Before Chinese New Year’s Eve, a guestbook is ready to record all visitors’ names who will drop by during the festival. However, it is not blank but already has four names on the first page:
The elderly Gentlemen Longevity Hundred (Shou Bailing) who lives at Hundred Year Old Lane (Baisuifang Lane), Gentlemen Rich More (Fu Youyu) living at Gold Ingot Street (Yuanbao Street), Sir Noble Infinite (Gui Wuji) from Academician Arch (Daxueshi Arch), and Mr Fortune Neighbor (Fu Zhaolin) from Five Fortune Arch (Wufu Arch).
The four “guests” are not real people, of course, but imaginary characters with “good luck” names for the New Year. However, all the Hangzhou locations are real.
That’s how a Hangzhou family who lived hundreds years ago would start its New Year.
“My great-grandfather liked to write the guestbook when he was alive,” said 31-year-old Hangzhou local Chen Jiemin. “He told me that it was a tradition that was popular among educated Hangzhou people.”
Some customs in Hangzhou have disappeared, like writing fake names on guestbooks, while others are still retained. For instance, some Hangzhou people, mostly seniors, still rename foods in a “fortunate” way for luck.
Meatballs and fish balls are “Round Reunion,” eight kind of shredded vegetables sauteed together are called “Eight Treasure Dish,” shredded meat wrapped in pancakes is “Silver Wraps Gold,” a whole piece of fish can be called “Annual Surplus” because “fish” and “surplus” are pronounced the same way in Chinese, and peanuts are called “Longevity Nut.”
“My parents’ generation insists on it, while young people are not keen to it very much,” said Sun Bin, a 29-year-old Hangzhou local. “But I find it interesting. New Year cannot only be eating and shopping, or it loses the cultural meaning,” she adds.
History shapes customs. Hangzhou has been known as “Southeast Buddhist Country” since ancient times for its many temples and devout people.
It was a must for centuries for all Hangzhou families to visit temples during New Year to burn incense sticks. It is a holy deed to show respect to Buddha and to pray for good luck for the new coming year.
Buddhist traditions still practiced
It is said the earlier you burn incense in the New Year, the better Buddha’s blessings will be. So midnight of Chinese New Year’s Eve is always the busiest time for temples in China.
Last Chinese New Year’s Eve, over 6,000 people between 10pm and 2am flooded into Lingyin Temple, reputedly one of the 10 most renowned Buddhist temples in China, even though each person could buy only two tickets, at 200 yuan (US$33) each.
Also busy during the holiday is the Temple of the God of Wealth on Beigao Mountain, which has its peak number of visitors on the fifth day of the first lunar month of the Chinese traditional calendar, the birthday of the God of Wealth.
Since the temple does not charge admission, the number of visitors cannot be calculated, but every year on that day, no matter how the weather is, lines of people can be clearly seen from the foot to the top of the mountain.
Besides celebrating the birthday of the God of Wealth, people also “send off the Kitchen God” and “welcome the Kitchen God.”
Traditionally, every Chinese household would have a paper effigy or a plaque of the Kitchen God above the fireplace in the kitchen.
Offerings of food and incense are made to the Kitchen God on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, which marks his return to heaven to give his New Year’s report to the Jade Emperor.
On this day, the lips of Kitchen God’s paper effigy are often smeared with barley sugar to sweeten his words to the Jade Emperor, the emperor of heaven, or to keep his lips stuck together. After this, the effigy will be burned and replaced by a new one on New Year’s Day.
Firecrackers are often lit as well, to speed him on his way to heaven. If the household has a statue or a nameplate of the Kitchen God it will be taken down and cleaned on this day for the New Year.
Such interesting and colorful customs, however, are being left behind in many cases. “Only my grandma carried on with the tradition, and since my grandma left us months ago, I don’t think my family will have the ceremony anymore,” said Sun.