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Chinese New Year in the Old Beijing

20 February 2007

Traditionally, Chinese New Year festival would begin in Beijing as earlier as on the eighth day of lunar December, three weeks before the New Year’s Day.

Lunar December 8 initially is a Buddhist festival day. It is said that some 2500 years ago on that very day Sakyamuni Buddha, after being nourished by milk porridge which gave him much needed strength to carry on his meditation, attained his Buddhahood. For celebrating this historical enlightenment occasion, Buddhist temples in China would cook large pots of nuts-rich rice porridge (腊八粥) to open their annual one-day soup kitchens. Later on, this practice was widely adapted by lay Buddhist followers who used this opportunity to cultivate the spirit of charity, eventually it developed into a popular kick off event of a month-long New Year festival.

But it had to wait until a half month after this brief introduction, on the 23th day of the twelfth lunar month, when the households kissed goodbye to the Kitchen Godt, that the festivity would begin to gain momentum. Kitchen God normally appeared in a post on the supporting wall of the giant brick stove range; behind his paper-thin image with never-fading amicable smile, though, is the deep connection to a higher world that is believed to have jurisdiction over the lives of people (at least Chinese people) on earth. Apparently, the Chinese had struck a deal with the higher world: they would send a firefighter to mind family's kitchen fire, and the family members, in return, would have to behave reasonably well (such as, for instance, not to dump rubbish in front of a neighbourng house in the north of the village, not to throw firecrackers through the windows into a neighbouring building in the west of the village, not to kidnap, kill and rob neighbours living in the south of the village, and not to stir trouble and try to break up a neighouring family situated in the east of the village; otherwise, this naughty household wouldn't get any protection and might be left alone to face a kitchen fire, a house fire, or even a bushfire). Anyway, as the result of the deal, Kitchen God was sent to the each household, sometimes along with his wife, as the super firefigher, dwelling in his humble abode (a paper) right on the site (over the stove).

When on lunar December 23, Kitchen God returned to the Heaven to file his annual report, every household made a big fuss to hold a snack party to bribe him with candy that was made of sticky rice flour (二十三糖瓜粘), in a hope that his lips might get stuck together and wouldn’t be able to speak evil of the family. In reality, of course, the paper image did not eat anything; it was always the kids in the family to help the Kitchen God to do the eating. For this sweet action of self bribe and cheating, the day was so dearly loved, especially by children, and it is thus called the Minor New Year’s Day (小年)

From that point on, the preparation activities for the New Year accelerated: lunar December 24 was the day to disperse old qi by cleaning up the house (二十四扫房日), and inviting fresh qi by sticking a new Door God image (门神) on the front gate, a new Spring Couplet (春联) at the both sides of the door, red papercuts (窗花) on the windows, and a New Year Painting (年画) in the living room. The Next day, 25th, was the time to make tofu (二十五做豆腐); and the day after that, 26th, went to market to buy some meat (二十六去割肉). Then came 27th, the day to dress a chicken (二十七宰年鸡); came 28th, the day to rise flour dough (二十八把面发); came 29th, the day to make and steam buns (二十九蒸馒头); and finally, came lunar December 30 (年三十), the Great Eve(除夕)of the Chinese New Year.

Traditionally, to Beijingers, and indeed, to majority of Chinese population, the focus of the whole year is Chinese New Year’s Eve, and the focus of the whole eve, is New Year’s Eve Dinner. It is the time to call the roll in the family, for the junior ones to report their annual achievements to their seniors, for the seniors to offer some life-wise tips to the juniors, and for everyone to review, to reflect and to look ahead. And most importantly, to have fun, throughout the night (三十晚上闹一宿). When the midnight comes, by then everyone is one year older, firecrackers explode and New Year dumplings (更岁饺子) are ready to serve. Another year formally starts.

If one says that Chinese New Year kicks off with bangs, you know he means literary. On the first morning of the lunar year, everyone wakes up by the blatant sound of firecrackers, marking this morning the most special one, different from the rest of 364 days in the calendar. It is the day when no one is supposed to work, but only to visit each other to say a New Year prayer (大年初一去拜年), and to drink to eat to laugh, and to go to bed early.

Beijing youth watch old-fashioned clip show (拉洋片) through peep holes

An easy life like this would continue (ideally) for the next fifteen days. In the old Beijing, over 700 temple fairs in the city and flower shows on the outskirts kept running day after day like soap operas, performing high heel balancing (踩高跷), harvest drum (敲太平鼓), land boat dance (划旱船), folk dance (扭秧歌), lion dance (舞狮子), bamboo horse dance (骑竹马), banner display (经幡会),with White Cloud Daoist Temple (白云观), Great Bell Temple (大钟寺), Mt Tai Tempele (东岳庙) being the centres of the shows.

It was a fortnight long street carnival that would not end until the splendid lantern parade on the night when the first full moon of the year rose high up in the sky.

After that everyone went back to work or study, and worked hard and studied harder, and counted the days to lunar December 8, and counted frequently and eagerly, if you were a child.


Happy Chinese Year of Pig!

Pre Chinese New Year of the Pig
Next: The Night with Firecrackers


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