Lunar New Year is the biggest festival of the year for Chinese people, when people spring clean and decorate their homes and families get together and feast.
The simple sounds of Mandarin Chinese recycled with tones mean that many words sound the same as or similar to other words.
Take “hong2 bao1”, for example, which are red packets that older people use to give gifts of money to children at Chinese New Year. The word for packet (“bao1”) sounds the same as the words for to fry and flower bud. It sounds similar to the words for thin and full up.
This characteristic of the language allows for word play which is the reason for many of the traditional decorations and foods at Chinese New Year.
The two most common Chinese characters displayed in decorations are chun2 for spring and fu2 for blessings. But often you’ll see them displayed upside down.
That is because the word for “upside down” in Mandarin sounds the same as the word for “to come” or “arrive.” Which means that if you say ”Hey, spring is upside down,” it sounds the same in Mandarin as “May spring come!”
Likewise, the word for “bat” sounds the same as the word for “blessings.” Which means that if you say ”The bat is upside down” – which it often is of course! – it sounds the same in Mandarin as “May blessings come!”
You’ll often see pictures of fish in decorations and fish dishes are popular at Chinese New Year’s dinners because the word for “fish” sounds the same as the word for “abundance.” Fish express people’s hope that they will have plenty of good things to enjoy in the year ahead.
Also common on the menu is a special cake made out of sticky rice, because the word for “New Year Cake” sounds the same as “may we climb higher each year.”
The word for “lettuce” in Mandarin sounds similar to the word for “to produce wealth” and so you will often see lettuce hanging in the doorways of restaurants and other businesses at Chinese New Year.
Inside, you may find beautiful willow branches with colourful furry catkins because the word for this kind of willow sounds similar to “May silver flow in.”
In the south of China, where many people speak a different kind of Chinese called Cantonese, it is common to see lots of orange fruits used as both decoration and food. That is because the word for “tangerine” sounds like the word for “good luck” and the character even shows “good luck” growing on a tree! Similarly, the word for “mandarin” sounds like ”gold,” which makes them a popular gift.
And finally, in Hokkien – which is a Chinese language spoken in the South East of China – the word for “pineapple” sounds like ”May prosperity come!”
Keep your eyes and ears open for other words that sound the same or similar in Mandarin Chinese. Spotting these connections helps you to remember words and is part of the fun of the language!