Monday, January 21, 2008

A more modern Chinese New Year

The following is a feature that will appear in the February issue of the Courier, the magazine of the Shanghai Expatriate Association. I really enjoyed speaking to the Shanghai locals about how they celebrate the new year. They recalled childhood memories of spending time with family, the excitement of waking up to new clothes, the superstitions that they followed, and the abundance of special foods during this 15 day festival.

Today, the younger generation doesn't anticipate the holiday the same way in cities. New clothes just aren't as exciting when more people can buy them year round. Not cutting your hair during the first month of the new year to prevent "cutting away" your good fortune seems silly and unnecessary. While I've been told that the rural areas still celebrate in a traditional way, it's possible some traditions could be loss in the cities in the years to come.

Here's my story...

The most significant holiday for the Chinese, the New Year or Spring Festival means getting the year off to a good start by giving thanks with family, asking the gods for good fortune, honoring ancestors, eating special foods, cleaning and decorating the home, and setting off fireworks to ward off evil spirits.

While the core of the holiday lives on, greater financial stability and modern conveniences like grocery stores and restaurants has changed how the Chinese celebrate some traditions in cities like Shanghai.

The dates for the holiday are determined by the lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, varying the holiday from late January to early February. The festival begins on the eve (This year on February 6.) of the lunar New Year Day and ends on the full moon 15 days later. The 15th day of the New Year -- the Lantern Festival -- is celebrated at night with lantern displays and children carrying lanterns in a parade.

New Year’s Eve
“You can compare Chinese New Year’s to Christmas, the most important thing is for the family to get together,” said Shanghai resident Yi Yuan, the director of foreign education department for Shanghai Foreign Services Co., Ltd.

“New Year’s Eve is the most important time. In the morning, we will shop for foods to prepare later, buy fresh flowers for our homes for luck, and decorate our homes with signs that say happiness (le) and luck (fu),” she added.

This year, Yi Yuan’s family will go out for dinner at a restaurant instead of eating at home. Traditionally, the older generation will prepare most of the food for the dinner and we wanted to give my mother-in-law a rest, she said.

After dinner, the family along with millions of others will tune in on their TVs at 8 p.m. to the Spring Festival program from Beijing. The program, started about 10 years ago, features entertainment such as dancing and singing that will go into the wee hours of New Year. The family will chat and eat snacks during this time.

Around midnight, everyone will set off some fireworks to let the bad things out and the good things in, Yi Yuan said. The fireworks could last for a couple hours throughout the city.

One of the most important New Year’s legends involves a beast called Nian, which means year in English. It was said that Nian was so strong and ferocious that his roar could shake the skies and the earth. In cold winters, he would come down to attack the villages if he couldn’t find any prey in the mountains.

Over time, people discovered that Nian was afraid of three things: the color red, flame and sound. Therefore, one winter before Nian was about to come down from the mountains, the villagers put up red colors, lit fires in front of every house and stayed up all night making different sounds. This frightened Nian enough that he never came back. The Chinese have commemorated this victory ever since.

Progress means some changes
The north and south Chinese serve some different traditional foods to celebrate the holiday. In south China, typical dishes are nian gao, sweet steamed glutinous rice pudding and zong zi (glutinous rice wrapped up in reed leaves).

In the north, steamed-wheat bread (man tou) and small meat dumplings are preferred. The tremendous amount of food prepared at this time symbolizes abundance and wealth for the household.

Shanghai resident Haiping Lian, a conservation scientist specializing in bronze at the Shanghai Museum, said the younger generation, such as her 16-year-old daughter, does not follow some of the same new year superstitions.

“One superstition that my mother told me was get up early in the first day of New Year in order to begin the year well. Now I don't request my daughter do it like I did in my childhood,” she said.

Growing up in Guangdong Province, Haiping Lian’s family would prepare all types of cakes, fish, and chicken for New Year’s Eve dinner. Now they buy some of the items at the grocery store. However, the elements remain the same for the dinner, she said.

“A fish is the most important dish for the New Year’s Eve dinner, which represents the hope that you will have enough food and money for the year. Dumplings are also served,” Haiping Lian said.

Another tradition still followed is the grandmother or grandfather giving a small red bag of money (hong bao) to the children after dinner.

“We give the hong bao to the children to wish them peace and good health during the year,” Haiping Lian said.

In the past, children would also receive new clothes during this time. Haiping Lian said she remembers the excitement of waking up with new clothes next to her.

“But now, we can buy new clothes year round. Back then, more Chinese couldn’t buy new clothes,” said Haiping Lian, who does not buy her daughter new clothes specifically for the New Year.

“New Year’s was more exciting back then. In those days, we were much poorer. New Year’s was a time of eating more meat and new clothes,” said Shanghai resident Celia Guo, in her 20s.

Guo, from Jilin Province, doesn’t plan on going back home for the holiday this year for the first time. She plans on visiting her family during another festival later on this year. During the first few days of the new year, the Chinese will visit their family and friends to wish them well.

“It’s getting more difficult to go home because more people are leaving the countryside to study and work. Train tickets are hard to come by,” said Guo, a Mandarin teacher for Ease Mandarin.
Guo will spend New Year’s Eve with her boyfriend’s family this year. Then she plans on visiting friends and bringing them small gifts, she said.

The New Year remains a special time for Guo because she will turn a year older. The Chinese are one year old when they are born and turn a year older with each New Year, she said.

To keep the spirit of New Year’s alive, Yi Yuan said she takes her 12-year-old daughter to Yu Gardens to see the sights and learn the history behind the festival. Old city - with its traditional style buildings, teahouses and gardens - will be festive and busy.

“It’s the ideal place to experience the atmosphere,” Yi Yuan said.


gretchen said...

Very interesting story, Anna! How did you decide who to interview?

Anna said...

Hi Gretchen! I had met a professor from Lehigh University who specializes in Chinese history who travels to Shanghai quite a bit. She referred me to some people (Thanks, Professor Connie Cook!), and Celia is currently my Mandarin tutor. I hadn't planned on including her (since she's currently my tutor), but we started talking about the new year and she had some interesting thoughts about it.

Shruti said...

I liked your article, Anna! I learned a lot from it. I think its always interesting to learn how traditions are changing...its also interesting how we in American sometimes hold on to traditions longer than they do in our home countries, simply cause we do it as our parents remembered it when they left home, you know?