Sunday, 25 January 2009

Is Chinese New Year a Cultural or Religious Festival?

Tomorrow, Chinese communities all over the world will celebrate the coming of a new year; the year of the ox, an animal which symbolises hard work and perseverance.

Here in Malaysia, Chinese New Year is considered by many as a cultural festival. Hence, anyone who identifies his/her ethnic background as Chinese, regardless of his/her religious beliefs, would and should celebrate Chinese New Year. For this reason, non-Muslim Chinese who convert to Islam would still celebrate Chinese New Year because the festival is considered part of their cultural tradition and celebrating it is not considered against their Islamic faith.

However, is Chinese New Year really only an ethnic-cultural festival?

If we look at the rituals and practices in conjunction with its celebration, traditionally, preparations begin at the start of la-yue, the twelfth and last month of the Chinese lunar year. La-ba-zhou (eighth-day porridge) is celebrated on the eighth day of this month with the making of delicious porridge, a practice originated from Buddhists in China in memory of the enlightenment of Buddha. Dong-zhi (Winter Solstice) which falls on the 22nd of the month is celebrated with the eating of Chinese dumpling, a practice based on a Chinese custom which symbolises that a person is now one year older.

Then, a few days before the eve of Chinese New Year, every family has to send their home-god (jia-shen) to the heaven (through the observation of a variety of religious rituals such as the burning of incense and yellow-paper money) to report their deeds for the entire year while at same time to bring them more luck, wealth and prosperity for the coming new year. For the people in northern China, they pray to the god of the kitchen (zao-shen), to the people in the south especially among fishermen, to the god of the sea (hai-shen), while among merchants and businessmen they pray to the god of wealth (cai-shen).

So, New Year’s Eve is a very important time not only for family reunion; where all members in a family should return home to pray to the spirit of their ancestors to ask them to protect and bring the family more prosperity, it is also an important time to warmly welcome the return of the home-god who will come back to bring them luck and blessings for the new year. For this very reason, all members in the family would traditionally stay-up the whole night (shou-sui) at the family home on New Year’s Eve. In relation to that, at the stroke of midnight, which marks the start of the New Year, family members will burn firecrackers to drive away ghosts, evil spirits and bad luck to ensure the home god’s smooth return from heaven.

On the first and second day of Chinese New Year, members in the family are not allowed to go out of the house, not even to visit neighbours and friends; to avoid the flowing out of good luck, and to prevent bad luck from coming in to the family. Sweeping the floor inside the house is not allowed on the first two days of the new year to prevent good luck from being swept out from the house. Only on the third day till the fifteenth day of the new year, people may celebrate new year with their friends and neighbours.

Of course, not all of these practices and rituals are observed by Chinese communities today. Nevertheless, the points above clearly support the motion that Chinese New Year is in fact a religious festival. One has to understand that the traditional religion of the majority of Chinese is an amalgamation of teachings in Buddhism, the ethical philosophy of Confucianism and the metaphysics of Taoism, sprinkled with doses from Chinese myths and legends. The influences of these different sources of inspiration in the rituals and practices observed during Chinese New Year celebrations are indeed very clear and apparent.

It is for this very reason that ethnic Chinese Muslim communities in China do not celebrate Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year to them is a non-Muslim religious festival, and as Muslims, and because of their knowledge of the background of the various non-Islamic religious rituals and practices, they believe they should not participate in its celebration. Some of the elders in Chinese Muslim communities have in fact emphasised to their families to eat the most basic of food on New Year’s Eve, to clearly emphasise that the festival is not part of their family culture.

Since Chinese New Year is in fact a religious festival, should Chinese converts to Islam refrain totally from its celebration? Religious beliefs do not abrogate family obligations. As such, a Chinese-Muslim convert should attend the family reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year as part of his/her family obligation. But the person should not participate in any of the religious rituals associated with the festival.

Celebrating Chinese New Year should not be seen as a mandatory Chinese-ethnic-identity-confirming behaviour which defines one’s Chinese cultural identity and origin. There are at least 50 million Chinese Muslims in China who do not and have never celebrated Chinese New Year. The fact that they don't celebrate it does not make them less Chinese than others who do. They respect it as an occasion celebrated by their non-Muslim neighbours and friends but they do not participate in its celebration. As Muslims, their festive occasions are the Eid celebrations, which are celebrated twice-a-year by all Muslims all over the world.

(This post was co-authored by my wife who is a Hui Chinese Muslim from Gansu, China)


Anonymous said...

Asm Bro Zaki,

Your opinion is very interesting. But I've heard many people say that its ok for chinese muslims to celebrate CNY bcz it is a cultural festival. Even the president of chinese muslims society here has said that many times. Many we should be more flexible and not make this into such a big issue.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you. Just as we Muslims should not celebrate Christmast, we should not celebrate Chinese new year too.


Zaki Samsudin said...

Assalamu'alaykum warahmatAllah,

Sister NurK,

I am very aware of the opinion of Dato' Mustafa Ma (President of the Chinese Muslim Association of Malaysia).

Since I am not an authority in Islamic jursiprudence, I would encourage you to read carefully what I have written and seek the opinion of qualified scholars of usul al-fiqh.

In the meantime, you may also read a similar posting here:

Brother Abdullah, thank you for visiting this blog.

Jazakumullahu khayr.