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Cincinnati Chinese Americans Celebrate New Beginnings In Year Of The Rat

A child jumps to touch lanterns hung on a tree ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations on Jan. 25 in Beijing.
Ng Han Guan
A child jumps to touch lanterns hung on a tree ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations on Jan. 25 in Beijing.

Updated Friday 10:30 a.m.

In ancient times, a beast swept through a village eating crop, livestock and people on New Year's Eve. A wise old man told the villagers the beast fears red, fire and loud firecracker noises. So, villagers put red lanterns and banners at the entrance of their homes and played with firecrackers to scare the beast away.

"Nian," the beast's name, is also the pronunciation of the word "year" in Chinese.

That's the legend University of Cincinnati Chinese Language Professor Feng Liang has been told about how Chinese New Year got its start. The celebration is more than 4,000 years old.

Chinese and East Asian communities throughout the world and in Cincinnati are gearing up to celebrate their New Year on Saturday. The longest Chinese celebration of the year lasts 15 days.

On the last day, people enjoy sweet dumplings. The Lantern Festival, or Yuan Xiao, marks the end of the New Year celebration.

Each year is the celebration of a different animal associated with the Chinese zodiac signs, which is meant to embody the characteristics of people born that year. 2020 is the year of the rat. People born in the 12-year interval are supposed to be optimistic, likable and stingy with money.

Liang moved to the U.S. in 2012 from South China near Hong Kong. He says while growing up, his family would eat reunion dinner - a meal spent with family and friends - and his immediate family would go visit friends afterwards. Children receive red envelopes of money from older generations and married couples to send luck and best wishes. In most families, children stop receiving envelopes when they get married or when your family considers you an adult.

Liang says if he was in China, he would be doing the gift-giving since he's married. But instead, he plans to feast on reunion dinner with his friends in Cincinnati.

Fish and chicken are typically the main course at Liang's dinner. Fish represents a surplus of money, luck and other good things in his culture. He says he doesn't have a specific dish he likes but he enjoys the atmosphere.

William Mason High School Senior Judi Hu also says the communal atmosphere of the holiday is special - along with the dumplings.

This year she will be dancing and playing the drums at the Greater Cincinnati Chinese School's celebration on Jan. 26 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Lakota East freshman campus. She says playing the drums and the dance movements are masculine, which shows a different side to the performers.

"This is the first time that us group of girls who are dancing are going to play the drums," she says. "I think that is really special because it's very powerful. It also shows the different side. Because a lot of times when we dance its very feminine and graceful. However, this is a new side that we're bringing out."

The Chinese New Year Gala highlights the community's language and culture. The school encourages the Greater Cincinnati region to attend its event to learn about Chinese heritage through presentations on language and Kung Fu, as well as art forms and food.  

"The sharing of culture - which of course means food - is a way of really removing barriers or preconceived notions about any particular community or culture," Greater Cincinnati Chinese School Director of Public Relations Grace Yek says."It makes things very comfortable when you sit around the same table."

Watching the New Year celebration on Chinese TV and seeing dancers perform at celebrations are Hu's earliest memories of the holiday.

This will be Hu's last celebration at home before she heads to college next year. As she reflects, she says as a kid, the holiday was all about fun. "Chinese New Year for me mainly meant fun," she says. " 'Cause we would go to these celebrations and I could see these performances." 

Now it has a deeper meaning.

"You get to spend time with your family and appreciate the moment you share with them," she says. "You also get to interact with other Chinese people in the community."

Hu says she is hoping to find a similar bond with Chinese community members when she moves.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit .

Ambriehl Crutchfield
Ambriehl is a general assignment reporter with interest in education and communities. She works to amplify underrepresented voices and advance daily news stories. She comes to WVXU with previous reporting experience at NPR member stations WBEZ in Chicago and WKYU in Bowling Green, Ky.