Rural Carnival Activities at Spring Festival




By staff reporter ZHANG LI

CHINA’S Spring Festival – a celebration of the lunar New Year – starts on the 23rd day of the 12th month of the agricultural calendar and finishes on the 15th day of the first month. Lunar New Year’s Eve and the first day of the New Year are its climax. China’s grandest and most important holiday, Spring Festival has for millennia been celebrated in diverse ways throughout the country.

Among the various stories about the origins of the Spring Festival the one most commonly accepted tells of how Emperor Shun, legendary leader of ancient China, inaugurated it more than 4,000 years ago on the day he succeeded to the throne and made obeisance to heaven and earth. People have since perceived that occasion as the first day of the New Year, and as how the Chinese lunar New Year came into being.

Winter is the slack season in China, historically an agricultural country. Having labored for a whole year, people take a rest at this time to prepare for the coming year. The coming New Year also signals the approach of spring, when grass and tree leaves start to sprout. The sacrifices that people offer to gods and ancestors are prayers for favorable weather, peace, and bumper harvests, and give Spring Festival its joyful ambience.

Offering sacrifice to the kitchen god on the 23rd of the 12th lunar month is the prologue to Spring Festival celebrations.

Folklore tells of the kitchen god that protects the hearth and family. Many households in rural China maintain the tradition of offering sacrifices to this domestic deity whose picture hangs on the wall. The kitchen god is believed to return to heaven on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month to report to the Jade Emperor on the activities of each household over the past year. The Jade Emperor accordingly either rewards or punishes a family. That evening, food is offered and incense burnt before the kitchen god returns to heaven. Family members ply the kitchen deity with sticky malt sugar in hopes that it will sweeten what he has to say about the household, or that it will make his lips stick together, so making him incapable of badmouthing their household to the Jade Emperor. The couplets hanging on either side of the image of the kitchen god often say, “Report in sweet words after ascending to heaven; bring blessings and peace upon returning to the world.” Family members then kowtow to the god, and burn his picture, signifying that they have seen him off on his journey back to heaven. On the first day of the lunar New Year, they hang a new paper picture of the god on the wall to welcome him back.

After the 23rd, preparations for New Year celebrations get into full swing. These include cleaning the house from top to bottom, and shopping expeditions for food, gifts for family members, and new clothes for children. Nimble-fingered daughters make attractive papercuts to paste on the windows, and red lanterns are hung in front of the main door. Many families position the Chinese character fu, meaning fortune or good luck, upside-down on their front doors. As the words for “upside-down” and “to arrive” are homophonous in Chinese, an upside-down fu signifies the imminent arrival of good luck.

These preparations are not complete until New Year’s Eve. It is traditional on that day to have a family reunion dinner. It is indeed the most important meal of the year. Dishes normally include chicken, because the first character of the Chinese phrase jixiang ruyi, which means “good fortune as one would wish,” is a homophone of ji meaning chicken. Fish is also included for similar reasons. The last character of the Chinese phrase niannian youyu, meaning “surpluses year after year,” means surplus, which is a homophone of the character yu that means fish. Dumplings are an essential component of New Year family dinners in north China. The entire household gathers together to make dumplings, chat and laugh. It is a labor of great joy for all concerned. While wrapping dumplings, some families add a coin to the filling. The person who finds it in his or her dumpling is believed to have good luck in the coming New Year. Rice cakes and glutinous rice balls are the staple food item for most families in south China. Rice cake, in Chinese nian gao, is a homophone of the first two characters of the phrase niannian gaosheng, which means a promotion in each coming year. The Chinese for glutinous rice balls, tangyuan, also sounds similar to tuanyuan, which means family reunion.

Replete after their reunion dinner, family members gather together to await the coming of the New Year, and at the stroke of midnight set off fireworks. The lyrics to a children’s song tell of the advent of New Year, when people give offerings of sticky malt sugar to the kitchen god, girls yearn for flowers, boys for fireworks, women seniors want colorful cotton-padded jackets, and men elders brand new felt caps.

Dawn the next day signals the beginning of the New Year. Everyone dresses in their best and goes out to exchange greetings and good wishes. The youngest family members express their best wishes to their elders, and everyone extends greetings to friends and relatives. Some places still keep the tradition of offering sacrifices to ancestors. Children and young adults enjoy accompanying their parents on New Year visits to others’ homes because there they receive red envelopes containing “lucky money” that is believed to ward off evil spirits and disasters. But children are permitted to spend this windfall on sweets and toys as they wish. There is no specific rule about giving or receiving red envelopes. Any unmarried person is eligible for one, and the amount of money inside varies. They mainly act simply as good wishes from parents and grandparents.

The first day of the New Year marks the start of various forms of celebrations, such as lion dances, dragon lantern dances, shehuo performances – tributes to the god of the land and the god of fire – and temple fairs. Although these celebrations vary according to region, the same happy, bustling atmosphere pervades the entire country.

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