Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Spring Festical: China's New year at dawn

By Mathew Yakai in Changchun

CHANGCHUN couple, Mr. Liu and Mrs. Wang is planning to visit their family next week in the nearby Liaoyuan city.
The couple works as quality engineers with a French owned motor company in the Jilin’s Capital, Changchun, located at the central part of Songlio Plain.
I teach them English on volunteer basis as part of my appreciation to the Chinese people for their support for my study in China.
During our last English class meeting last week, they excused that they will visit their respective family members during the Spring Festival which commences next week from February 3 to March 14.
This is the celebration to welcome their New Year which falls on February 7.
Today’s Chinese, can not leave this special holiday go bye. Liu and Wang are not exception. Both have not been home for a year and this visit is a must.
They have a three years old son, bought a house, have a family vehicle like any average Chinese and enjoy the growing China.
"But Spring Festival is definitely an occasion to go home. For us, the festival means getting together with the family," Liu said.
Like Liu and Wang, hundreds of millions of Chinese go home or travel with their families during the Spring Festival.
A gigantic holiday is tough on transport systems and the tourism industry.
The country's highways transport two billion people, and its railways transport 156 million, during the 40-day peak travel period around the Spring Festival.
In capital Beijing, train tickets went on sale like hot cakes, and passengers were able to book train tickets 10 days in advance.
According to the Beijing Railway Station, long queues had developed in front of the ticket offices. Most of those waiting inline were migrant workers with heavy bags on their shoulders.
Tickets to Sichuan Province, Chongging Municipality and Jiangxi Province, where a large number of migrant workers in Beijing come from, sold like hot cakes, according to local media.
Many of these workers only get the chance to go home and see their families once a year, during the Spring Festival, the most important holiday for Chinese. But train tickets are difficult to come by, since millions of Chinese are in the same boat.
Liu and Wang will drive home in their little van with their son. Their home city is not far from Changchun.
For others, China’s railways are expected to carry a record 178.6 million passengers during the 40 days, up from 156 million last year, according to China’s Ministry of Railways.
Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, begins on 7th Feb. It is the main Chinese festival of the year and it is not a religious event.
When the Festival is celebrated in China, it is a tradition that overseas Chinese will take to the streets to showcase their long tradition.
In major towns like Honiara will hear the sound of gun powder while the “dragons” take the streets in their splendid red and yellow colors.
The Chinese zodiac follows a twelve year cycle, each of the years being named after an animal. The Chinese believe that people born in a particular year take on the characteristics of the animal associated with that year.
This year is the year of “rat” and according to Chinese believes, those who were born in this year are ambitious, clever and devoted to their family. They are hard working and imaginative, not always sure of themselves and do not always plan for the future. They will always stand for their friends.
Chinese New Year is also a special time to remember members of the family who have died.

In the days coming up to New Year every family buys presents, decorations, food, new clothes and people have their hair cut.

Houses are cleaned from top to bottom. The aim is to sweep out any bad luck from the old year and clear the way for good luck. However, it is bad luck to clean on New Years Day itself.

Doors and windows are often newly painted in red. On New Years Eve decorations made from red and gold paper are hung down the doors to keep in good luck. These are marked with messages of good fortune such as happiness, prosperity and long life.

Everyone comes together for dinner which is a feast. A popular food is ‘jiaozi’ which are dumplings boiled in water. These dumplings are prepared on New Years Eve and served right after midnight with garlic-soy sauce.

A coin is often hidden in one of them. It is thought to be lucky to be the person who finds the coin.

The dumplings are shaped like gold and silver bars in the hope that they will bring good luck and good fortune. It is believed that the spirits of the family’s ancestors are also at the meal and food is prepared for them.

After dinner the family sits up playing card games or board games such as Chinese chess. Every light is supposed to be kept on until midnight when there are fireworks and firecrackers which are meant to scare off evil spirits.

Early on New Years Day children receive lucky red packets called ‘Hong Bao’ containing sweets or money. Chinese children love these. They are usually given them by their parents or grandparents in red envelopes, but it is considered rude to open the envelopes in front of the person who has given it.

Lion dance is popular during the Spring Festival.

Street celebrations often include a traditional lion dance which is thought to bring good luck.

There are usually two dancers. One acts as the head and the other the body. They dance to a drum, cymbals and a gong.

On the head of the lion is a mirror so that evil spirits will be frightened away by their own reflections. As the lion runs along the streets he begins to visit different places.

On his way he meets another person, the ‘Laughing Buddha’ who is dressed in monk’s robes and a mask. He teases the lion with a fan made of banana-leaves which makes the lion jump around.

The lion dancers need to be very fit. As the lion moves from place to place he looks for some green vegetables such as lettuce which are hung above the doors of houses or businesses.

Hidden in the leaves is a red packet of money. The lion eats the lettuce and red packet. He then scatters lettuce leaves to symbolize a fresh start for the New Year and the spreading of good luck.

The celebrations end on the fifteenth day with ‘The Festival of Lanterns’. Everywhere is decorated with lanterns of different sizes and in the streets there is music and dancing.

The making of lanterns in China is a tradition which goes back 500 years. Red lanterns are thought of as lucky.

There are also processions in the streets. These are normally led by a dragon, which is a symbol of good fortune and power. The dragon model always includes the colors red, gold and green.

It is supported by a team of dancers and weaves its way round the streets collecting money from houses.

Dragons are of course legendary animals, but they are important to Chinese people who think of dragons as helpful, friendly creatures.

They are linked to good luck, long life and wisdom. They are nothing like the fierce, fire-breathing Western dragons that carry off princesses and eat people.

Chinese Dragons are associated with storm clouds and life-giving rain.

They have special powers so they can fly in the air, swim in the sea and walk on land. The Dragon has features of other animals such as the horns of a stag, the scales of a fish and the footpads of a tiger.

Dragon dances are performed at New Year to scare away evil spirits.

During the dance the performers hold poles and raise and lower the Dragon. Sometimes one man has a 'Pearl of Wisdom' on a pole and he entices the Dragon to follow him to the beat of a drum, as if searching for wisdom and knowledge.

Dragons used in Dragon dances vary in length from a few meters to up to 100m long.

Longer Dragons are thought to be luckier than shorter ones. The dances can be performed either during the day or night, but at night a blazing torch will be carried to light the way.

Similar to the importance of the Christmas Day for the westerners, the Spring Festival is the most important celebration for Chinese people.

Although the meaning and the methods of celebration of the Spring Festival are changing with the time, the important status of the Spring Festival is incomparable.Chinese Spring Festival has a long history, which is nearly four thousand years old. Initially, the festival had no name or fixed date.

However, people called Spring Festival "the age" according to the revolution period of Jupiter by B.C. 2100.

Before B.C. 1000, people used "the year", which means "Great Harvest" representing the Spring Festival.According to the traditional custom, the Spring Festival lasts from the 23rd day of 12th lunar month to the 15th day of 1st lunar month, and the climax should be the New Year Eve and the first day of first lunar month. People carry out a lot of activities all over China to welcome the Spring Festival.

In the countryside, this kind of preparation starts from the beginning of 12th lunar month.

All the families clean their houses, wash their clothes and bed sheets. Fresh new clothes and sheets commemorate the fresh New Year!

Special New Year purchases are also important parts of upcoming New Year. In the city, they celebrate the New Year with art teams performances, various entertainment parties, and the big parks hold "temple fairs" to provide, recreation, food and art!.There are different traditional customs in different parts of China, but the whole family having reunion dinner together in the New Year Eve is indispensable.

In the South China, the reunion dinner usually has more than ten meals including bean curd and fish, because the pronunciation of these two meals means "wealthy" in Chinese language.

In the North China, most of the reunion meals are dumplings, which are made and eaten by the whole family.They usually stay up late and set off fireworks on New Year's Eve.

By the first day of first lunar month, people are wearing festival dresses and begin to visit or welcome family, friends and loved ones.

They greet each other "Happy New Year" and "Happy Spring Festival" and invite guests to drink tea and chat at their home.There are a plethora of activities during the Spring Festival including opera and movie performances lion dances and temple fairs.

There are also people who prefer to stay at home and watch television. Pasting New Year scrolls and watching festive lanterns are also the traditional movements for the Spring Festival celebration.

Most of the super markets and shops in China have swift to customers demand by selling “mouse toys”.

I bought myself a ‘mouse toy’ because I thought the Chinese New Year and years after will bring good health, successful education and importantly a beautiful wife.

Mr. Liu and Mrs. Wang with their three years old son will join their family next week. They told me that it will cost them a lot of money but it is worth spending because every Chinese look forward to that.

In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, many migrant workers have left for home for this special holiday.

They really deserve the holiday. The Chinese government has made it possible for them, in terms of transport to visit their family members.
And after the holiday, all will head back to big cities and concentrate on building the ever increasing tall buildings popping up everywhere in China.

Chinese in Solomon Islands and rest of the Pacific will welcome their New Year with the usual dragon dances following the beat of the gong.

The celebration will happen all over the world where there is a Chinese community.

Their wishes for the Chinese New Year will mostly to enhance their lives, health, business and prosperity.

As long as they live in our society, their wishes will be ours and the country as a whole because their success in our society will have a ripple effect, whether good or bad.

With that, I wish all Chinese in Solomon Islands xin nein kuai le! (Happy New Year) and gong xi fa cai! (Wishing you prosperity).

Note: “Asia-Pacific Perspective: China +” looks at Chinese society, culture, economy, governance and China’s role within the Asia Pacific region and the world over. It mainly focuses on how SI can learn from China’s experience. The writer is from PNG studying in China.

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