Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is starting this week. The biggest celebration of the Chinese calendar, it is a time for families to get together and ring in a prosperous new year. Many of the traditions associated with the festival have grown up around words that sound like each other. The Chinese are big on wordplay, which is totally fine by me. For example, it is common to eat fish and leave some for the new year, because the Chinese word for fish, 鱼 (yu2),has the same pronunciation as the word for surplus, 余. So if you say the phrase 年年有余兔 (nian2 nian2 you3 yu2), meaning ‘may there be surpluses every year’, it sounds exactly like 年年有鱼, ‘may there be fish every year’.
There’s also been a really interesting crossover of these double meanings using English and Chinese. A couple of years ago it was the year of the ox, or 牛 (niu2, which sounds a lot like the English word ‘new’). Greetings of ‘Happy 牛 Year’ abounded. Now that it is almost the year of the rabbit (兔, or tu2), I’ve seen ‘Happy New Year 兔 you’. I think it’s very creative and linguistically interesting. I wonder what people will come up with for the other zodiac animals!