Nian Ye Fan Revisited

Today is the eve of the Chinese New Year; time for the Nian Ye Fan.  While Americans are getting ready for the Super Bowl, the Chinese will be celebrating the most important meal of the year.

The post below was originally posted two years ago but as I have many new subscribers I thought it would still be of interest.

New Year’s Day, by coincidence, again falls on February 8 in 2016.  This will be the Year of the Monkey.  To be precise, it will be the Year of the Yang Fire Monkey, which last occurred in 1956.  As noted previously, the actual Chinese calendar involves two cycles, one of the twelve animals of the zodiac, the other yin and yang versions of each of the five earthly elements.  They turn concurrently, meaning that they line up only every 60 years, considered one life cycle by the Chinese.

Monkeys are considered playful and clever so this should be a good year for child births.  Last year was the Year of the Sheep or Goat – the Chinese character is the same – which are considered followers rather than leaders, so the birth rate actually declined.  (To be clear, the vast majority of Chinese pay no heed to these traditions, although birth rates did fall by a statistically significant amount last year.)

Yang Fire, however, holds more ominous implications.  It suggests that this may be a year of unexpected conflict.

Who knows?  What I like best about Spring Festival is that it really is a time for new beginnings.  The old year is behind us and the Chinese are always genuinely optimistic that the new year will be better.  I like that optimism.  Many of my longtime friends have noted that I am very good at reinventing myself when bad luck strikes.  I don’t know about that but I do know that I am an eternal optimist.  I have never once started a day believing that it would be worse than the prior.  No matter how dark my life at the time, I was always full of hope.  And that attitude has always served me well.

Enjoy the holiday – or the Super Bowl – but know that the future always holds promise.

Gary Moreau


For most Chinese families, Spring Festival begins with the reunion dinner held on New Year’s Eve. Traditionally, however, the celebration of the new lunar year begins on the 8th day of the last lunar month, known as the Laba Festival. This year, by lunisolar coincidence, that was January 8, 2014.

Like everything associated with Spring Festival the purpose of the Laba Festival is to bring prosperity in the coming year. And it’s modern day custodians, oddly enough, are the Buddhist monks who serve warm Laba porridge made with rice, beans, nuts, and fruits, on that day. In Beijing, which is inevitably cold this time of year, you can see a long queue of office workers on their way to work waiting at the many Buddhist temples in the area for some of the sweet and warm soup to start the day.

I find the idea of Buddhist monks serving Laba Porridge in the heart of Beijing to be both interesting and informative. Interesting for obvious reasons. China officially governs by the tenets of socialism with Chinese characteristics and embracing and celebrating its spiritual and religious tradition is clearly one of those characteristics.

Legend holds that the Nian monster came into the village of the first day of every year to feed on the village's crops and livestock.
Legend holds that the Nian monster came into the village on the first day of every year to feed on the village’s crops and livestock.

Informative because it highlights a recurring theme throughout Chinese culture that is critical to understanding the true nature and meaning of Spring Festival. At its core, Spring Festival is not so much about celebrating the old or new year as it is about maximizing the chances that the coming year is a good year – which is to say, a prosperous year. And following classic yin-yang philosophy that means keeping bad luck at bay as much as it means promoting good luck. Both efforts, while diametrically opposed, are necessary to achieve the desired result.

It’s all a bit fatalistic, of course, but I’ve come to accept that there is something to the perspective. Let’s face it; a lot of what happens to us in life is beyond our control. Why pretend that it isn’t? Most success stories could have easily been a tale of woe and many who struggle in life were only a hair away from the lucky break that would have made things very different indeed.

That’s not to say, in the least, that successful people don’t earn their success. I think they do. But it’s not guaranteed. I think successful people, as much as anything else, have learned how to maximize the odds that a lucky break will find them. And one of the most effective ways to maximize those odds, of course, is to maximize the sheer number of opportunities for good luck to come your way – i.e. hard work. Isn’t hard work, after all, a core quality on which almost all success is built and doesn’t it, by definition, simply increase the number of hands you are dealt in life? (An old colleague used to say that in baseball, as in life, it only takes one hit in ten to get into the Hall of Fame.)

Is it really such a leap of faith, therefore, to think that drinking a bit of tasty porridge served by a friendly Buddhist monk on a cold January morning might actually lead to good things in the coming year? I can’t quite get there, admittedly. I’m a foreigner. But I do have some sense as to why and how people who do buy into such beliefs do. (In the West we call them superstitions, but that’s such a pejorative term that I’ve stopped using it.)

The color red is ubiquitous at Spring Festival. Legend holds that in addition to eating the livestock, the Nian was fond of devouring children but avoided those wearing red.
The color red is ubiquitous at Spring Festival. Legend holds that in addition to eating the livestock, the Nian was fond of devouring children but avoided those wearing red.

Which is the perfect segue into the reunion dinner, called Nian Ye Fan, that officially kicks off the Spring Festival holiday for most Chinese families. It’s the most important dinner of the year, by a wide margin, in a culture that attaches great importance to food and the dining experience. (Hasn’t history taught us that the ultimate prosperity is having enough to eat?)

Nian is the name given to the mythical beast that according to legend arrived on the first day of the New Year and ate all of the crops and livestock, as well as some of the villagers, especially children. Food, of course, was set out to appease the beast, and once the villagers noticed that the beast passed over a child wearing red, the color red became ubiquitous during the holiday – and during all times of celebration in China, for that matter.

Nian Ye Fan is, as noted, perhaps the most important family event of the year. And because no one wants to be blamed for any potential family misfortunes in the coming year I suspect there are few excuses short of making money and contributing to the family’s prosperity that will get you out of it.

It is strictly a family affair; not a time for building relationships. Foreigners, therefore, are almost never included. That said, however, the woman who works in our home, known here as an ayi, invited my wife and daughters to her family home in a nearby village one New Year’s Eve while I was in Germany on business over Spring Festival. It was a sign of genuine affection for my wife and daughters, for sure, but also indicative of the importance placed on the event. In this very kind woman’s value system no one should be left alone for Nian Ye Fan.

Some families choose to dine out. Very seldom do the Chinese entertain in their home, and virtually never for business or outside of the family. On most occasions they meet their guests at a restaurant, although private rooms are almost always available for such occasions. Needless to say, getting a reservation is extremely difficult on New Year’s Eve unless your family has been patronizing the restaurant for a couple of decades, and the meal itself – like virtually every product and service in China – is priced to market supply and demand. A New Year’s Eve meal at a decent restaurant will set you back.

Most families, however, prefer to dine at home. And as for a U.S. Thanksgiving dinner, preparations are made days in advance and the food is bountiful. And there are some protocols to follow.

Fish, the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity in China is a must-have for Nian Ye Fan. Here fishermen use a self-propelled device that moves along the underside of the ice to string nets, the bounty of which is eagerly purchased by passing motorists.
Fish, the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity in China is a must-have for Nian Ye Fan. Here fishermen use a self-propelled device that moves along the underside of the ice to string nets, the bounty of which is eagerly purchased by passing motorists.

One of the great symbols of wealth and prosperity in Chinese culture is the fish, which is why it adorns a good majority of the souvenirs sold here. And, as a result, fish is a must-have for any reunion dinner. Traditionally, the fish was left uneaten, in tribute to Nian, I suspect, but I am told that many families today do actually consume the fish.

Beyond the serving of fish, the Nian Ye Fan menu generally follows regional preferences and specialties. In the north, that means dumplings, or jiaozi, often served later in the evening. In the south, a glutinous cake, called niangao, is prepared and shared with friends and relatives over the coming days.

And there is, of course, drinking involved. And here, as in many Asian countries, drinking is a group activity. If you want to take a drink you should make a toast. It doesn’t have to be long or eloquent, but it’s impolite to just sit there and suck down your alcohol in isolation. You can toast a specific person or persons or you can toast the table as a whole. And to avoid the time and effort required to clink everyone’s glass you can simply tap the glass a couple of times on the lazy susan in front of you that is common to every Chinese restaurant.

The drink of choice on such festive occasions, of course, is baijou, often referred to as Chinese wine. Believe me, however, that is a mischaracterization if ever there was one. Many Westerners liken the taste to rocket fuel and it has the same impact on the senses but it is, after all, the number one spirit in the world in liters consumed each year. (I predict that once some enterprising bartender finds something you can mix it with that won’t catch on fire baijou will become an international phenomenon.)

In the north of China, jiaozi is often served after the reunion dinner as midnight nears.
In the north of China, jiaozi is often served after the reunion dinner as midnight nears.

And rockets it is, of course, once the New Year’s Eve celebration gets fully underway and the fireworks come out. In a country in which citizens are not allowed to own guns or weapons of any kind, fireworks are commonplace and readily available. Some of the bigger cities, however, have put restrictions in place. Beijing, for example, no longer allows fireworks in the central part of the city since construction workers accidentally set the nearly finished luxury hotel next to the new and already iconic CCTV building known as The Big Pants ablaze on New Year’s Eve in 2009.

I simply can’t do the fireworks scene justice with my simple vocabulary. It is, quite literally, unbelievable. They are everywhere. They are loud. And they go on all night – yes, until the sun rises!

A Spring Festival tree? As long as it's red.
A Spring Festival tree? As long as it’s red.

It can get a little dicey. In addition to the risk of fire, there is always the risk of injury. And you don’t even have to be involved. Our ayi was riding her bicycle home one afternoon when she passed a field in which some men were setting off some kind of rockets. They were sticking them in an empty beer bottle but, of course, the bottle fell over once the rocket was lit and proceeded to scream right into her passing thigh, knocking her off her bicycle. She wasn’t seriously hurt but it was a nasty burn that kept her hobbling for several days.

A bit of bad luck, for sure.

And to avoid that kind of thing from happening in the new year it is tradition to clean your home thoroughly in the days leading up to the new year to make room for the good luck that is sure to arrive on New Year’s Eve. (It’s also a good idea to get a hair cut, in part because the yin-yang extension of that is that it is bad luck to cut your hair during the first 30 days of the new year.)

Once New Year’s Eve arrives, however, it is customary to lock the broom and dust pan away just in case an obsessive family member decides to do some final cleaning and accidentally cleans out the good luck that has just arrived.


Some early praise for the author’s latest book, “Understanding China – There is reason for the difference”

“An insightful, compelling introduction to the intricacies of Chinese business and life.” – Kirkus Review

To see the full review from this prestigious literary company, please click on this direct link:

“Understanding China is a “must-read” for anyone interested in culture, working with Asian businesses, visiting China or simply if you enjoy a well-written book! I worked in China in the 90’s and while I eventually understood the differences, I never understood “why” until now. Moreau does a great job explaining the “why”. Well done!!”

(Not a relative!)

“Having done business and gone on personal journeys through the Asia Pacific region, I wish I’d read a book like this first. The premise is that being happy and effective in China requires more than just learning how things operate and working within the established system. This will bring frustration and leave you ineffective because you, the Westerner, will still be looking at these cultural differences as irrational. Mr. Moreau contends that only by understanding why things are the way they are in China and in the West can a Westerner actually influence outcome in China.

The author proceeds to explain the differences with very engaging writing that made me say, “Of, of course! It all makes sense now.”

(Also not a relative!)


Copyright © 2016 Gary Moreau

Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.

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