Chinese New Year in China
by David Wei
If you've ever been to Chinatown for the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, you know how crazy it can get. It's a complete sensory overload. There are colorful lion dances, loud drums, big red lanterns, little red envelopes, tons of food and pastries, and an endless barrage of exploding firecrackers. It's insane. But as crazy as it gets in the US, it's nothing like China. The people of the Middle Kingdom take this time of year very seriously, and this New Year is especially important. We're entering the Year of the Rat, which marks the beginning of a brand new zodiac cycle, making this year's celebration extra festive.
While there may be similarities between the two, a New Year's celebration held in China is nothing like the America version. There are no parades or festivals like you see on television; there are no fancy floats, no lion dances, no colorful costumes, and no kung fu demonstrations. In the US, the celebration typically lasts for only a day, but in the Middle Kingdom, the Chinese rock out for at least a week. It's that serious.
Here in China, the first warning of the approaching the New Year is the decorations. Everything is red. There are huge red banners and flags hanging from every shop and vendor stand. All the pillars and poles are strung with beautiful red lanterns accented with flowing, golden tassels. Nearly every doorway is outlined with golden print calligraphy on long red paper inviting good fortune and prosperity. Gargantuan balloon arches with flying dragons span walkways and streets. Huge, oversized posters are plastered all over the walls depicting classical folk deities, beautiful scenery, famous war heroes on horseback, a handsome Chairman Mao, or fat, happy, half-naked babies playing with golden money and giant immortal peaches. All the decorations are over the top and border line ridiculous and yet are so fun to look at. It's awesome.
The next indication that the New Year has arrived is the food, and for this holiday the Chinese go all out. Delicacies vary from place to place, but pretty much every edible animal has been chopped up, stewed, braised, fried, or dried, leaving nothing to waste. The Chinese will eat anything with a shadow, so some of the dishes served are pretty funky. There are duck tongues, duck brains, chicken butt, chicken feet, cow intestines, cow tail, pig ears, pig blood, fermented eggs, fermented tofu, even dog meat?that's right, dog meat. Certainly no fun for vegetarians, but the locals here in China love it.
There's plenty to eat besides meat, such as pastries, sweets, seeds, and fruits. Representing baked goods are the basic cakes, cookies, breads, and buns, but they have funky stuff, too, like cupcakes with pork hash and fish frosting. Yummy. As for sweets, there's a wide variety of candies and dried fruit preserves; gummy candies, hard candies, and sour candies tend to be the favorites among the children, whereas the older folk gravitate towards the dried fruits, nuts, and seeds. Apples, pears, and citrus fruits like tangerines and pomelos are especially popular this time of year and are readily available on any given street corner.
The staple New Year food, however, would have to be dumplings. Whether stuffed with sesame, sugar, meat, or vegetables, dumplings symbolize bags of good fortune, and no New Year's meal is complete without a bountiful serving of fresh dumplings on the table.
With food out of the way, the next comestible would be drink, and for the New Year, most drinks are alcoholic. Western-style red and white wines are slowly gaining popularity, along with western liquors such as whisky, rum, or vodka, but very few Chinese have a taste for these drinks and they are often too expensive for the common folks to enjoy. Beer is also available, but most Chinese find that it's far too cold to drink beer this time of year, anyway. Besides, with an average alcohol content percentage of only 3.1 %, beer is generally frowned upon by the manly men of China. The New Year's drink of choice is either warm huang jiu (yellow wine), or the ever popular bai jiu (white wine).
Most people would probably agree that bai jiu is absolutely disgusting; even the Chinese think so, but they still drink it. You would think that an ancient civilization like China could have its staple alcohol a bit tastier by now, but that's not the case. The closest comparison to bai jiu would have to be fresh nail polish remover or aged turpentine. Just the smell is enough to make you gag. The average brand of bai jiu is at least 40-50% alcohol by volume, but local home brews can be much, much stronger.
For more common celebrations, loud, obnoxious drinking games are very common at the dinner table, but the New Year is more about honor and respect. Men, young and old alike, battle each other for "face" by toasting to anything and everything they can think of. Most toasts come in pairs, and they are often followed by someone else's toast, which is typically paired as well. This inevitably results in an endless cycle of drinking and shouting which only gets progressively louder with each round. Red faces, slurred speech, and stumbling steps are the norm after most special meals, but the New Year is extra special, as is evident from the huge puddles of fresh chicken-noodle puke lining the sidewalks and alleyways. Chinese people love to celebrate with alcohol; perhaps stomach pumps should be made readily available to the populace during the New Year.
A surplus of alcohol is matched by a surplus of tobacco. Rarely do you meet a man in China that doesn't smoke cigarettes, and in the cities, it's growing quite popular among the women as well. Even upon greeting, handing out a cigarette is almost as common as reaching for a handshake. Smoking has definitely found itself a major place in the culture of China, and during this time of year, with the extra drinking that goes on, an extra cigarette or five is sure to follow.
Also heralding the New Year is loud music. The Chinese love loud music, the louder the better. Unfortunately, most Chinese people have no concept of sound equalizers or balanced levels; they just turn the dial up as loud as possible and rock out. Whether it's from personal cell phones, hand-held mega-phones, portable speakers, or a store-front P.A. system, these folks are pumping beats on full blast. The young locals of the Middle Kingdom are particularly fond of hard, fast, industrial-electronic techno beats with high-pitched synthesizers blaring over mind-numbing, repetitive base lines, with an MC mumbling corny American catch phrases to the beat, such as, "Everybody fun time." Either that, or they listen to the exact opposite; the melodic strains of super-cheesy pop love songs, accented periodically by thrashing electric guitar solos. It's really bad.
Perhaps the only thing worse than China's pop music is China's sense of fashion. This is amply demonstrated during the New Year, when everyone traditionally buys stylish new clothes. It's not so bad in the cities, but in the rural areas, the folks get pretty silly with their gear. Tacky black shirts and jackets with cheap 'Chinglish' print, embroidered denim jeans with useless zippers and pockets, and funky metal trinkets and accessories are common favorites. There are also a lot of name brand knock-offs. It's always funny to see someone wearing Nike Puma shoes and a Spiderman Kappa jacket, while toting a Metallica Minnie Mouse bag. If they only knew.
Even moreso than the decor, food, and fun, the most distinguishing mark of Chinese New Year is the fireworks. Symbolically, the loud bangs scare away the old year and welcome in the new. If that's the case, the New Year must feel pretty welcome, because the Chinese folks go crazy with the fireworks. Every corner shop and vendor sells them in all varieties and sizes. There are bottle rockets, roman candles, sparkle sticks, and the familiar rapid-fire red bricks, but you can also get much, much more. Fireworks that would normally be reserved for licensed pyrotechnicians in the US can be purchased by anyone who wants them; cherry bombs, explosive M80's, and huge, colorful, whistling rockets that launch into the sky are all readily available here in China. It's crazy.
What's even crazier is watching people actually set these things off. People stand in the middle of the streets and aim their "Made in China" projectile explosives at lanterns and garbage bins. They aim over houses and hit windows! Midnight and noon, the extreme yin and yang hours of New Year's Day, are the peak times for setting off the fireworks; certainly not a safe time to be roaming around. Police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks are a common sight around midnight and noon. They're likely rushing to extinguish fires and mend injuries from accidental mishaps and drunken blunders
One thing you won't see during the New Year's celebration is a lion dance. You won't see any kung fu, period; no lively exhibitions, no hard qigong demonstrations, nothing. Even all the schools are closed. For many of the students, this is a welcomed break from practice, and even the masters enjoy the time off.
The internet bars are probably among the coolest places to be in China, and around the New Year they are flooded with strong, young, kung fu students either chatting online or playing popular video games like World of Warcraft or Counter-Strike. Most kung fu schools in China are like live-in military academies, with students always on their best behavior while on school grounds, but when a big break like the New Year comes along, they are all in the net bars smoking, spitting, cursing, and yelling.
As for the masters, the New Year is a good time for them to take a break, too. Some masters can be really stuck up, as if they must always present themselves in a high and mighty fashion, so the New Year can provide a rare opportunity for some students to see their master let their guards down. Often, high-level masters are invited to fancy government banquets and elaborate New Year's dinners, and even great masters can't avoid the cultural obligations of accepting a cigarette or taking a toast or two. As a result, some masters may rather tipsy this time of year, and that is always fun to see. Everyone in China gets down for this holiday; not even martial masters can escape the fun of Chinese New Year.
It is plain to see that the Chinese people love to rock out during the New Year, but during New Year's Day the streets almost completely barren. Most of the shops are closed and all the street vendors are gone. And here is the biggest difference between New Year celebrations in America and celebrations in China: in China, no one goes out to a festival or parade because the real party is at home with the family. Here in the Middle Kingdom a strong family bond is the greatest treasure anyone can have. Each new life is started with the entire family present to celebrate, and each old life passes with the entire family present to mourn; in this respect, it goes without saying that the whole family should be together to witness the passing of the old year, and share the coming of the new. This is how the Chinese traditionally celebrate the New Year. Not with big festive floats or outlandish lion dances, but in the home, with the people who matter most?their family.
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About David Wei:
David Wei lives and trains in China.