The Lunar New Year, known in China as Spring Festival, or Nian, is for Chinese people the most important traditional festival. At this time of year all trains are packed to capacity as people head home for the holiday. It is a time for family reunions, for friends to get together and for parents and relatives to give children hongbao (red envelopes containing gifts of money). On Spring Festival Eve, antithetical couplets are pasted on doors, red lanterns hung, and the crackle and smell of firecrackers fill the night air.
The word Nian means year, but it originates from the mythical monster Nian who, according to legend, came to terrorize people on the last day of the lunar year. One year it was discovered that Nian had a fear of loud noise and the color red. Everyone pasted red paper couplets and images of the door god on walls and doors, hung red lanterns and set off firecrackers to scare the monster away. That night, no one went to bed in case Nian attacked. This story is the origin of Spring Festival traditions, but as Chinese society becomes more and more commercialized, however,they are gradually being supplanted by new trends.
"After television entered our lives, festive lantern celebrations at Spring Festival in my hometown dwindled.¡± Says Mr. Zhang, ¡°As the elder generation gradually passes away, there are fewer people with lantern making skills. Most young people go to the big cities to make money, and lantern festivities are out of their sphere of activity," says Mr Zhang, who was born in a rural village, and now works for a newspaper in Beijing. "Most Chinese boys like to set off firecrackers, but it is forbidden in many Chinese cities. Spring Festival is becoming ever quieter, and the New Year¡¯s atmosphere is gradually fading."
Zhang is quite right. Many Spring Festival and customs are dying out. Fewer people appreciate the spectacle of dragon and lion dances or folk opera, and even the deep-rooted custom of going home is falling off among younger people. Commercialization has a growing impact, and more people go shopping or traveling during the holiday. Spring Festival is now considered little different from any other public Chinese holiday, inasmuch as it is a good opportunity for business promotion.
Only two decades ago, the Chinese people ate simple food throughout the year, but at Spring Festival would buy lots of what was considered luxury foods, such as meat, eggs and fish, to eat at New Year's dinner. Nowadays, poultry, beef and fish dishes are eaten every day, so there is less enthusiasm for gastronomic indulgence at Spring Festival.
Xu Xinming works for a dot.com company in Beijing and feels obliged to go home every year. Being invited to dinner is a big headache for him. "When I go back for Spring Festival, I am treated in turn by relatives and friends. This is the local custom. It is impossible to refuse an invitation, and I have to eat until I am really full, or my family and friends are offended. That means I drink hard liquor and eat the whole day, moving from one household to another. It's busier and more tiring than working, which defeats the whole purpose."
As Chinese people's living standards improve, holiday eating habits are also changing in some parts of China. In the south, snacks like peanuts and sunflower seeds are offered to visiting guests rather than a formal dinner.
Burdens of Consumption
Giving pocket money to children at Spring Festival is an ongoing Chinese custom. But in southern Chinese provinces like Guangdong, the custom has changed and money is instead given to all unmarried friends and relatives.
Chinese children expect hongbao at Spring Festival, and generally compare their booty. This is a financial liability to some adults, who must not only give money to their own child, but also to nephews, nieces and friends' children. Liu is a retired worker in Beijing living on a small pension. He gets very nervous when Spring Festival comes round, as he has six grandchildren, and finding enough cash to give them all hongbao is a headache.
For the middle-aged this burden is even more onerous, as apart from giving hongbao, they are also expected to present gifts to their bosses in order to keep their job or achieve promotion.
Young Chinese people are even less keen on Spring Festival celebrations. Statistics show that 35 percent of teenagers consider visiting relatives at Spring Festival as an ordeal. Being forced to accompany their parents on visits to distant relatives makes them feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. At the dinner table, they are expected to be well-behaved and wait till the adults begin eating before they do, even if they are starving. On finishing their meal they must sit at the table till their elders stop drinking, eating and chatting. They are generally glad when it's all over.
To Go Home or Not
Mr. Meng, now in his thirties, left his hometown in Yunnan Province at the age of 18 to come to Beijing. For him the trip back home at Spring Festival is a nightmare. "I went back to Yunnan from Beijing for the first time in 1988. I was only 18, and eager to go back home to see my parents. There was a sea of people at the station that I had to squeeze through to get on the train. The carriages were dangerously overcrowded, and I stood for almost two days to Kunming. Coming back to Beijing I had to stand for another two days. I lost 4 kg that holiday and swore it was the last trip I would make at that time of year. That was, of course, an empty threat as I still go home for the Spring Festival every year. Railway conditions have improved a lot since then. The traveling time is shorter, and there are more trains, but they are still uncomfortably crowded."
Developments in the Chinese economy and education have attracted more people to study and work in other provinces, resulting in a rapid increase in the floating population. At Spring Festival they move back and forth, like migrating birds, no matter how great the distance.
Nian is on its way. The 2004 Spring Festival falls on January 22, and to go home or not is the decision that must now be made by the many Chinese living away from home. In all probability they will make the journey, as inconvenience, expense and discomfort will be eclipsed by the joy and pleasure of meeting with family and friends.
Guo Nian - Celebrating the Lunar New Year