New Year in Beijing

By Patrick Murphy

Letters from ChinaWe call it Chinese New Year, but they call it Spring Festival. I’ve argued with many Chinese over the years about this misnaming. I think it should be called Winter Festival, because the weather is always cold. “No, no,” they tell me. “Now it is Spring and it will soon be warm!”

One interesting thing I just learned is that until recently the Chinese did not use weeks. Weeks, with weekends, are a Western concept not used in China until the adoption of the universal calendar. The Chinese lunar calendar (also misnamed, as it doesn’t really match up with the lunar cycle– which is why the Chinese have not mere Leap Days, but entire Leap Months) simply started on chu-yi (Day One) and spun through until the end. There was no weekend of rest, just steady work or school, punctuated by the holidays.

Which may be in part why Spring Festival lasts so long. Starting with what we might call New Yearís eve, the night everyone stays up late watching special programs on CCTV and playing mah jongg, the holiday runs through until the Lantern Festival. That comes on the fifteenth day of the new year. But school kids have vacation starting about two weeks before New Year, so they really have about a month off. In Beijing, many restaurants and shops close for ten days or so, as the staff disappears to hui jia or ìreturn homeî to visit family and friends. Planes, trains, and busses are absolutely jammed with people on the move. This year, unprecedented winter storms disrupted travel for hundreds of thousands.

In Beijing, officially sanctioned fireworks stores (more like large tents) sprang up. There were about 550 of them across the city. The result was predictable. Fireworks are officially allowed only on New Year eve and New Year day (plus the fifth, the day to eat chun bing or “spring rolls” filled with sprouts, vegetables, and shredded meat, and the Lantern Festival). However fireworks were a daily, or rather nightly, barrage. Nightly there were Roman candles, firecrackers, and pyrotechnics in the sky. The mood was quite jolly: “Could you sleep last night?” I would ask. “Oh, not very well. Ha ha ha!”

[From May 2008 CAFAM Newsletter]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.