Chinese New Year is something otherworldly. We all know about it, but only enough to associate it with dancing dragons in China Town of our cities. I am no different and it is exactly what I was expecting, even in Beijing. To my surprise, it is way more than that and actually quite amusing in so many ways.
Let me start with the fact that everything in China operates based on the lunar calendar. They still use our Gregorian calendar too, so to me it seems a little daunting having to figure out what is when and which calendar applies when. Many national, traditional holidays, academic year, financial year etc are based on lunar calendar. Therefore, we had an extremely long first semester this year, 19 weeks long to be exact solely because Chinese New Year happened to be really late this year. It is a year of the sheep and those animals in all shapes and forms live, fluffy or on a sticker were everywhere along with other traditional decorations such as red lanterns, Spring festival couplets called “Chun Lian” (春联).
Like I mentioned in my previous post, the month surrounding the Chinese New Year is claimed to be the largest human migration in the world, with a number of people ‘on the move’ during this period being in excess of 300 million. That is a lot of people!! China has a problem with concentration of jobs in particular regions, which leaves many born in rural especially western part of China jobless and poor. Farming is often not enough to sustain a comfortable life and these people move away in search of jobs, often thousands of kilometres away given the sheer size of this country. Not only do these migrants leave their frail parents behind, but more often than not their school age children.
Wages in China are ridiculously low and taken into consideration that uneducated migrants mostly end up as labourers, waiters and street vendors, it is no surprise that majority of these Chinese people can only go back home once a year. Rarely do these people are able to save up for more than one trip to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families and the cost of celebrations is burdensome even to those better off. Gifting is expected and almost mandatory from what I have learnt and mostly in a form of cash in a red envelope called “Hong Bao” or lucky money. The older ones are expected to give it to the younger ones, and those in the middle like the older children in the family have to gift both ways making it quite an expensive family reunion! Thankfully, they also have a bonus culture where you generally receive a bonus equivalent of your monthly wage in the run up to the Spring Festival as they call it, or a Chinese New Year. Despite the hardship, in the run up to it and during the Chinese New Year you can sense the happiness in the air. Although it holds no meaning to me, I somehow felt festive during this period. These people put up with hard work, loneliness and poverty, but it is all worth it for those one or two weeks they get to spend with their loved ones.
So you can imagine that in a city of 23 million people, hardly half of them are born and bred Beijingers. Chinese New Year fell on 19th February this year and the city started emptying out in early days of the month. My local high street always bustling with students, street vendors, many little eateries, markets buzzing tuk tuks and honking cars, was slowing down what eventually became a complete shut down. Less than a week before the actual New Year the streets surrounding the campus were empty, shops locked up and people were completely absent. To add to strangeness, continuous noise of fireworks made it a little airy and war like.
We ventured out into central Beijing on New Years Even and it was magical. In a simplest way. There were hardly any people or cars, and Beijing is famous for its unbearable traffic jams. But for that reason, that it was a whole new experience of Beijing and we had a wonderful day out wandering around the streets and Hutongs wishing passers by a Happy New Year. Even if there weren’t too many people around, those we saw were filled with joy. After all, Chinese New Year Even can be compared to our Christmas when you spend the day with your family.
Come midnight, fireworks continued. They didn’t stop for a week or so already. However at midnight, it was a real treat and although their fireworks are all noise and little display, I couldn’t help but feel as if it was a New Year again. You could sense the atmosphere.
First New Years Day was a completely different story in town. Streets and Hutongs of Beijing were buzzing with life and I’ve never seen such crowds in KFC or McDonald’s. It’s a treat here, not a bite. As one of the traditions Beijingers ,and I assume Chinese across the country, go to temple fairs and make all kinds of wishes, burn some sort of sticks and so did we. I’m not a religious person and nor are Chinese, yet still these Temples were filled with crowds. Red colour was all around. You could write wishes on red wishing wells, or purchase wooden tiles of sorts based on your wish and write your name or that of other for whom you wish well. It was an experience, and I have made a little video below that you can see for yourself.
Following that, we also visited a Chaoyang Park Fair, which was less traditional and more like your typical fun fair that you’d have in the summer. Only, that it was cold and it started snowing as soon as we got there. So family dinner is something they do on New Years Eve and venture out and about on the first day of the Chinese New Year.
I am glad that I decided to stay in Beijing for the Chinese New Year as many fled, but it allowed me to experience Beijing for what it is at the most important time of a calendar. Empty subways were a treat too and you could hear the Beijing dialect more present during this period. Even though my birthday fell on the week of the Chinese New Year, it didn’t stop me from having a bloody good time.
China is a country of such contrasts indescribable to those who haven’t experienced it. I am still learning. Everyday brings a new experience some of which are good and others are irritating, but I accept it as a challenging experience and I’m sure I’ll come out a better person with it. So pardon my occasional rants, I am not moody, I’m just learning.
Here’s a short video of my visit to Dongyue Temple in Beijing.