Six Chinese New Year Puns

Trump Rooster Statue

A rooster statue with Trump-like features designed by Casey Latiolais is displayed outside a shopping mall in Taiyuan, China for the Year of the Rooster.

The date for Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, shifts every year since it’s based on the lunar calendar. January 28th is the first day of Chinese New Year in 2017. Every year is designated by an animal on the Chinese zodiac, and this year happens to be the rooster.

A common new year’s greeting you can say is 新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè), but do you know the Year of the Rooster greetings? The greetings you can say to wish people luck especially in the Year of the Rooster are 鸡年吉祥 (jī nián jíxiáng) and 鸡年大吉 (jī nián dàjí).

There are many other new year’s greetings Chinese people say, such as 身体健康 (shēntǐ jiànkāng) for good health and 万事如意 (wànshì rúyì) to wish one all the best. But, in addition to these greetings are the many symbolic meanings behind certain customs that are practiced during Chinese New Year.

Have you ever wondered why certain foods are eaten on this festive occasion or the meaning behind lettuce hanging above shop entrances? The symbolism behind some of these customs can be linked to the language. Because Chinese is much more limited in the number of syllables compared to other languages, the result is a slew of homophones. Words which share the same pronunciation, but hold different meanings have allowed people to come up with clever puns.

The customs and sayings for Chinese New Year are ripe with creative wordplay and symbolism. So, what better way to start the Year of the Rooster by learning some now? Below are six words or phrases related to the festive holiday, their counterpart homophone, and its significance during Chinese New Year.

  1. 年年有余 (nián nián yǒuyú): A greeting often said during Chinese New Year that wishes someone abundance year after year. The character (abundance) sounds like the character (fish), so the meaning of 年年有鱼 (nián nián yǒuyú) is there will be fish every year. This is why fish is a common dish during Chinese New Year feasts and commonly seen in holiday decorations.
    Plate of fish
  2. 年糕 (niángāo): A glutinous rice cake eaten during Chinese New Year. It sounds like 年高 from 年年高升 (nián nián gāoshēng) which is usually said to someone to wish them success in their career year after year. Therefore, it’s the hope that eating rice cake will bring one career success in the new year.Rice cake
  3. 福到了(fú dàole): It means fortune has arrived. 福倒了(fú dàole) which looks similar, except for the second character meaning upside down. During the holiday, people will place a sign with this character upside down on their door or above it. The intent is for fortune to arrive into one’s home. "Fortune" flipped upside down
  4. 生财 (shēngcái): This word means to make money and sounds like 生菜 (shēngcài) which is the word for lettuce in Chinese. Lettuce is often served at Chinese New Year dinners and seen hanging above shop entryways along with red envelope money for the lion dancers. Hanging lettuce and red envelope
  5. 团圆 (tuányuán): This word means reunion and although not exact, sounds similar to 汤圆 (tāngyuán), a sweet glutinous rice ball served during Lantern Festival, the last day of the two-week festivities.This sweet dessert is served in bowls and eaten together with the family to symbolize family unity. Sweet glutinous rice balls
  6. 发财 (fācái): A word that means to make a fortune. It sounds similar to 发菜 (fà cài), a long thread-like algae eaten during Chinese New Year. Eating this algae symbolizes that one will receive much fortune in the coming year. Algae

There are many other sayings and customs related to Spring Festival besides the six described above. The roots of some are linked to homophones, while others can be traced back to legends or spiritual beliefs of early dynasties.

The abundance of homophones in Chinese has given the advertising industry a source for clever puns. They became so popular that the Chinese government banned the use of puns back in 2014 to avoid “cultural and linguistic confusion.” Whether media firms have actually heeded the government’s warning is another matter.

But, one thing’s for sure: traditional puns will never go away. Despite what you may think of puns—cringeworthy or clever—they add a rich meaning not just to the language, but also to Chinese culture. And, it’s hard not to marvel at how a limitation in the language can be used to its advantage.

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