Oct 17, 2013

Origin

Origin of the Nianyefan(Dinner on the Spring Festival’s Eve)

Nianyefan (Dinner on the Spring Festival’s Eve) is also called “Unity Year Dinner,” “Family Unity Dinner,” “Year pision Dinner,” “Keeping Year Feast,” and “Feast to Bid Farewell to the Old Year.” People usually have a big dinner on the eve of the Spring Festival every year to bid farewell to the old year and usher in the new year. This custom became very popular during the Jin Dynasty. At that night, all the family members reunite, children run around the knees of their parents and the whole family talks about reunion against the background of beautiful lanterns while drinking wine. After the dinner, all the family members wait for the new year to come. According to Local Custom, compiled by Zhou Chu in the Western Jin Dynasty, “On the Spring Festival’s eve, all the family members sit around a stove and keep awake all night long. This is called Shousui (keeping the year).” Many poets have verses on shousui. Meng Haoran wrote, “Burning candles until early the next day, we just stay awake and have dinner.” Du Fu also said, “I stayed in Arong’s home on the eve of the Spring Festival. The dishes are just like flowers.” These verses vividly depict the fun of shousui.

In regions south of the Yangtze River, when people begin to have nianyefan, or New Year's dinner, they often close their front doors and speak in low voices. No one is allowed to knock on bowls or chopsticks. After dinner, they clear away all the bowls and chopsticks before opening the door. This custom is said to be used to cheat Tieguai Li, one of China’s most famous Taoist gods.

Previously, every family had nianyefan with their doors open. The heavenly Jade Emperor wanted to learn about people’s livelihood. He sent Tieguai Li to descend to the world to have a look. Tieguai Li took the form of a crippled beggar. He held his basket and begged for food door-to-door at the time when people were having nianyefan. After that, he showed the Jade Emperor what he received from each family, so the Jade Emperor could know who was rich and who was poor. For the rich families, the Jade Emperor would ask immortals to punish them so as to make them a little poorer; for the poor families, the Jade Emperor would give them some opportunities to make money so that they could be a little bit richer. Eventually, the common people learned of this. There was a clever man who had a brilliant plan.

While having nianyefan, he closed his door tightly and forbade his family members to speak loudly. When Tieguai Li came to his family to beg for food, he had finished eating and opened the door. The table was empty and he had nothing for Tieguai Li. Seeing this, Tieguai Li thought this family must be very poor and they could not afford to have nianyefan. So, he left some treasures on the doorway and left. Then, the family became very rich. But he could not keep the secret and other families also followed the practice, hoping to get rich. When Tieguai Li returned, he saw all the families closed their doors and had learned of his work. He did not come back again. But the custom of closing the front door and clandestinely eating nianyefan was handed down from generation to generation.

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