Spring Festival (春节)in China usually lasts for 15 days, starting on the first day of the lunar year and ending with the Lantern Festival. The holiday is supposed to welcome a new beginning and drive off any inauspiciousness of the previous year—but while Spring Festival traditionally embodied many rituals, today, most people see the holiday as little more than a few days off from work or school to dine with their extended family members.
Traditions such as setting off fireworks, which are said to bring good fortune in the new year, or sweeping one's room and purchasing a new outfit to be saved until the new year, are all falling by the wayside as the country's economy develops and people prosper. Setting off fireworks within city limits has as of a few years ago been banned; sweeping one's room, once symbolizing ridding dust and stains from the previous year, as well as reserving a new outfit especially for the new year, are seen by modern city people as archaic, ridiculous even, for this day and age. Long ago, new clothing was a luxury people would have to save for—and when they wore the new outfit, it was additional jubilation and joy during the festivities. But today, since people can purchase new clothes any time they can spare the money, it would be slightly embarrassing to tout one's new year outfit.
Prosperity has taken its toll on tradition, no doubt, to the extent that some families choose to forego even the ritual of preparing a dinner at home and instead eat out at a lavish restaurant.
But it's not all simply a matter of rejecting the old to usher in the new. Students and young professionals are traveling farther and farther from their hometowns to enroll in university or take jobs; for these people, sometimes returning home is simply impractical. Many of these technology-savvy youth instead "reunite" with their families by phone, e-mail, or video chat.
The lion dance (舞狮) dates back over 1,000 years. Sharp distinctions are made between the dance of the lion—which generally requires two dancers—and the dragon dance, which can utilize far more people to control the many sections of the dragon's long body. Within lion dances, as well, there are two styles: the more realistically styled northern lion and the more colorful and ornate southern lion. In addition to costume-styling differences, the method of dancing also varies between the two regions.
Though they might make it look simple, the dancers are highly trained performers, most with roots in gongfu. While performing they follow particular choreographed forms that are based on martial-arts stances. Additionally, the costumes are quite heavy—with the heads alone weighing up to 15 kilograms—and the performers must be able to jump forward and backward from a standstill, sometimes the height of their own body.
Dancing to the beat of a drum, gong, and cymbal, the lion chases vegetables, hidden in which are hongbao—red envelopes with money inside.
While the dance nowadays is performed mostly for the delight of spectators or as a competition, it was originally believed that the lion would chase away the evil spirit Nian—who feared only lions and the color red. While immigrants in the world's Chinatowns have preserved the lion-dance ritual, as a new era rushes into the motherland, this tradition is also becoming an increasingly rare sight in the China's cities.
Chinese Lantern Festival
The Chinese Lantern Festival (上元节) is on the 15th and final day of the Spring Festival, giving closure to the new-year celebrations. Thus, it's celebrated as a complete reunion with all family members. The holiday is also called "Yuanxiao Jie"(元宵节) since the main activities are watching lanterns and eating "tangyuan," also referred to as "yuanxiao"(元宵) —sesame-filled glutinous-rice balls.
One year during the Han Dynasty, on the 15th night of the first moon, an Imperial Palace servant named Yuan Xiao fled the court. Yuan Xiao was renowned for the tangyuan she made in the palace, and so, upon reuniting with her family, she made the dessert for them. Word of her cooking skills spread far and wide, and the locals started to call tangyuan after the young woman—"yuanxiao." Because of her reputation, instead of punishing Yuan Xiao for running away, the emperor declared that on that day, colorful lanterns and other lavish decorations should be hung all over the Imperial Palace and on the streets. Since then, the Lantern Festival has been a special day for family celebration.
In Chinese, "yuan" (圆) signifies reunion and completion, so eating tangyuan (汤圆) indicates that people, especially extended family members, have a tight bond with each other. As time goes by, various activities have been incorporated into Lantern Festival celebrations—for instance, in some parts of the country, you can see lantern shows, stilt-walking, yangko-dancing, or drum-beating.
In Chengdu, there are various sites where you can catch a glimpse of Lantern Festival celebrations, including the Tazishan Park (塔子山公园), Jinli Street (锦里古街)/ Wuhou Temple (武侯祠), the Culture Park (文化公园) and the Qingyang Temple (青羊宫). Away from Chengdu, Zigong's People's Park also hosts a lively celebration each year.
In Chengdu for the new year? Here is what you can do.
This article by Yang Shiyun was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 9.