Chinese New Year taboos

by Azizah Sidek

Chinese New Year celebrations are accompanied by specific rites and rituals with strict prohibitions and taboos.1

Mind your language
The Chinese refrain from using foul language or speaking inauspicious words such as “die”, “bad luck”, “lose” or “sick” to prevent misfortune befalling members of the family.2 Before the New Year, children would be warned not to quarrel, fight or speak rudely. Some Chinese believe that if children are punished by their elders for bad behaviour during the New Year period, then they would be inclined to be boisterous and rebellious throughout the year.3

No sweeping
The home is to be swept and cleaned by New Year's Eve. Sweeping on New Year's Day is an absolute taboo as it is akin to having good luck swept out of the house.4

Black is bad
Associated with bad luck and death, the colour black is  avoided at all costs. Red, on the other hand, is deemed an auspicious colour and is worn by many women on New Year's Day. Homes are splashed with crimson, with red hues appearing in the decorations, flowers, food containers, cushion covers and calligraphy scrolls.5

Handle with care
Special care is taken when handling fragile items such as cups, glasses and mirrors. Broken utensils are taken to mean a broken family or a death in the family.6

No sharp ends
Using knives, scissors and other sharp instruments on New Year's Day is believed to “cut the thread of good fortune”.7 As such, these items are mostly kept away. However, many housewives still quietly use knives for cutting food. Also, food should not be served in broken or chipped crockery as  this signifies “eating into your own wealth”.8

Eating right
The first meal on Chinese New Year for most traditional Chinese families is vegetarian fare. Consuming meat and slaughtering animals on this day is a taboo as it involves the use of sharp utensils. Moreover, one is supposed to eat the leftover food cooked the previous day.9

Often, the food to be served on New Year's Day is prepared in abundance the day before. Since the food is cooked on the eve of New Year and thus prepared in the previous year, consuming the surplus amount in the following days symbolises material wealth being brought over from the previous year.10 Some Chinese also ensure that the pair of chopsticks used should be of equal length. If not, a common Teochew belief is that they could "miss the boat" whenever they travel.11

Azizah Sidek

1. May Ho, “New Year’s Day Taboos,” Straits Times, 1 February 1984, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “No Sighing or Sweeping, for Good Luck’s Sake,” Straits Times, 14 February 1991, 12; “Taboos to Keep Bad Luck Away and Bring Good Luck,” Straits Times, 24 January 1990, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Ho, “New Year’s Day Taboos”; “Taboos to Keep Bad Luck Away.”
4. Ho, “New Year’s Day Taboos”; “Taboos to Keep Bad Luck Away.”
5. Julia Goh and Olivia Branson, “Traditions and Taboos,” Straits Times, 29 January 1989, 13. (From NewspaperSG); “Taboos to Keep Bad Luck Away.”
6. Goh and Branson, “Traditions and Taboos”; Ho, “New Year’s Day Taboos”; “Taboos to Keep Bad Luck Away.”
7. “Do the Right Thing,” Straits Times, 3 February 1991, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Goh and Branson, “Traditions and Taboos”; Ho, “New Year’s Day Taboos”; “Taboos to Keep Bad Luck Away.”
9. “Taboos to Keep Bad Luck Away”; Patricia Bjaaland Welch, Chinese New Year (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 39–40. (Call no. RSING 394.261 WEL-[CUS])
10. . Ho, “New Year’s Day Taboos”; “Taboos to Keep Bad Luck Away.”
11. “Do the Right Thing”; “Taboos to Keep Bad Luck Away.”

Further resources
Colin Cheong, China (Singapore: Times Editions, 1997), 8–11. (Call no. RSING 394.26951 CHE)

Lunar New Year Taboos,” Straits Times, 3 February 1992, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Lynette Koh, “With the Old,” Straits Times, 1 February 2007, 68. (From NewspaperSG)

Seah Min Fann, “How the Festival Really Began…,” Straits Times, 18 January 1979, 22. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 1997 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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