Timed according to the first new moon of the year, the high-spirited week-long (or two week–long) celebration centers around family gatherings, honoring ancestors, and engaging in traditions that usher in prosperity and good fortune. No matter one’s specific heritage or country of origin, the new year festivities unfailingly involve sharing generous amounts of food and drink.
The Year of the Dragon has long been an especially anticipated lunar year because of the dragon’s symbolism as a powerful and highly auspicious creature. Read on to discover a few connections that six Asian and Asian American colleagues have found between objects in the museum’s collection and their personal memories of celebrating Lunar New Year. Heads up: reading onward will likely make you hungry!
—Nancy Chen, assistant director, Gallery Activation
Vase in the Form of a Bronze Wine Vessel
When I was little, my family always visited large new year markets to buy plum blossom branches and place them in vases to bring good fortune for the upcoming year. This Ming dynasty vase, made to resemble a bronze ritual wine vessel (zun), provides a great example of the dragon’s significance as a symbol of imperial power in China.
It also evokes aspects of new year celebrations in China, when large families gathered for decadent meals across week-long festivities, bringing out the best wine of the house to share. (On these occasions, you never fail to spot your drunk uncles.) At the same time, the wine would be presented in small cups at family graves or shrines to honor our ancestors.
—Alice Xie, McMullan Arts Leadership Intern, Arts of Asia
Stove, Eastern Han dynasty
During the Han dynasty, tombs often contained miniature versions of everyday objects. This tiny earthenware stove always captures my attention in the gallery. Just like its real-life counterpart, it has a fire door, a chimney, and two holes on top, tightly fitted with cooking pots. Look closer and you will see the molded motifs of kitchen utensils and various dishes, including fish, stew, and skewers.
As part of an ensemble of objects in a Han dynasty tomb, it was intended to make sure that the tomb’s occupant had all the comforts necessary for the afterlife. For me, this stove underscores the importance of food in all aspects of Chinese culture. In my family, cooking and feasting always take center stage during festivals and special occasions as a means of conveying love and care, bestowing good wishes, and bringing people together. Dumplings are an essential dish on our new year menu. My grandma would tuck a coin inside one or two dumplings as she filled them; whoever found it would be destined for a year of prosperity.
—Sizhao Yi, Rhoades Foundation Curatorial Intern, Arts of Asia
Waters above the Firmament
Not currently on view
In this piece, the weaver Lenore Tawney drew on biblical and mystical descriptions of the heavens—the firmament—being created to separate the waters above it from the waters below it. The blue-painted strips of paper in this weaving outline the dome of the sky. A circle seems to float airily inside the tapestry’s earthy linen square, thanks to negative space left between slits of the weave. Tawney’s celestial subject and geometric shapes remind me of a Vietnamese lunar new year legend in which a prince shaped simple rice cakes into a square, representing the earth, and a circle, representing the sky.
He offered them to his ancestors in order to honor them with everything on the earth and under the heavens. Square bánh chưng—made with rice, mung bean, and pork wrapped in banana leaves—are always found on my family’s dining table and offered to ancestors on altars during lunar new year. I love both the food and its story of respectful simplicity. Tawney’s tapestry weaves together our traditions, reminding me of the earth and sky we share.
—Arianne Nguyen, McMullan Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow, Interpretation
Lotus root is among the foods symbolizing good fortune and eaten to mark abundance for the new year. The cluster of seeds that anchor Adler and Sullivan’s star-pod fragment has always reminded me of eating lotus root.
Unremarkable in color and mild in taste, the root’s texture is the appeal: a firm, satisfying crunch. Most often lotus root would be floating in a pork soup at home or stir-fried if my family went out to eat, but sometimes in the winter I would find it candied in a tray with other sweets.
Louis Sullivan designed florid embellishments in his architecture, part of a system of ornament that connected organic growth with nature and creativity. In nature, one can see something essential and vital, a promise of things to come.
—Craig Lee, assistant curator, Architecture and Design
Bencharong (Five-Colored) Ware
If colors could be tasted, what would they taste like? That was my first thought when I saw this fascinating plate. Its vibrant colors both please my eye and call to my taste buds. I imagined that it would taste like kueh, a type of sweet cake made of glutinous rice flour that is unique to Southeast Asian cuisine and popular during festive occasions.
Kueh is chewy and pillowy in texture, not overwhelmingly sweet, and has a coconuty aroma. Layered kuehs have different shades of red, yellow, green, and blue, exactly the color palette seen on this bencharong ware. In Singapore, where I grew up, there are many kinds of kueh made by people from different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Bencharong wares, the by-product of extensive cross-cultural exchanges during maritime trading, perfectly represent the unique and diverse Lunar New Year traditions that exist today.
—Yilin Yang, curatorial assistant, Arts of Asia
Fish (Still Life) by Édouard Manet
As a child, my only reason for coming to Chicago was to buy groceries with my family in Chinatown. It wasn’t easy to find most ingredients in Illinois at the time. I was always fascinated by the variety of fresh fish, eyes unblinking, arrayed on ice in these stores.
Édouard Manet had a similar appreciation for fresh seafood. When I began studying art history in college, I found myself drawn to his depiction of a good meal in the making. Now, it reminds me of the important tradition of eating fish at the new year, connecting to an auspicious Chinese saying: 年年有余 (may you have abundance year after year). It just so happens that the word for abundance (余 yú) sounds exactly like the word for fish (鱼 yú).
May you have fish every year.
—Yechen Zhao | 赵也尘, assistant curator, Photography and Media
Join our Gallery Program: Year of the Dragon on February 9 at 2:00.