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  • Writer's pictureRiver Valley Student Editorial Club

CNY: The new beginnings of tradition

By Goh Jun Yu (22J08)

Chinese New Year is one of the most widely celebrated festivals across ethnic Chinese across the world. Growing up in a Chinese family, we often hear about CNY superstitions and traditions, like how we should not sweep on the first day so that we do not sweep away our luck, or that we should put out firecrackers on the first day of the new year to scare away “Nian”, a villain in Chinese mythology which makes little kids fall sick.

Two years ago, these traditions suddenly quietened down when Covid-19 swept across the globe. CNY celebrations were replaced with an awkward sense of tranquillity as we experienced restrictions on gathering. Yet, even as we live with Covid-19, and restrictions have been relaxed since, it seems as though CNY, just like everything else, will never return to what it once was (see: TODAY article on celebrating a quiet CNY, 2022).

Covid-19 seems to have been the catalyst for the going of traditions during this CNY. This CNY, as I returned home to Malaysia for celebrations, my family celebrated CNY Eve with McDonald’s as our reunion dinner instead of the usual dishes we had always whipped up to celebrate the new year.

Our reunion dinner!

Certainly, many feel that such a loss of tradition represents the demise of culture in the hands of the younger generation. As an article from Zaobao shares, many vendors at the wet markets are seeing fewer and fewer people purchase the Seven Auspicious Vegetables, often in shopping carts on the seventh day of CNY, as the years go by (see: Zaobao article on wet market vendors, 2023). As one of the vendors commented with a tinge of frustration, and perhaps resentment, “This year, I’ve prepared fewer vegetables, once I sell finish then that’s it.”

However, I am here to offer you another perspective on traditions.

Good traditions are those which evolve to fit into modern context

Many traditions that we once used to have are now slowly being discouraged as we realise the negative effects they have on us. For example, the use of physical red packets and new notes during CNY are being replaced with e-Angbaos. The use of physical red packets creates a lot of waste, as these red packets are often used only once before being discarded. A huge amount of energy is also invested in printing new notes, which are often destroyed once CNY is over so as to maintain the number of notes in circulation.

A glimpse into the amount of red packet being thrown away :(

In today’s context of a climate crisis, the tradition of giving physical red packets becomes increasingly damaging to our climate, representing a step in our highway to climate hell. In this case, the evolving context of the tradition of giving red packets actually seeks to serve the uplifting purpose of tradition, rather than impede human development.

Good traditions are those which evolve to stay relevant

Darwin’s theory of natural selection tells us that those with adaptable traits have a higher chance of survival. This theory can be said to apply to traditions too! We often have to adapt our traditions so that they remain “in trend” and “attractive”, such that people continue practising these traditions. Take for example the CNY food we eat: at the Cantonese restaurant, Madame Fan, chefs have taken a spin on the traditional yusheng, creating the Full Blossom of Fruits yusheng, which is a stunning platter filled with fuji apples, Harumanis mango, South African blueberries, Korean pear and Spain persimmons.

Madame Fan’s Full Blossom of Fruits yusheng

And truth be told, some feel that such innovations are a gross violation of the sanctity of traditions, that such commercialisation will destroy the beauty of traditions. But oftentimes, we lose some to win some. By adapting these traditions to make them “trendy” and “appealing”, more people are willing to continue practising them, even if it means they would take shape and form in a different way, as opposed to traditions becoming completely obsolete and forever lost.

Good traditions are those that evolve in practice, not in principle

The way we practise things is bound to change, but why we do it should not. Even as we give e-Angbaos, we continue to use them as a way to express our well wishes to each other, just as we do with physical red packets. Even as we toss the innovative yushengs, we continue to do it as a way to usher in good luck for the new year.

In this way, our traditions seek to uplift us, as a binding force that brings people together to commemorate something good in our lives. Rather than hold onto archaic traditions that may otherwise create conflicts within people who hold disagreeing views, if we all take a step back to see the continuities amidst the changes, we would all recognise the good in the change.

Beyond CNY

The same can be said for many of the traditions beyond CNY. Strict Islamic traditions governed by the Sharia law today are evolving in many Muslim countries as we recognise the importance of uplifting women, of supporting gender equality and eliminating discrimination towards women in our traditions. Traditional clothes, like cheongsam, are also being redesigned into more comfortable day-wear apparels such that people can wear them more frequently. All these traditions may have changed in the physical way we practise them, but the principles behind them are preserved (see: NatGeo’s article on Singapore's traditions in today's world).

These changes are certainly not the demise of traditions, but rather, the ushering of a new beginning.

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