Why Mandarin Oranges Are So Popular for Chinese New Year

As Hong Kong strides into a new lunar year, the city fills up with mandarin oranges. Smaller and less round than other varieties of oranges, Citrus reticulata are considered particularly auspicious for Chinese New Year. As they mark the beginning of a new lunar year, families and shopkeepers across Hong Kong buy pots of these oranges for decoration and for luck. But how exactly do these dainty citrus fruits guard against bad luck?

To answer this, one has to dig a little further into history. These mandarin oranges are known in Cantonese as gat1 zi2 (桔子) and they are one of the original varieties of oranges; most other oranges are the result of cross-breeding between mandarins and other citrus fruits like pomelos. Oranges have been cultivated since antiquity in China, and mandarin oranges were a highly valued fruit presented as a tribute by visitors to the imperial court. The Han Dynasty (221–206 BC) even employed a salaried official—a minister of oranges—to present oranges to the royal court.

Oranges continue to be held in high esteem, with associations of regalness, joy and wealth. Mandarin oranges in particular have prominent oil glands that give their thin skin a glossy layer that makes them appear especially glamorous and gold like. But still, why aren’t other varieties of oranges—or orange-hued fruits like papayas—used instead?

As with so much in Chinese culture, it comes down to wordplay. In Cantonese, the pronunciation of gat1 (桔, “mandarin oranges”) is the same as gat1 (吉, “auspiciousness”). Beyond their good looks and storied history, mandarin oranges carry with them the connotation of bringing good luck. When it comes to popular Chinese New Year sayings such as gat1 coeng4 jyu4 ji3 (吉祥如意, “auspicious and everything acts according to one’s will”), daai6 gat1 daai6 lei6 (大吉大利, “very auspicious and smooth”), or gat1 sing1 gou1 ziu3 (吉星高照, “the auspicious star shining high above”), people will sometimes replace the first character with one that denotes an orange. Illustrations of mandarin oranges may even replace the first character on fai chun sheets (fai1 ceon1 揮春), which are decorations pasted on and around doorways during the Chinese New Year period. It’s also traditional for older generations to give mandarin oranges to children, and for families and friends to bring them to each other’s houses when they visit over the holiday.

While mandarin oranges are technically edible, and their dried peels are used to enhance digestion in traditional Chinese medicine, most of the ones you see around Chinese New Year are grown for decoration instead of consumption. It mainly has to do with avoiding pesticide residues on the skin, but it’s also a question of taste: unlike their sweeter relatives such as Citrus unshiu, commonly known as satsuma mandarins (wan1 zau1 mat6 gam1 温州蜜柑, “honey oranges of Wenzhou”), mandarin oranges can taste quite dry and tart. Not all that is auspicious is sweet, apparently.

This article uses the jyutping system to represent Cantonese in the Roman script.

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