Enter The Year of the Rat

by Fernando Quintero

For Annie Chang, head of the Center for Chinese Studies library, it is a Chinese New Year family tradition to give children red envelopes stuffed with money to buy candy and firecrackers.

"My son is a freshman at UC Santa Cruz, and he still makes sure to come home that day," said Chang, one of many staff, visiting scholars and faculty members who celebrate the observance of the new lunar year, which began Feb. 19.

The lunar calendar, which is used by Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Tibetans and Hmong, decrees 1996 the Year of the Rat. The Asian lunar horoscope, composed of 12 animals, begins with the rat and ends with the pig. According to legend, Buddha summoned all the animals before him. The rat was the first to arrive. The pig came last.

Celebrations continue until March. Chang compares this time of the year to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, when families and friends get together to celebrate the spirit of the season. "It's party time," said Chang.

In her home, preparations for the new year celebration begin in late December with homage to the Kitchen God, whose paper image hangs on her wall.

"He makes a report to the emperor of heaven, as to whether you've been good or bad and deserve good or bad fortune," Chang said.

She smears honey or something sweet on his mouth, "so that he will say something sweet about you." Then she removes the wall hanging and burns it so that the smoke will carry his spirit to the heavens.

Afterward, Chang cooks like crazy. She said each province in China has its own traditional meal. She prepares a vegetarian dish using 10 ingredients "because 10 is a complete number and we hope for complete good fortune," she said.

She cleans the house and prepares plenty of food ahead of time because it is bad luck to sweep, throwing out the good fortune that comes with the new year.

Chang often invites visiting scholars and students from China to her home to celebrate the holiday with her family.

"It is an important tradition that we must continue to celebrate," she said. "I hope to have my children carry on the traditions of our culture. It is not something you get in a book, or by talking about it. You must make it a part of your life."


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
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