Greetings Avocadoians! Welcome to AVOCADO-AAC Season 2. For those who are new(-ish) to the community, this was a series I used to run in the disqus chanel days for a brief period of time. I wrote about random topics that have something to do with China and US and Chinese in the US and all that jazz. My original intention had a lot to do with politics. I don’t plan to change that this time, but for the moment, I’ll try to steer away from too much negativity. I have been kind of distressed about recent events, and I would like to distract myself by working on something I enjoy. And, I picked today because, well, you guessed it, it’s the Chinese New Year today!
Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year, Spring Festival, among others in Chinese, is the biggest holiday in China, and in many Asian countries as well. It is a day for family members to get together for a feast, and celebrate the arrival of a “new year” in the lunar calendar. Basically, it is like New Year, Thanksgiving and Christmas all rolled into one.
Something so significant naturally has a huge impact on the entire society, and I would like to share some small trivia about this phenomenon in China. Here we go:
- As part of the celebration, there will be plenty of fireworks and firecrackers. The old tales of firecrackers were kind of strange. One of the versions go like this: in ancient China, “Year” is a monster that comes out at the end of every year to terrorize the village people. Therefore, people use loud noises to scare the monster away and to warn the neighborhoods: and that’s where firecrackers came from.
Eventually though, the loud noises and the sulfur smells become a huge pollution problem that many cities started to ban them during the holidays in late 90s. But in rural areas, the enforcement is rather lax, so those loud noises and sulfur smells are one of the first memories that jumped out in my mind when I think about the festival.
- China is a weird country that sometimes feels like a chimera of contradictions. When it comes to celebrating new year, the tradition of “going home” is thousands of years strong – even though the younger generation might be not as serious, the overwhelming majority of the population literally moves mountains and seas to get back home to be with the family for this day.
This results in one special phenomenon in China, called “Spring Migration”, referring to the mass migration of population for about two weeks around the new year every year. Millions of people travel from the places they work to the place they come from to be with the family, and once the vacation is over travel back. We are like migrating herds on an African safari, only that we do everything in a fortnight – most importantly though, the vast majority of the migration is by trains.
You see, China is huge, both in population and in square feet, which makes railway the most practical and efficient method for such a scale of transportation. As the entire country basically goes on the week long vacation at roughly the same time, buying tickets used to be such a hassle that it involves overnight camping at ticket booths and outwitting scalpers, both of which I have personally done. The new internet era makes things a lot easier, but the sheer amount of requests turns the whole thing into a non-malicious DDOS attack on the online ticket sales system, which failed miserably when it was first launched. Remarkably though, it was fixed very promptly in a couple days and have been running successfully for years now.
Due to the importance of trains in China, the government used to have a dedicated Ministry of Railways until 2013 when it was merged into the Ministry of Transportation. Regardless of how corrupted it might have been, the speed and quality of the railways in China have seen such a dramatic improvement it is honestly impressive. During my college years, I once spent over 40 hours sitting on a train home from Beijing; the same trip takes less than 8 hours now. It has proven to be even more reliable than planes in the summer days when there are constant lightning storms.
- It is going to be the year of dog after tonight. One thing that foreigners sometimes don’t realize is that Chinese Zodiac only changes after the Lunar New Year; so “2018 is the year of dog” isn’t quite accurate. Of course, it is just a tradition slash superstition that is not unlike the western horoscope, so no need to take any of this seriously. That being said, the system does have a social impact in certain degrees. For instance, lots of parents prefer to have kids of dragons and tigers; some older people have strong opinions on one sign shouldn’t marry another; the one I remembered the best in recent years is that: because sometimes the New Year comes after the spring solstice, that specific sign would be considered “a bad year for marriage” because it has “no spring”, which is of course often associated with fertility and so on. Honestly, I admire the amount of logic my people put behind superstitions.
- Because China is so big and has so many people, the traditions vary vastly from one place to another, sometimes even just in neighboring villages. For instance, northern Chinese consider dumplings a must-have New Year’s Eve food; in my hometown though, people must have noodles the morning of the 1st day, as the long noodles represent longevity and prosperity. Below are some other more interesting traditions that is specific to my hometown (a small southern city by the Pacific).
As the legend goes, in the late Ming Dynasty (1500-1600s), the southern coast of China was frequently harassed by Japanese pirates. One year, a brutal attack happened on the New Year. Lots of people were killed; so the next morning, “January 2nd”, the survivors were all mourning and dealing with the aftermath. That is why, it is considered (by older generations) very offensive to visit non-family members on the 2nd day of the new year, as it implies that you are checking “if anyone has died”. For the same reason, people in my hometown would do a different celebration on the 4th day, to “do it proper”.
Another thing that I have very fond memories of back home is the Lantern Festival. In the rest of China, the country celebrates the Lantern Festival on the 15th day, symbolizing the end of the holiday season. But in my hometown, from the 7th to 28th of the first month, everyday is a Lantern Festival for several villages in the area. When I was in high school, a bunch of us will be taking turns inviting others to our own village to watch the parade and light fireworks and eat lots of gourmet food; and then next day we go to a different one. It was fun times.
In a country/culture like mine, traditions run deep, but the Chinese people are definitely inquisitive… This was something I literally just saw as I was writing this piece. The story came from a friend of friend’s social media. She went home to spend the holidays with her grandparents in their 90s, both living in a house that’s literally hundreds of years old – which, by the way, does not mean rich or mansion in China.
The grandma took out two figures and ask the granddaughter to put them on the door. You see, one of the Chinese tradition is to put some Chinese gods’ pictures on the door as guardians of the household. The granddaughter told the grandma that “these are what the foreigners used for their new year”. The grandma replied that she knew, and she likes “the look of them better”. Later the grandpa came by, saw the result, and commented: “Hey, this foreigner looks very welcoming!”
Well, this is the result:
So, in conclusion, a sincere 新春快乐 to all of you half-fruit-half-vegetable people! I also knew that there are quite a few people here from different places/countries that also celebrate this holiday, and I would love to learn about the traditions as well. One day this might even be a thing in the US too. (California is already doing something like this I think.)
PS: to the mods – for tagging purposes, please feel free to put it in proper categories that you see fit. I don’t want to force a schedule on myself this time, but I would like to keep this going for another 8-10 articles at least. I’m also thinking about trying a different format for future posts, so stay tuned!