China's Lunar New Year traditions offer lessons in personal finance

Amid the weak loonie, low oil prices and high food costs, Asian-Canadians aren't the only ones hoping for a prosperous Year of the Monkey on Feb. 8. Chinese-Canadian businessman Irwin Li explains the meaning behind some Lunar New Year traditions and how they can apply to your personal finances.

Many Asian-Canadians employ traditional practices to try to ensure a prosperous Year of the Monkey

Golden piggy banks are displayed in Binzhou, China. The Lunar New Year is a time to look forward with hope for prosperity. (ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

Across the country, many Canadians of Asian heritage are getting ready to ring in the Year of the Monkey on Feb. 8.

Year of the Monkey

According to the Great Race legend, the monkey came in ninth place in a race against 12 other animals, thus constituting the ninth year in the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle. Those born during the Year of the Monkey are said to possess characteristics like curiosity, cleverness and a penchant for mischief. Canadians born in the Year of the Monkey include actor Ryan Gosling (1980), singer CélineDion (1968) and newspaper publisher Conrad Black (1944).

Lunar New Year celebrations mark the end of the lunar calendar, which, unlike the Western calendar that stems from the Earth's rotation around the sun, follows the moon's orbit of Earth. 

"Ancient China was very agriculture-oriented," says Irwin Li, president of the Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs. "They would use the moon to know when to plant seeds, go collect crops and rest the field."

Because China's territory once extended into other parts of Asia, Li says, countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore also celebrate the holiday.

Many Asian-Canadians employ a long list of practices to try to ensure a prosperous and bountiful Lunar New Year, each steeped in tradition.

But with the struggling loonielow price of oil and rising food costs, they won't be the only Canadians hoping for some luck — or fu, in Chinese — in the coming year.

Li breaks down the meaning behind some Lunar New Year practices, and explains how they can help you apply the fu to your personal finances.

Red envelopes

Then Liberal leader Justin Trudeau hands out lucky red envelopes to celebrate the Lunar New Year during a meet and greet with the Chinese Freemasons at the Pink Pearl Chinese Restaurant in Vancouver on Jan. 31, 2014. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

During Lunar New Year, children and unmarried adults can look forward to receiving lucky red envelopes. Li says the envelopes are given by married people in order to pass on wealth to those who "need it most."

"In China, we have a saying," says Li. "You get successful first. Then you get married."

The envelopes, which typically contain $5 to $20 each, are meant to set a financial foundation for the recipients in order for them to become successful.

"It teaches children how to save money," he says, helping them learn the virtue of building capital and investing.

"Children are often encouraged to deposit the money, which is used later for things like tuition for university," he says. "Some Western children are not taught the same sense of money management."

Li says the concept of good investing extends to the workplace, where red envelopes are sometimes given by employers around the Lunar New Year to recognize good work and as bonuses for their workers.

Money trees

A woman walks past a table with decorations made using replica euro and U.S. dollar notes called money trees, for sale on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Kham/Reuters)

Money trees are plants, sometimes extravagant ornamental replicas or a simple potted Guiana chestnut tree, often given as gifts to family and business associates.

"They symbolize growing money and prosperity," says Li.

By giving someone a money tree, you are essentially wishing them good fortune.

"A gesture of good will," Li says.

The gift of a money tree is seen as a way to express a positive collaborative attitude and solidify a good relationship with business associates, and emphasizes the importance of teamwork and working together toward financial success.


Children play with firecrackers in an alleyway in Beijing. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Fireworks and firecrackers are mainly used today to help children enjoy the atmosphere of the holidays and as a form of entertainment, but Li says the tradition had a different meaning when it was first practised back in 12th century China.

"Fireworks were used as a way to scare away evil spirits," he says. Without the evil spirits, you should be able to avoid bad luck for the rest of the year.

Li draws a parallel to business and personal finance, saying bad influences can be like evil spirits.

People should try to expunge "not just bad investments, but bad influences, bad people, and bad environments in business," he says.

Festive meals

A villager in Nanjing, China, prepares for a feast during a Lunar New Year ceremony. (China Photos/Getty Images)

Much like Christmas or Thanksgiving for Westerners, Li says, the Lunar New Year is a time for families to get together and enjoy a feast.

Usually, he says, the wife visits the husband's side of the family first, followed by a visit to the wife's side of the family. Then they visit members of the extended family, like cousins.

"Feasts can go on for seven to 10 days," says Li, adding that dinners can include up to eight courses. "People prepare one week to 10 days in advance. There's lots and lots of food."

The Lunar New Year marks the end of China's farming season according to the lunar calendar, which traditionally gave families a chance to get together and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

"People save and work the whole year so they can celebrate and enjoy the best food on New Year's," he says.

Along with serving as a reminder to enjoy yourself after a year of hard work, the feasts reinforce the importance and fortitude of family.

"China is a very family-oriented culture," says Li. "Whenever someone needs help, you can always rely on your family."

About the Author

Justin Li

Senior News Writer

Justin Li is a senior news writer. Prior to joining CBC News, he worked for the Toronto Star and wrote for various magazines in Toronto, where he's always lived.


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