Enjoying 福 (fú) and the inner circle of Chinese life

The only thing more amazing than the fireworks on our street last night (Chinese New Year’s Eve) — I won’t even try to describe them, you’d have to see, hear, and feel it to believe it — is the fact that our eight month old daughter slept right through them.

Last night and today are the most special time of the year for Chinese. Last night families crowded the streets in our area to set off an unbelievable amount of fireworks in between family meals, and today (Chinese New Year’s Day) they’ll eat in or out in great Spring Festival family banquets — the restaurants are all packed full. It’s the annual family reunion, which in its ideal form embodies fú, or blessing/good fortune. I’ll let someone more qualified than me explain.

In The Chinese Have a Word For It, Boyé Lafayette De Mente spends most of his chapter on fú talking about Chinese food and banquets:

There is a famous Chinese saying that shíwù (食物) or food is heaven to a peasant, a stark reminder that throughout most of Chinas history the specter of starvation was a constant companion to the majority of the people.

So compelling was the threat of hunger that the Chinese used the symbols of a cultivated field and a mouth integrated with heaven, representing a full stomach, to mean fú (福), or happiness.

Today the ideogram for happiness is one of the most popular “good luck charms” in the country, and is familiar to patrons of Chinese restaurants around the world.

The role that food plays in Chinese life is one fo the most conspicuous and important aspects of their culture, and one that can be fully enjoyed by outsiders as well after only a few minutes of orientation.

A Chinese meal served and eaten Chinese style is a tableau of the culture in action, graphically depicting the hierarchical order within the family or the group, the etiquette that controls their behavior, and the substance of their relationships.

The typical Chinese meal eaten in a restaurant — and the Chinese love to eat out — is an even more dramatic representation of Chinese culture. Evening meals in particular are typically banquet style, a thanksgiving for the food and a celebration of family ties and the bonds of friendship.

Unlike some Western cultures that require people to eat quietly and quickly, when a typical Chines family or group eats out it is a noisy, lengthy affair, brimming with the hubbub of humor and ribaldry.

To the Chinese, the banquet table is more than just a convenient meeting place for a meal. It is the place where they confirm their cultural identity and just as important if not more so, enjoy fú and their Chineseness to the fullest.

It is around the informal banquet table that the Chinese let their formal hair down, nurture the bonds of old relationships, and make new ones. The informal banquet table is thus a doorway — the only easily accessible doorway — to the inner circle of Chinese life.

Outsiders wanting to establish close relationships with Chinese … must eventually enter this “doorway to happiness.”

(If anyone of consequence has a problem with me quoting this much text, just let me know and I’ll remove it.)

We had our own little fú-fest last night with friends and family:

Other stuff about celebrating Chinese New Year’s:

Leave a Reply!