EXPLORING CHINESE NEW YEAR TRADITIONS IN TAIPEI

The Chinese New Year holiday celebrations begin on the eve of the lunar new year. Exact dates are determined by the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which is based on the cycles of the moon and sun. Festival traditions, such as the colorful Lion Dance, focus on promoting prosperity and warding off evil in the coming year.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER

The lion, a symbol of power, wisdom, and good fortune, chases away evil spirits and brings happiness, longevity, and good luck. ‘Feeding’ the lion a lucky red envelope, or hongbao, filled with money during a dance performance is thought to bring good fortune.

An air of anticipation fills every family in the days leading up to Chinese New Year.

To prepare for the celebrations, shoppers pack the Dihua Street New Year Market to buy auspicious nianhuo, or ‘New Year goods.’ Located in the heart of Taipei’s historic merchant shipping district, Dihua Street has been a commerce hub since the 1850s.Before New Year’s Eve, the street buzzes with hundreds of thousands of revelers stocking up on New Year items like brightly wrapped candies, dry ingredients, and steamed buns.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER

Low-light photography techniques are ideal for capturing the vibrant atmosphere created by the glowing lanterns and massive crowds.

In addition to hosting the city’s iconic New Year Market, Dihua Street is a fascinating place to visit because it blends ancient and modern Taiwanese culture. Trendy cafes and boutiques sit alongside shops selling traditional items like Chinese medicinal herbs, textiles, and tea.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER

For the New Year Market, open-air stalls are erected in front of the historic storefronts and celebratory banners are strung overhead. After dark, illuminated shops and hanging lanterns make the lively scene look and feel festive.

Dihua Street is also where people stock up on dried ingredients, such as shiitake mushrooms, scallops, and shrimp, for Taiwanese dishes like ‘sticky rice dumplings.’ Vendors regularly entice shoppers to make purchases by offering them free samples of pistachios, sunflower seeds, and other snacks traditionally served to guests during the holiday.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER

The market stretches for several blocks, so a wide variety of New Year treats are available. One of the must-have holiday delights for families is the New Year cake, nian gao (“higher year”). As its name implies, this sticky-sweet, glutinous rice cake symbolizes good fortune and prosperity for the year ahead.

To usher in good luck for the coming year, shoppers buy red-and-gold paper decorations such as lanterns and ornamental firecrackers. Red symbolizes good fortune, happiness and success; gold represents wealth; and, according to ancient Chinese legend, firecrackers scared off the mythical beast, Nian, on New Year’s Eve.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER

Of all these decorations, the most auspicious are red paper scrolls called Spring Festival Couplets. Home and shop owners paste vertical scrolls (each bearing a line of a poem) on either side of their front door and a horizontal scroll (conveying the poem’s theme, such as ‘luck is coming’) above the door frame.

At its heart, Chinese New Year is about family, which is why the holiday launches what is considered the world’s largest annual human migration. Family members return home for the Family Reunion Dinner and to maintain beloved traditions.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER

One such tradition is family elders gifting children and young adults red envelopes filled with ‘lucky’ money. According to legend, the practice began as a way to protect sleeping children from a devil-like monster. Per custom, when younger family members get married or start earning money, they start giving red envelopes to their parents and grandparents as a sign of gratitude and respect.

The Taiwanese begin the first day of Chinese New Year by visiting a temple in the morning to pray for good fortune. Taipei boasts a treasure trove of Buddhist and Taoist temples, all of which are architectural masterpieces.

Among the busiest on this day is Lungshan Temple, also known as Mengjia Longshan Temple, which was built in 1738. As the morning progresses, the floral offerings at this temple steadily grow. Flowers, which represent new growth and spring renewal, are a traditional New Year offering thought to bring blessings and good luck.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER

A wide-angle zoom lens is necessary for capturing the impressive scale and brilliant hues of this floral mound and magnificent temple.

In addition to praying for good fortune for the future, visiting local temples is a time for giving thanks for the past year. To pay respects to their gods, devotees arrive bearing gifts like oranges, lotus flowers, and boxed foods. The offerings are displayed on long tables that stretch across the temple courtyard.

Slow shutter speed techniques are best for photographing the stationary temple and the table of colorful gifts amid the swirling sea of worshippers.

Burning incense is a traditional part of temple visits. Before praying for blessings and good luck, incense sticks, or joss sticks, are burned to create an auspicious atmosphere, filling the air with a fragrant aroma.

Legend has it that being among the first of the year to put a joss stick into the temple censer (a metal or earthenware urn) makes your prayers more likely to be heard and your wishes granted. Since Chinese New Year begins at midnight, crowds of devotees holding joss sticks gather outside temples on New Year’s Eve to participate in the ritual.