Huff! The Dragon is Coming to Town!

7 minute read

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when prompted ‘Lunar New Year’? 

Decorations of bright red paper? The 12-animal zodiac? Fireworks? Or perhaps, some money in a red envelope?  

If you recognise any of the above, congratulations! They are part of the Lunar New Year. If you are still scratching your head, look no further, as I’m bringing some fantastic facts about the festival from MAA! 

All About the Moon 

Did you know that, just like Easter, Lunar New Year doesn’t always fall on the same dates every year? 

The reason being that most Asian festivals are dated with the lunar calendar, which calculates the phases of the moon instead of the circulation of sun. There are twelve lunar months, and each has 30 or 29 days. 

In East Asia, agricultural activities are incorporated into the lunar calendar. I remember growing up in Taiwan, our family always had a small booklet, known as 農民曆 (pinyin: nóng-mín-lì) or farmer’s calendar. It detailed all the agricultural duties and activities that should be carried out accordingly every lunar day. 

In the Gregorian Calendar for the year 2024, the Lunar New Year Eve will fall on the 9th of February. The 10th will be the first day of the first lunar month, the 11th the second day, and so on. In Taiwanese tradition, the whole festival lasts a good 15 days and ends with the Lantern Festival, which will be on the 24th of February this year. 

The Dragon is Coming to Town 

You might know what the 12 zodiac animals are, but did you know that they are not always the same in different Asian countries? 

In Taiwan, the 12 zodiac animals are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Serpent, Horse, Sheep (Goat), Monkey, Rooster (Hen if you’re female!), Dog, and Pig. However, in Vietnam, the Rabbit is replaced with Cat. 

Since 2024 is the year of the Dragon, I shall introduce some interesting dragons in the collections at MAA. As you may already know, Asian dragons are considered sacred animals and don’t look exactly like Smaug from The Hobbit.  Some of the dragons at MAA are displayed in its galleries, but some are too shy and hiding in the store. Next time when you come to the museum, do say hello to them! 

Figure 1. Prow figure from a Kenyah canoe of a crocodile, qilin (Chinese for chimera) or dragon. Borneo, Malaysia. Collected by Charles Hose in the late 19th century. MAA Z 2698.

Strictly speaking, this is not a dragon, but a hybrid of a crocodile and 麒麟 (qilin) or dragon. You might have come across this majestic canoe head in the Maudslay Gallery, but did you know that it also has a name? Say hi to George! 

Figure 2. A china teacup with yellow background and blue design depicting a dragon. Tibet. Collected by Lady Mabel Frances Holmwood. MAA 1942.20.1.

Look closer…and closer. How many claws does the dragon in the cup above have? 

A rule was made during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) which placed the symbol of dragons into a hierarchy. The three-claw dragon was at the lowest, used by lower-ranking government officials; the four-claw dragon was in the middle; the five-claw dragon was exclusively used by the emperor. However, this rule was relaxed in the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). 

Figure 3. A double skin, frame drum. Nail braced. Heads painted with a dragon in clouds on one side and a phoenix on the other. Canton, China. Collected by Dr Lawrence Ernest Rowland Picken. MAA 1977.311

This drum, decorated with a dragon flying in the clouds, was part of the display on 崑曲 (Kūn-qu), a traditional musical theatre. 

Figure 4. A Chinese dragon headdress worn as part of carnival costume for the samba school of Estacio in 1988. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Owned by C. Wallace and collected by Fran Vincent in the 20th century. MAA 1992.136

Finally, here we have a dragon headdress used in a carnival in Brazil. Though it was in South America, traditional headdresses like this one are used in ‘dancing dragon and lion’ performances in that region too. One dragon or lion requires at least three to four dancers to perform. The dance moves imitate dragons flying and tumbling in the cloud, and the lions stomping and jumping. A traditional costume consists of a headdress and a long, decorated cloth, under which hides three to four performers, dressed in matching outfits as they are the legs of the animals. 

Offerings to the Gods 

I was once asked if the Lunar New Year was a religious festival. The answer is both yes and no. The idea of the festival was to celebrate a time between harvest and sowing the seeds again. It is for resting, being grateful for what you reap, and making connections with family and friends. While agriculture was an important part, so was the worshipping and praying to Gods. 

Growing up, I remember helping clean and decluttering the house before New Year’s Eve. Every corner must be dusted; every cupboard must be opened and wiped clean. This cleaning symbolised getting rid of the old and the broken and preparing for the new. After the whole house is nice and clean, it is time to paste the spring couplets! 

Spring couplets are red pieces of paper with calligraphy on them. The content can be one single Chinese character, e.g. 春 (spring) and 福 (blessing), or it can be nice wishes, hoping for good health and prosperity in the new year. Below is one of the classic spring paper ornaments from MAA. The long couplets are pasted above the door and on both of its sides, whereas the single word one is placed above the window. Of course, other decorations cut out of red paper are also popular! 

Figure 5. One of five paper ornaments for Lunar New Year in China. It has the character 春 which means ‘spring’ painted on it, with a sitting Buddha who symbolises happiness and fulfilment. Collected by Dr John Preston Maxwell and donated by Mrs. M. G. Steen. MAA 1982.2897 E

In Taiwan, before New Year’s Eve, there is the 小年夜 (pinyin: xiao-niányiè) or little eve. On that day, close to midday, my mum would prepare the first worshipping in the kitchen for 地基主 (Tâi-lô: -ki-tsú), who is the guardian of the household. In local belief, he usually resides in the kitchen, which provides warmth and food for the house. The worshipping is to thank him for a whole year’s protection and hoping that he will put in some good words for the family when he comes to the annual meeting in the heavenly above. 

Some bowls containing food laid out on a table. Some burning incense sticks have been inserted in one on the bowls. On the side is a block of red and golden papers.

Figure 6. Food offering for the 地基主 (Tâi-lô: tē-ki-tsú). This offering includes salty pork, a bowl of rice, pork and bamboo shoots soup, vegetables, fried rice cake, with incense burning and a stack of golden-foil paper money to be burned later. Source: Author.

Then, usually around 11pm, the second worshipping for 天公 (Tâi-lô: thinn-kong) takes place on the balcony or somewhere open-air. Thinn-kong refers to the Emperor of the all the Gods and resides in the heavenly above. I remember my prayers being about telling him who I am, what I’ve done this year, and pray for all the best in the upcoming year. 

A lit candle in a red candle holder is placed on table. Behind it is another candle, burning incense sticks, and some food.

Figure 7. Offering for 天公 (Tâi-lô: thinn-kong). This photo shows a pair of red candles in pineapple-motif glass jars, tied with red ribbons. These candles are specifically for worshipping the god. Source: Author.

A man is standing with his back facing the camera. He has his head bowed down, and holding his hands together, he appears to praying. In front of him, on a table, is an altar containing some fruits, candles in red candle holders, and burning incense sticks.

Figure 8. My father standing behind the table, worshipping and reciting prayers. The food offering includes: whole chicken, a slice of pork belly, fish, sponge cake, sugar-glazed rice snacks, and a pineapple. Source: Author.

An altar with offerings of food to he Buddha. On it has been placed a small bowl of rice, a brown cake, and a mandarin tied with red and golden ribbons. The Buddha's statue can be seen in the background.

Figure 9. Food offering for the Buddha, other gods, and my ancestor on my family altar, including brown rice cake, rice steamed cake, a cup of rice, a mandarin tied with red and gold ribbons. Source: Author.

A bottle of rice wine. Behind it are some rice bowls with chopsticks, and a tray containing a mandarin and a kiwi placed on a table.

Figure 9. A bottle of pure rice wine, a must-have in Taiwanese households. My family uses it for cooking, drinking, and gods offering. There are 17 bowls and 17 pairs of chopsticks in total, symbolising 17 generations of ancestors who we are worshipping.

Common things used in worship, or 拜拜 (Tâi-lô: pài-pài), include incense and paper money. The most common number of incenses is three, and although one can use more, it should always be an odd number. Paper money is stacks of roughly made yellowish paper laid with golden or silver foil. Depending on the occasion, golden paper money is used for Gods, and silver for ghosts and ancestors. The money should be placed on the worshipping table, alongside the food and wine. Once the incenses are burned halfway through, it is ready to burn the paper money, which is a way to pay respect to the Gods or to send wealth to the underworld. 

Come Celebrate! 

Lunar New Year started as a time to rest (for the farmers, their animals, and spiritually, their farming tools as well), to recover, to be grateful, and to look after each other. A lot of praying and worshiping traditions came along, and gradually this festival becomes what you and I know today. With a diaspora of East Asians living across the world, some recipes for food and materials for decorations have changed. But one thing for sure is that we all want a good spirit for the New Year. 

Now you know a little bit about Dragons, New Year, and worshipping. If you can’t get enough, why not pop into MAA on 10th February and get crafty in Chinese calligraphy and paper cutting? I shall see you there. Lastly, 新年快樂 (pinyin: Xīn Nián Kuài Lè) or Happy New Year! 

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