Sunday, February 18, 2007

Guide to Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year everybody! 新年快乐!

For the first time in a long time, I’ve been given the chance to experience Chinese New Year (cny) while being in China. The last time was when I was 5 years old. Even though, I have never really celebrated cny within in my own family, cny is such a big part of Chinese tradition that I needed to experience it first hand (rather than hanging out drinking in nyc).

In Western terms, CNY could be described as an elaborate combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Forth of July all in one. For a brief background, Danwei (an awesome blog) has good description here:

Lets examine the various CNY customs and traditions one by one, with side notes about how people do things in other regions of China.

1. The New Year's Eve dinner.
My extended family had our family dinner last night at a cozy Northeastern restaurant. A total of 23 people were on hand, spanning 4 different generations. I have a lot of extended family in Shenzhen, full of 2nd aunts, uncles and 2nd cousins. It was quite a sight. It was the first time i'd seen many of my family members. We had 2 big tables, set up in our private room with the seating arranged by generation. The elders (my mom's parents) were at the head of the main table. They are seated at the "head" of the round table (usually reserved for the most "respected"). Around them was the generation of my mom. That's where all of my aunts and uncles were. The next generation down (me and my cousins) had our own "kid" table.

For the dinner itself, the food was good and so was the 2 bottles of MaoTai rice wine (aged 50 years). However, most families spend a lot more time eating and drinking than mine. It's tradition for everyone at the dinner to be fairly sloshed and tipsy before leaving. The thing is, my extended family seem to all have 2 things, diabetes and the inability to drink that much alcohol. Needless to day, the dinner only lasted about 1 hour and a half.

For the post-dinner activities, I expected there to be a nice family party of sorts and maybe even Cranium... (something you would expect from a western family). I was surprised to find that after the dinner, everyone returned home to watch the 春节晚会 (chunjiewanhui). There was no festive party. There was just sitting on the couch. At home. Watching tv.

How other Chinese do it:
The most "traditional" part of the New Year's Eve dinner in the north is dumplings. Families very seldom go out to eat for this meal. They usually get together at one member of the family's house and make dumplings by hand. It is very much a bonding experience to make the little things. Making dumplings and majong are definitely the most popular or Chinese activities during CNY.

It is also customary to eat dumplings at the stroke of midnight.

2. 红包

Part of CNY tradition is the giving of the 红包 (hongbao), or red bag. These little red envelopes are filled with cash and are given as a present to people. Last night during our family dinner, there was very little红包 giving. A couple of my 30 year old cousins gave them to their parents. Also, the “head” of our family (the aunt with the most money) gave 2 away to the children without jobs yet (my “2nd” niece who is 2 years old, and my 2nd cousin who is still in college).

There are different sayings of the 红包. In the north, you are usually obliged to give 红包’s away if you are working. If you are not, you don't need to. The people who have a job usually give them to members of their family, who are younger, don't have jobs or people who serve them (like the building doorman, postman, ect). There is usually no exchange of 红包s where person A gives one to person B and person B then gives one to person A (since that would just not make that much sense to trade money back and forth).

Some people, who are already grown up and have jobs often give红包s to their parents. This is less of a tradition but more of a way to show your appreciation for parents.

In Shenzhen, or Guandong province, the test is with marriage. If you are married, then you have to give the 红包 out. If you are not married, you don't have to bother. The money inside are to be new, crisp bills (there are huge lines at banks to get wads of cash in every denomination). The amount of money is based on the person. If you have tons of money, you had better give at least a few hundred. If your poor, 5 or 10 yuan might do it. It really depends.

I still don't know when the 红包s are given. We’ll see if I have to make any edits to these rules in the next few days, but for now, I still haven’t received any红包yet.

3. The 春节晚会

The 春节晚会 is a 4.5 hour showcase extravaganza, held by the Chinese Government annually. It starts at 8pm and lasts all the way until 12:30am. It has become a tradition within itself. There are 3 teams of hosts (who change wardrobe atleast 4x each), tons of different performances by ethnic groups, small comedic skits called 小品, not to mention classical favorite songs that are sung over and over every single year. I even recognized a song that was performed last night that I knew when I was in preschool! That's like 20 years ago.

My experience with the 春节晚会 is limited to my parents. My parents would always get tapes of the 春节晚会 a few days afterwards the event from random friends. While I never saw them watch it, it seemed like everyone did watch it at some point. What was also apparent was that people love . These skits are decently well and its actors utilize the humor of north eastern regional accents and vocabulary (where my family is from).

Instead of heading to a bar for massive amounts of drinking (like your typical NYC new years eve celebration), I spent last night with a few of my cousins drinking Jack Daniels, playing cards and watching the春节晚会. They really did seem to enjoy it and said it is definitely a tradition for CNY. Even though the performances have been “sucking” recently, they still enjoyed staying in that night and watching nonetheless.

How Other Chinese do it.

The春节晚会 seem to be very much a northern China thing. Although I’m sure that people in Guangdong province do watch it, they have their own tradition down here. After dinner with the family, many people go out to the “flower street” to hang out. These streets feel like a street fair. There are a lot of vendors for different flower arrangements, red CNY decorations as well as toys for kids, food and other random stuff. These streets, that pop up all over the city before CNY are usually PACKED for the hours before midnight on new years eve.

In various southern regions of china, a lot of people believe in Chinese vernacular religions. It is a tradition to go to the monasteries to pray at the strike of midnight. My cousin, Simon, was stuck in traffic for 5 hours when he went last night. It is his yearly tradition to pray immediately after midnight, and then hit the bars. Some people travel to far away temples that are considered “a higher level” to pray after midnight for good fortune and luck in the new year.

4. Fireworks

Fireworks was originally invented in China and it is a huge part of the CNY celebrations. In Chinese folklore, the new year was personified as a ghost-like bad spirit. Fireworks are set off to scare him off and any bad luck for the upcoming year. As my cousin said last night: “I don't feel like it’s the new year until I hear fireworks.”

This year, many cities eased their decade-old ban on fireworks. In Shenzhen, however, there is still a ban on it. However, Chinese revelers still ignore the rules and set off their own fireworks. I currently hear bangs and crackles in the distance as I write this. The use of fireworks, however, can cause a lot of injuries. Here’s a CNN article about CNY injuries in Beijing:

In rural areas, fireworks are a huge part of the celebration.

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