Tag Archives: Spring Festival

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version  –by Jinny Batterson

Lantern Festival Lion

Happy (Western) New Year!  As global cultures mingle more often, more of us Americans of all backgrounds are getting exposure to holidays and calendars celebrated elsewhere.  For the past three years, a traveling exhibit of lighted silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter, a little earlier than the period of “Chinese New Year,” which typically occurs in late January or early February and includes a lantern festival on its final day.

Lantern Festival Dragon

Yesterday I braved colder than normal temperatures to see this year’s display at a local outdoor amphitheater that otherwise would be shuttered for the season. This year’s North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival was bigger and better than ever, its signature lake-surface dragon periodically spouting water rather than fire into the frigid air.  Weather had diminished last night’s crowds somewhat, but not the enthusiasm of those who braved the elements, sometimes fortified with spiked hot chocolate or coffee. Most of the twenty-five major complexes of lights had placards describing them in both English and Chinese. 

“Lantern festival” in China is an old celebration, thought to have originated almost two thousand years ago, celebrated at the first new moon of the lunar new year, the final day of the two-week Chinese Spring Festival celebration.  According to legend, a leading Chinese deity, the Jade Emperor, was angry with villagers for killing a crane, one of his favorite birds. He planned to send down fire to destroy the village, but the villagers, warned by the emperor’s daughter, hung red lanterns around their houses, set off firecrackers, and lit bonfires in the streets, tricking the emperor into thinking the village was already on fire and thus saving the village. Ever since, in towns and villages throughout China, people parade with lanterns on the evening of  Lantern Festival.  If you have a chance to see the North Carolina version, please wear plenty of layers, and prepare to revel in winter light.   

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Welcoming the Year of the Rooster

Welcoming the Year of the Rooster    —by Jinny Batterson

Cock-a-doodle-doo!  (Or maybe wo-wo-wo!, the Chinese Mandarin equivalent.) This Saturday, January 28, 2017, will mark the beginning of the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese lunar calendar. People of Chinese background throughout the world may gather to celebrate what is known in most Western countries as Chinese New Year. This festival has been celebrated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It remains China’s most important annual festival, even in modern times. Visiting extended family is an important part of festival traditions, somewhat like Thanksgiving in the United States. (For more traditions, check out a recent series in the English-language version of China Daily. (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2017-01/22/content_28023167.htm). In previous blog posts, I’ve written about personal experiences of living in China during two different sets of New Year’s festivities, and also about the meanings of various zodiac years. (Spring Festival in LipuBeasts of the Chinese Zodiac, More New Year…

As China’s economy has developed and more and more Chinese families have spread out geographically, this period of the year has also become known for the largest human migration on the planet. In 2017, nearly 3 billion trips are expected to be taken by Chinese in, from, or to China during the period between January 13 and February 21. People will travel by automobile, motorcycle, train, plane, boat or any other way possible. A feature in a recent edition of China Daily chronicled the journey of one migrant worker who was going home by bicycle. He’d left his temporary restaurant job in Shanghai on January 12 for Chongqing, a distance of over 1,000 miles. He expects to make it home by January 27, New Year’s Eve.     

Different employers, schools, and institutions in China vary somewhat on the timing and length of holiday break awarded for this most important festival of the Chinese calendar, but nearly everyone gets at least a week of time off. China has nearly 280 million migrant workers, typically young adults who’ve left their birthplaces in rural areas to seek better job opportunities in China’s burgeoning cities but want to get home to visit family at Spring Festival, as it’s called in China. 

Wealthier Chinese families increasingly use this time to travel internationally. According to an online travel service, Chinese will travel to 174 destinations outside mainland China during the holiday period. Within China, favorite spots include the tropical tourist city of Sanya, Hainan, dubbed “the Hawaii of China.” Although Sanya flight and hotel prices peak during the holiday, winter-weary travelers from colder parts of China still flock here to swim, snorkel, or just lie on the beach in the sunshine.  

Within the U.S., there will be Chinese New Year celebrations in many major cities, including the dowager of all celebrations—an annual parade and festival in San Francisco that has been held since the 1860’s.  Disneyland in Anaheim, California will hold two full weeks of celebrations, hosted by cartoon figure Mulan, plus Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Chinese costumes. For sheer glitz, it will be difficult to beat Las Vegas, where several hotels are vying for the most extravagant display. Lunar New Year parades will also be held in Washington, D.C. on January 29; in Chicago on February 5; and in Orlando, Florida, on February 11.

So, wherever and whenever you choose to celebrate, Happy Year of the Rooster!  Some of your Chinese friends may appreciate a Mandarin Happy New Year greeting(pronounced roughly shin-nyen how):  Xinnian Hao !

   

Beasts of the Chinese Zodiac, More New Year…

Beasts of the Chinese Zodiac, More New Year Celebrations

—by Jinny Batterson

Anyone who’s ever been given a place mat at a Chinese-American restaurant likely has seen pictures of the animals of the Chinese zodiac:  mouse/rat, ox/bull/buffalo, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep/goat/ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig.  Unlike the roughly monthly zodiac familiar to readers of American newspapers, the Chinese zodiac works in lunar year increments, generally running from mid-January-to-mid-February of one year to mid-January-to-mid-February of the next.  To further complicate matters, the Chinese zodiac also cycles through five “elements” (some claim it’s really the “ten heavenly stems”) of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, so a complete cycle takes 60 years.

The first time we spent Chinese New Year in China, we ushered in the “Year of the (Metal) Golden Pig,” an especially auspicious year, according to China fortune tellers. When we returned two years later, we experienced the transition to the “Year of the Earth Ox,”  a more middling kind of year. Fortunes have been made and lost over the interpretation of the various Chinese zodiac signs.  Some years are reputed to be luckier than others, and slight ripples in the overall birth rate can be attributed to parents working toward having a child born in a “good” year. A chart of a 20th century cycle of years, with their attributes, is part of the China travel website http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/astrology/60year-cycle.htm.

Most of the animals of the Chinese zodiac are familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time on a farm or lived in the countryside.  One exception stands out—the dragon.  For Chinese, dragons are good, rather than the evil creatures portrayed in much of Western mythology.  Chinese mythology credits dragons with inhabiting and taming major rivers in China, the northernmost being “Heilongjiang,” or “Black Dragon River.” Being born in a dragon year (which most recently occurred in 2007) is considered lucky.  Emperors of China’s dynasties often had dragons embroidered on their clothing. Only the emperor’s residence was allowed to have dragon symbols on its rooftops.  As a guide explained to me on an early tour in Beijing, a dragon is considered to have the attributes of nine different animals:  the head of an ox, the horns of a deer, the eye of a tiger, the teeth of a leopard, the antenna of a shrimp, the mane of a horse, the scales of a fish, the body of a snake, and the claws of an eagle.  A royal beast, indeed.

Our New Year celebrations in 2009 were spent in various parts of Sichuan. Our friend Jean Wang and her husband were able to meet us in Ya’an a few days before the year’s new year celebration, which would occur on Monday, January 29.  Jean was just getting over a bad cold, and I seemed to be coming down with a similar infection.  Despite health and weather concerns, we all went to see the pandas at nearby Bifengxia, then spent the night in our Foreign Teachers’ Guest House, where there was a spare apartment for Jean and her husband due to the holidays.

At New Year, we spent a couple of days visiting lots of Jean’s in-laws, necessitating most of a day’s journey by bus and then taxi. One contingent of relatives lived in a compound high enough in the hills to be off a car-friendly road.  We carpooled in an uncle’s van as far as we could go.  Afterwards, several of the younger cousins roared the remaining half mile on the motorcycle one of them had parked at the foot of the last hill.  The rest of us walked. The noise level and the smoke density from firecrackers were less intense than what we’d experienced two years before, but we got to see more of the traditions of a Sichuan countryside Spring Festival—curing and cooking sausages, sweeping out the house and family compound, burning paper money to bring good fortune, visiting first the male relatives, then the female side of the family. What did not change from our previous experience was the quantity and variety of food. A Thanksgiving feast may be the closest American equivalent.  Any notion of vigorous physical activity during the day or two after Spring Festival is pretty much a lost cause.  Sadly, we did not get a chance to meet Jean’s family at the holiday. One of the casualties of the increasing mobility of younger generations of Chinese may be the chance to see everyone’s relatives each year.

We made up for the fact that we could not visit Jean’s family by visiting one of Sichuan’s best tourist sites, not far from where her in-laws lived.  We spent a day in Leshan, Sichuan, home of the world’s largest pre-modern statue, a seated Buddha. Even in midwinter, the “Big Buddha” of Leshan is impressive. It is over 230 feet tall, overlooking the confluence of several rivers of southern Sichuan.  It was built more than a thousand years ago at the insistence of a Buddhist monk who had seen a vision of a Buddha to protect sailors, many of whom were drowning in the treacherous currents where the rivers joined. So much stone was moved and thrown into the river during the lengthy process of excavating the site and carving the statue that the river currents were changed, so the area did in fact become safer for boats. On the blustery day when we visited, few other tourists were in sight. We took pictures of the four of us at the fence overlooking the Buddha’s massive head,  then threaded our way carefully down the cliffside stairs to the Buddha’s base. There we took another picture—Jean beside the Buddha’s big toe, which was taller than she was.

 

Spring Festival in Lipu

Food, Food, More Food, Firecrackers, Dragon Dances: Spring Festival in Lipu

—by Jinny Batterson

The first time we spent Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) in China came at the end  of a long mid-winter break during our year of teaching in far northwest China. We’d lounged away most of our holiday at the beach resort town of Sanya on Hainan Island, the “Hawaii of China” (see post from February 2, 2015),  but a Chinese friend who lived in the neighboring  area of Guangxi had invited us to spend New Year’s and a few days surrounding it with him and his family.  Getting to Liang’s town took a short plane ride to Guilin, then a slightly longer bus ride on a comfortable long-distance bus.  One of our fellow bus passengers lent us her cell phone to alert Liang to our arrival in his town, Lipu.

We pulled in on the evening of Valentine’s Day, several days before that year’s actual New Year. Liang and his brother met us at the bus station, and loaded us and our luggage into his brother’s pickup. The brother, despite a bit of alcohol-induced weaving, managed to drive us without major accident to Liang’s new townhouse, where we hastily unpacked. We then hailed a “tricycle taxi,” a motorized partly open conveyance, distant cousin to a riding lawnmower, for a brief ride to a dumpling feast. Classmates of our mutual former student had gathered at “Mark’s” aunt’s house to celebrate his 21st birthday. The occasion was a chance for the high school chums to spend some time together—most were now enrolled in universities far from Lipu. We ate delicious homemade boiled dumplings, drank tea or beer, swapped stories of student days and of everyone’s adventures since they’d last been together. Finally we were too stuffed and tired from feasting and travels to stay awake. Liang phoned for another taxi, we shoehorned the three of us into its single seat, and sputtered our way back to his house, where all of us fell into a satisfied sleep.

The following days were crammed with New Year preparations.  We bought red envelopes for money gifts for the children. We bought lucky couplets, large-character Chinese calligraphy on long red paper streamers, to paste beside and above the doorways of homes. The day we put up couplets at Liang’s was windy. Our exertions with couplets, ladders, saw horses, glue and brooms were worthy of the best slapstick comedy. Luckily, no one fell off a ladder and got hurt. We bought local delicacies. Liang’s wife cooked pork with taro, a regional dish—rich and a bit greasy. We bought or made pyramid-shaped envelopes of sticky rice with fillings, fried tofu, fresh water chestnuts, several varieties of winter greens, eight treasures rice pudding. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family gathered in early evening at Liang’s mother’s house. We ate and ate and ate. A neighbor took pictures of the dozen or so of us—Liang, his wife, his sister and brothers and their spouses, each with a single nearly-grown child.

After the feast, Liang, his wife, and we two foreigners retired to Liang’s house, while Liang’s son stayed on with his grandma, closer to Lipu’s “downtown.”  Liang told us it would be good to take a nap before it got too close to midnight. We awoke about 11, just as the first of the fireworks went off.  We turned on the Chinese television New Year’s Eve gala, broadcast from Beijing.  By midnight, the local fireworks were so deafening that we could no longer hear the sound track of the televised gala, nor could we hear each other.  Though it was a clear night, the sky was obscured by a thick haze. Periodically, the steady din of strings of firecrackers bursting nearby was punctuated by a louder burst of overhead fireworks from downtown. We got a little sleep between 1 a.m. and 6, when the fireworks started up again.

Toward midmorning, dragon and lion dancers maneuvered along the streets outside, bobbing and weaving amid the heaps of red paper detritus from the previous night’s spent firecrackers. Still more firecrackers went off around them.  Liang and his wife presented us with matching piggy banks in honor of the advent of the “Year of the Golden Pig.”  Too soon it was time to start the succession of taxi, bus, and plane rides that would return us to our teaching posts. Our ears would eventually recover, but subsequent fireworks displays on American Independence Day would always seem muted by comparison.

Upcoming Year of the Sheep

Chinese New Year (Spring Festival)—Upcoming Year of the Sheep

—by Jinny Batterson

Later this month (this solar month, that is), the most important festival of the Chinese year will take place: Chinese New Year, as it is known in the West, or Spring Festival, as it called in China. On February 19, 2015, the world will celebrate a new Chinese year, the Year of the Sheep (Yang Nian), also translated as the Year of the Goat, or the Year of the Ram.  The timing of the holiday, along with the use of twelve yearly zodiac animals for fortune-telling, can seem variable and unpredictable to those of us accustomed to purely solar-based calendars.  The date for Spring Festival is based on a lunar calendar. It can occur over a range of “solar” calendar dates between January 21 and February 21.  (In Western Christianity, the date for Easter Sunday similarly can range between March 22 and April 25, based mainly on lunar cycles.) Spring Festival begins with the second new moon after the winter solstice according to Chinese reckoning. Because a lunar month, at roughly 29.5 days, is shorter than the average solar month, a typical lunar year lasts only 354 days, so Spring Festival becomes 10-11 days earlier each succeeding year.  To avoid having this important festival rotate through the entire solar year, however, the Chinese calendar periodically adds a “leap month.”  This year’s date for Spring Festival comes about as late as Spring Festival can get.

People born under different animal zodiac signs are purported to have different characters, somewhat like the zodiac months and their predictions often publicized in the West.  “Ram” babies are expected to grow up to be tender, polite, filial, clever and kind-hearted.  On the negative side of the ledger, they are reputed to be compulsive worriers, shy, pessimistic, weak-willed, and often confused about life. Famous people born in Ram years include 19th century American writer and humorist Mark Twain, born on November 30, 1835, and late Qing dynasty Manchu empress dowager Cixi, born in China a day earlier, on November 29, 1835. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison was a Ram, born on February 11, 1847. So was scientist and ecology pioneer Rachel Carson, born May 27, 1907. Modern celebrities such as rock star Mick Jagger (July 26, 1943), actors Chevy Chase (October 8, 1943) and Bruce Willis (March 19, 1955), along with actresses Nicole Kidman (June 20, 1967), Julia Roberts (October 28, 1967), and Kate Hudson ((April 19, 1979) were all born during “Ram” years.

The interval between Spring Festivals in 2014 and 2015 has been a bit longer than 12 solar months, running from January 31, 2014 through February 18, 2015.  There is some conflict among websites about whether the change in zodiac animal from the Year of the Horse (most of 2014) to the Year of the Sheep (most of 2015) should occur in conjunction with the start of Spring Festival, or rather at the “solar start of spring,” which occurs on February 3 or February 4 each year, six weeks before the spring equinox. Some Chinese parents believe that being born in the Year of the Horse is lucky, while being born in the Year of the Ram is unlucky. They’ve tried hard to conceive children who would be born before the start of February this year. It’s possible that the coming months will see a decline in births in China. It is also quite possible that Chinese babies born between February 3, 2015 and February 19, 2015 will have more than usual cause to be confused about life.

In many parts of China, Spring Festival celebrations run for up to sixteen days, from ‘New Year’s Eve,” often celebrated with an elaborate family meal, until “Lantern Festival” on the following full moon. Customs associated with Spring Festival vary somewhat in different parts of China, but usually involve special foods, extended time spent with families, visits with relatives and friends, and gifts for children and young people. In following weeks’ posts, I’ll elaborate on some of the customs we had a chance to observe during two Spring Festivals spent in parts of China.