Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Lantern Festival Origins

In ancient times, the lantern festival was a time to worship Taiyi, the God of Heaven. It is said that Taiyi controlled the destiny of the human world and was helped by sixteen dragons. These dragons brought drought, storms famine or pestilence.

Qin shi-huang, the first Emperor to unite China, ordered splendid ceremonies be held every year to please or appease Tayi. The people of China and the Emperors that followed believed that these ceremonies pleased Taiyi and helped bring good weather and good health to the people of China.

A later Emperor named Wudi proclaimed that this celebration was one of China's most important and for this reason it would last all night.
The Yuanxiao Story: Long ago in ancient China there lived a palace maid named Yuan xiao, a kind and clever girl who was locked up in the palace of her Emperor Wu Di all year round. This made her sad and homesick. Luckily she found a friend in a minister called Dongfang Shuo.

Shuo made up a story for the emperor which helped Yuanxiao see her family again. He said that the God of Fire has been ordered to set the city of Changan on fire on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar year. Let us make him think the city is already on fire by setting off fire crackers and hanging red lanterns all over the city.

In order to do this, everyone, even the palace maids, will have to help and take part in a great lantern show. Now Shuo knew that the God of Fire loved to watch a good fire show and liked the dumplings made by Yuanxiao just as much. "Let Yuanxiao give her dumplings to the fire god," said Shuo to his emperor, "for that will please him and save the city from fire."

The Emperor ordered all the people of Changan to spend the whole night setting off firecrackers and playing with lanterns. It was a very rare thing for girls to go out at night and meet boys of their same age. Yuanxiao was able to leave the palace and meet her family for a fine and happy time and the next year it all happened again!

The Emperor Wu Di enjoyed himself so much that he ordered even more red lanterns for the next year. (Red was the color to scare away evil spirits and bad luck.) So, on the very same day this next year, Yuanxiao made her dumplings again and saw her family.

In other versions, the emperor had done something to displease the god and others worked to trick the god. On that night, when the god saw the lights from the city, he believed that the city had been set on fire.

This first full moon of the year is a symbol of happy family reunions and a full and happy life. Now the Lantern Festival is a time for fun.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Hong bao Lanterns for the 15th day

Lantern Festival is the 15th day of the Chinese New Year celebrations. This full moon marks the end of Chinese New Year festivities. Usually preparations for lantern Festival are made on the 14th day.

Consider making your own lantern. Animal shapes are popular. You can always have the children slit construction paper, roll it and make a classic cylinder -- or have them make a small one from a red hong bao envelope.

Here are more interesting lanterns from those red envelopes. There is a daily limit on the site, but if it is reached, just try the next day - earlier in the day. You may be able to leave the site up in your browser and just press "refresh" in the morning... Once you have seen what has been done, maybe you will also be inspired to make your own. Keep in mind that the dimensions on the envelopes vary considerably. You can make the same design with different envelopes and get a different look -- or you may find that the directions suggest using 5 envelopes but 4 or 6 work better for you.

Honolulu's Chinatown has more on the history and use of lanterns.


Saturday, February 05, 2005

Another mom did this...

Here is the tale of what another mom did one year for her daughter's preschool - and the impact it had on the class!

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Parade Photos

Enjoy photos from previous years' San Francisco Chinese New Year parades.

Not from New Year's - but here is a video slip of a Parade Dragon.

Other photos:

Lion dancers must show their courage by dancing close to the exploding firecrackers.

The dancing unicorn is distinguished by its narrow horselike jaw.

The feisty red-faced lion prepares to solve a ritual puzzle.

The shaggy yellow costume of the northern lion totally conceals the dancers who perform an entertaining acrobatic show

Chinese Food - you can make it!

WARNING: Always, always check for food allergies. Some parents do not expect that their child would come into contact with nuts or shellfish and do not always pass on information about food allergies or a family history of food allergies. Some believe that children, especially those with a family history of allergies, should not be exposed to nuts, berries or shellfish until they are at least 3 or 5 or even 10 years old. Some schools make foods but do not allow children to eat them in school, sending the finished product home with a list of ingredients. People can become so allergic to an item that air-borne contact can trigger a reaction.

No liability is accepted in any way in making suggestions for Chinese food that may be simple to make.

What is simple to make depends in part on your confidence, experience, the age of your students and the size of your class. Some teachers have brought rice cookers or electric flying pans into classrooms and made many dishes in a space with no kitchen. As with any lesson plan, it will be more successful if you try it yourself first and plan for any changes or accommodations needed due to your particular needs, space, or students.

I think chopsticks should always be used and shown. Asia education has a page on Using Chopsticks, and I bet there are videos on the web now!

The Food

Dumplings, jiaozi, of many varieties are available at your local Asian grocery. Dumplings (jiaozi and steamed cdumplings or bao) and wonton skins should be in the freezer section, and may also be in the refrigerated section. An Asian grocery would be a good source for other prepared foods, well as boxes for things like fried rice or mapo dofu sauce.

Wontons or dumplings made with raw meat are usually cooked in boiling water within 3-4 minutes. Cut one open to check for doneness or use a probe thermometer to ensure the desired temperature has been reached. You may want to have a flavored broth in a separate bowl. Wontons, especially some of the children’s will start to unwrap, especially if overcooked.

Noodles are traditionally eaten more in wheat-growing areas, and rice is eaten more close to where it is grown. I think that this sort of information is as important as geographic features of China.

Eggdrop soup is simple and Chinese but not associated with any particular holiday.

I like the sound of the recipe Pinkcocoa found for claypot chicken recipe - adapted to a rice cooker - although not so much the broken English conversation after the recipe. We have not tried it yet or her Taiwanese meatballs - although they are a comfort food and not New Year's feast dish.

The San Francisco Chronicle shares some recipes in Chinese New Year is all about tradition. I think we are trying the winter cone-shaped bamboo suggestions. The Times of London has some in Jill Duplex's Chinese New Year Feast article. Or, read my entry on Chinese New Year Foods in general.

Updated: 3/2007

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Chinese Writing

Chinese writing not only does not look like our writing, it is very unique in that each character has its own meaning and sound. The written language is not phonetic. While English is considered harder to learn to speak and use, this makes Chinese harder to (learn to) write.

Chinese characters are also read differently, from top to bottom right to left. They are not written left to right to horizontal rows as English and other romance languages. Long Is a Dragon: Chinese Writing for Children by Peggy Goldstein is a nice introduction to some of the characters. Or, just show them the Chinese numbers. As of February 2005, they could be found at:

While free exploration when the children are working on their own is fine. I think it is important to at least show the correct stroke order when introducing characters. It is an essential part of the character – even more so than in English. A character that is not written in the right order generally does not look as balanced or as attractive – and this can usually be seen even by people who do not know the characters at all. Stroke order can usually be determined by following a simple set of rules. (It starts “top to bottom, left to right”.)

Calligraphy ink is permanent ink. Some have used it at school. Others use poster paint or poster paint mixed with glue. The glue makes the paint shiny and helps control drips.

Children can make wall hangings – much more Chinese than framed pictures that they may see at home or in school – of calligraphy or paintings. Most Chinese paintings are made with just black ink – the levels of gray are achieved by how much water is used. I know one school where all of the preschoolers and kindergardeners made “bamboo” pictures and they did see the varying shades from using different amounts of water. Using chalk dipped in water will allow children to make a much brighter, more vibrant picture.

An inexpensive wall hanging can be made using a pencil glued to the top of a piece of paper, and tying ribbon to each end.

More more information on Chinese calligraphy see:

Take a look at Chinese painting, and why are colors used and not used

For Animated Chinese Characters

Chinese New year couplets

Write Fu / luck

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

CNY overview

Chinese New Year or Spring Festival (Chūn Jié 春X)

Chinese New Year or Spring Festival (Chūn Jié) is the start of the lunar calendar and the coming of spring. It is the largest Chinese celebration, celebrated at about the same time worldwide. New Year is celebrated around the same time by Chinese people all over the world – on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Chinese New year primarily involves family, friends and food. The celebration used to last 4 weeks but now it is 3 to 4 days. Many people in China get 5 days off to celebrate – although they may have to work the weekend before or afterward to make up for it. Xīn Nián Kuàilè! Gong xi Fa cai! Chūn Jié Kuài lè! Gung Hay Fat Choy! Every community has different ways of celebrating. In American many Chinese families celebrate on the nearest Saturday, being sure to clean the house, decorate with red, share a meal together, and perhaps wear traditional clothes.

The next Chinese New Years are: February 7, 2008; January 26, 2009; February 14, 2010; February 3, 2011; and January 23, 2012. 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) lai see or hóngbāo "goodie bags" as if it was a birthday. If you go in a lantern craft or parade, or a dragon to parade under is wonderful. Bring in some background music if you can.

How did Chinese New Year come to be celebrated? According to an ancient legend, once a year people were tormented by a beast called a Nian. Nian was a ferocious creature with a large mouth, capable of swallowing several people in a single bite. Relief from the Nian came only when an old man tricked the beast into disappearing. Or scared it away with loud noises and red. In reality, New Years festivities probably evolved from a desire to celebrate the end of winter and the fertility and rebirth that come with the spring, much like the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. Today, New Year is about family reunions and wishing everyone good fortune in the coming year. (Nián is Mandarin for year. Happy New Year! Xīn Nián Kuài Lè! 新年快樂! Xīn Nián Hǎo! 新年好!)

Some Chinese traditions for welcoming the New Year & creating good fortune in the year ahead:
  • BEFORE New Year’s: Clean your home, sweep away the bad luck of the year that's ending, get new clothes, get your hair cut. Plan out the food! Round food (fruits like oranges which are also gold color) are good. Fish, long life noodles, … Pay off any debts so you can start the year, fresh. Decorate your home in red, the Chinese color for good luck.
  • During the first days of New Year: DO NOT clean your home. You do not want to risk sweeping away the good luck of the New Year. Don’t wash your hair the first day, or get it cut in the first week or so.
  • An important tradition on New Year's Eve is for families to gather together. In the north, many families will be spending the evening preparing jiaozi (dumplings). 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 will supposedly have good luck in the coming year. (I wish I knew what part of China he was from!)
  • 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.
  • Give out money packets - On New Years day, children receive “lai see” or “hong bao”- red packets decorated with gold symbols and filled with "lucky money”. See if you can get crisp new bills from your bank to use.
  • Serve and eat as many lucky foods as possible on the New Year. Some of these foods are whole fish, noodles and mandarin oranges. If you're not ready 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.
  • Some fruit or flowers or candy for your Chinese teacher would be appreciated.
  • Lanterns and couplets written on red paper are common decorations. Fu means fortune, and it is shown here on a lantern and also in cursive.

Some Astrology: The Chinese Lunar Calendar has a twelve year cycle of zodiac animals, and a cycle of 5 elements. Together they create a 60 year cycle of names, such as Golden Dragon (2000), and Fire Pig (starting in 2007). Someone suggested that the years should more properly be numbered from 0 to 11, of 0 to 59! The animal cycle is: rat/mouse, ox/cow, tiger, hare/rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram/sheep/goat, monkey, rooster/chicken, dog, pig/boar. 1996 was the start of the current 12 year cycle. (The current Sexagenary Cycle started in 1984.) The next 12 year cycle starts on Thursday, February 7, 2008 with a Brown (Earth) Rat Year, 4706. Remember if someone was born between January 19th and February 21st, you can not tell their zodiac year unless you know the date of the Chinese New Year for their birth year. You may not want to discuss the zodiac animals in preschool classes – unless you are prepared for a very noisy room of animal sounds.

Some Chinese believe the animal ruling the year in which a person is born has a profound influence on personality, saying: "This is the animal that hides in your heart." Others use the zodiac just for fun. According to one legend, Lord Buddha summoned all the animals to him before he left the earth. Only twelve responded and came to bid him farewell. For their reward, he named a year after each one of them in the order that they arrived. Another legend says that the years are named, in order, for the animals that raced for the Green Emperor.

There are a number of sites on the web with more information on the Chinese zodiac, Chinese New Year, and Chinese date converters. There are also solar to lunar date converters available for Palm Pilots.

For more on Chinese New Year, see Wikipedia's entry.

The Autumn Jade website has a short description of each animal of the zodiac.

In 2006, the Detroit Free Press did a nice overview titled FIVE THINGS: About the Chinese New Year.

Last updated: February 2007