragon. Here's a clip of a parade dragon dance. Wikipedia's Dragon Dance entry has only still pictures.

These performers have 2 lions and 2 dragons. YouTube has quite a few clips when you search for "lion dance" or "dragon dance".

Riddle Answer: Dancing Lion

Updated: January 2007