Chinese New Year is a main holiday in China and has strongly influenced lunar new year celebrations in East Asian countries, including Taiwan. If it is your first time in Taiwan during Chinese New Year, this “taboos and etiquette” guide on norms and customs would surely come in handy. It is always exciting to go somewhere with a completely new cultural background. Yet, thrilled and excited as you are, you are somehow at the same time, nervous and anxious to know whether you are doing things right. As every culture has its own taboos and etiquette, it is important to respect local culture while traveling. Don’t worry, by going through MyProGuide’s guide about Taiwanese taboos and etiquette, you will sure be ready for your very first trip in Taiwan during Chinese New Year.
First Thing First: Let’s learn more about the Chinese New Year in China and Taiwan
The date of the Chinese New Year is determined by the lunar calendar. Also called Spring Festival, it marks the start of the very beginning of Spring and the end of winter. It represents a new year on the lunar calendar and a desire for a new life. In many cities in China during Chinese New Year, traditional performances can be seen and certain customs are practiced. Chinese New Year is the most important festival celebrated by the ethnic Chinese. From New Year’s Eve to the fifth day following the New Year, many similar customs are practiced by the Taiwanese.
Cultural Customs that are widely applied in Taiwan
1. Putting on Lucky Red Items as Chinese New Year Decorations
Walking in the streets during Chinese New Year, you might notice there are red items everywhere. It is because red is a lucky color in Chinese culture- a color that is believed to have the ability to drive bad luck away. During Chinese New Year, there will be many red lanterns hanging in streets and red couplets on the doors, lighting up the city with lively vibe and catchy decorations.
2. Family Gatherings on Chinese New Year’s Eve
Like most other celebrations, Chinese New Year is a time for families. During most of the year, relatives are often in different areas of the country or even abroad. However, for Chinese New Year Eve, everyone is expected to be at home to celebrate with his/her family. The dinner at Chinese New Year’s Eve is called ‘reunion dinner’. It is believed to be one of the most important meals throughout the whole year. The feast is usually prepared at home or in a fine restaurant. After the reunion dinner, families usually will sit together and watch the Spring Festival Gala, one of the most popular TV shows in China.
3. Giving Red Envelopes
Celebrations always come with gift exchanges, and the most common New Year gifts are the red envelopes. These red envelopes are basically red envelopes with cash inside of them. They are believed to bring good luck because of the color red. Grandparents and parents usually give red envelopes to their kids. These red envelopes are called “HongBao” in Chinese, which means red packets.
4. Firecrackers and Fireworks at Chinese New Year
Nights are always busy during the Chinese New Year, since there is a tradition to set off firecrackers on the first minute of the new year. This practice has long been a tradition. From public displays in major cities to private celebrations in rural areas in China, setting off firecrackers and fireworks is, without a doubt, an indispensable custom.
5. Plan a Huge Shopping Trip
Something fun to do on Chinese New Year in Taiwan is to go shopping. Get the New Year vibe at Di Hua Street, the most famous historical shopping street in Taiwan. When making your way through the narrow street packed with crowds, you will find mountains of dry ingredients, herbs, colorful candies, snacks you haven’t seen before, and much more. This is where you can witness the Taiwanese friendliness: the vendors from each stand will not stop giving you samples to taste!
Location: Section 1, Dihua Street, Datong District, Taipei 103
How to go to Di Hua Street: Get off at Beimen Metro Station, go out from Exit 3, and walk along Tacheng Street for about 7 minutes
6. Worship the Ancestors at Temples
During the Chinese New Year, Taiwanese people visit temples to worship the gods and ancestors. Interestingly, Taiwan has the highest density of temples in the world. This reflects the fact that local beliefs including Taoism and Buddhism play important roles in their daily lives. According to local belief, all the gods return to heaven before New Year and come back at the fourth day of the year to take care of the people. On New Year’s day, you will see many Taiwanese flocking into temples to pray to “Heavenly Grandfather” (Tian Gong), the ruler of heaven and earth according to local belief.
7. Eating with the Taiwanese: Dining Etiquette
When eating in Taiwan, chopsticks are used throughout the whole meal, starting off with breakfast to lunch to dinner, and even snacks. During the meal, chopsticks should be placed either on the side of the plate or bowl or on the top of the bowl. Yet, do remember to never stick them vertically into the bowl. Since this action looks similar to burning incense in the temples, it is regarded as taboo. Also, when eating with a bowl, remember to place the bowl near your mouth when eating from the bowl. Also, remember to use the shared pair of chopsticks if you are taking food from a shared plated when eating with others. One interesting eating tradition during Chinese New Year is to leave the fish head.
8. Don’t Open Gifts in Front of Others
Westerners usually open gifts in front of others and openly express how they appreciate the gifts they’ve just received. However, unlike Western culture, Asians in general are more reserved. When giving and receiving gifts in Taiwan, remember to use both of your hands, as using one hand is considered impolite. Also, Taiwanese don’t usually open gifts in front of the giver. They usually hold their excitement until getting home. Avoid giving certain gifts to Taiwanese, like clocks and handkerchiefs. Handkerchief implies that the receiver might have reasons to cry. Another inappropriate gift option is clocks. Since “giving a clock” in Chinese sounds exactly like “attending a funeral”, it carries an unlucky meaning behind it.
9. Four is Regarded as an Unlucky Number
In Taiwan, the presence of the number four is avoided in most public places and situations, including buildings, phone numbers, hospitals, licenses, and even identity cards. Don’t wonder if there is no level four in a building nor in an elevator. Four is associated with death, because the Chinese translation of the number “four” has a similar pronunciation with the Chinese translation of the word “death”. Taiwanese deeply fear the number four as it is seen as being attached to bad luck. Therefore, you will never see the number 4 in a hospital- with the same reason. In some formal restaurants, you might even hear them saying “three plus one?” instead of saying “a table for four”.
Before traveling abroad, a little effort in learning the culture, customs and etiquette in advance is always appreciated. Not only is it a way to show respect, but also a way to avoid awkward situations. After knowing more about the taboos and etiquette in Taiwan during Chinese New Year, you are now fully prepared to enjoy your trip to Taiwan during Chinese New Year!