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Stinky Tofu: The Year of the Rabbit

This past week has been filled with Lunar New Year celebrations here in Taiwan, with the entire island on holiday to usher in the Year of the Rabbit in 112.

The year is 112 as Taiwan is one of the few places in the world which doesn’t use the Gregorian Calendar, the system which dictates this year to be 2023 of the common era. Instead, it uses its own Republic of China or 民國 Minguo calendar, counting all years from 1912, when, in the wake of the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China was founded in Nanjing. For centuries, years in China had been labelled according to the reigning Emperor – now, they were to be labelled according to the new government. When the KMT (國民黨 Guomindang) subsequently fled to Taiwan in 1949 and claimed it as the new heart of the Republic of China, this calendar system fled with them.

Beyond being an interesting political relic, the Minguo calendar also often leaves me feeling foolish as I struggle to calculate what 2003 would be in the Taiwanese system, whilst someone watches on bemused that I don’t know the year in which I was born. Being constantly reminded that time is a social construct is also liable to cause an existential crisis or two.

For most Taiwanese, however, Lunar New Year is not a week to ponder the meaning of time, but to celebrate with family, friends, and plenty of food. On New Year’s Eve, there is a mass exodus from Taipei as people travel back to their hometowns, ready for a week of feasting and prying questions from relatives. For several nights, everyone scurries around in new red clothes as dish upon dish of laboriously-crafted delicacy is piled on the table. Walls are bedecked with 春聯 chunlian, red scrolls bearing new year’s wishes, many of which will last through the seasons until the next year comes. 

An aspect of the festivities which struck me and my friends the most was the sheer bluntness of discussion and celebration of wealth. One of the most common new year’s greetings is 恭喜發財 gongxi facai, which translates to something like ‘wish you prosperity and wealth’, whilst the most common gift is cash. In a culture which traditionally emphasises family structure and filial piety, children and adults alike pay respects to their elder relatives, and in return receive 紅包, little red envelopes into which banknotes are slipped. Children run around clutching and waving their shiny prizes, adorned with beautifully scribed calligraphy or emblems of the coming year’s zodiac animal. (Don’t worry, though – nowadays, Mickey Mouse and Paw Patrol options are also available.) 

Watching 紅包 hongbao traditions unfold felt a far cry from home, where many people see the very giving of money as rude, showing a lack of thought in picking a nice gift. Whenever someone does give you cash, it is usually hidden in a card, with most people thinking it polite to focus on reading the card whilst awkwardly ignoring the money. ‘Thank you SO much, Aunt Jill, for such a thoughtful message!’ you would say, emphatically referring to a hurried generic scrawl of ‘Merry Christmas‘, but not mentioning the banknote slipped inside. Dealing out 紅包 hongbao in British culture would be seen as a crude display of wealth – in Taiwan, it is a display of familial love and tradition.

Yet, amongst all the fun, in some ways, celebrating Lunar New Year as a foreigner, (and writing this), felt strange, and a bit out of place, as if I were imposing on traditions that do not belong to me. I was lucky enough to have a lovely Taiwanese family invite me to join in with their celebrations, but it still felt odd that an event that held such cultural significance for them was an exciting novelty for us. This is a dilemma that runs at the core of studying Chinese, or any language, as a degree – what gives you the right to indulge in and reflect on someone else’s culture?

On that rather overdramatic, degree-questioning-inducing note, it is time to wish everyone 新年快樂 xinnian kuaile or ‘Happy New Year’! I hope the Year of the Rabbit brings you wonderful things.

Illustration credits: Yii-Jen Deng