Celebrating Chinese New Year
Walter Fung describes the most important Chinese festival of New Year (China Eye magazine (2004)).
China of course uses the western calendar for business and everyday affairs, but the New Year on the Lunar calendar, sometimes called the farmers' calendar is the main holiday in China. It is a three day public holiday and known now as the 'Spring Festival'. Chinese New Year is celebrated in Chinese communities all over the world. The Chinese 'Diaspora' must be the largest in the world, estimated at over 30 million, not counting Hong Kong or Taiwan. There are very large Chinese communities of well over 100,000 persons in each of New York, San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver. In the UK the largest concentrations are in London, Liverpool and Manchester. Liverpool is credited as having the first Chinatown in Europe.
Traditionally Chinese New Year is a time for family reunions and reunion of the spirit. It is the beginning of spring and therefore a time of renewed fertility of the earth, especially important for the farmer whose livelihood depended on the earth. Many customs are associated with the New Year such as a through sweeping of the house. But it is important to complete the cleaning on New Year's Eve. No sweeping must be done on New Year's Day itself for fear of sweeping away good fortune.
Strips of red paper on which are written couplets in Chinese characters were hung up over doorways. You see them to a certain extent all year around in Chinese homes and businesses. In addition to greetings for the New Year, they might say 'may all your dreams come true', 'great luck and great profit', 'young and old safe and sound', or 'good luck and best wishes'. The colour of the paper is invariably red because red symbolises good luck and happiness. Children are given 'lucky money' in red packets. Nothing negative must be said or done at this time.
All debts have to be repaid before the New Year and it is a time for reflection and also for hope for a more successful and happier life in the coming year. Thus many Chinese, especially Cantonese, will greet the New Year by saying 'Gung He Fat Choy' (gong xi fa cai in Mandarin pinyin), translating as, 'Greetings, may you prosper' (generate wealth). The more general greeting all over China, in Mandarin is probably, 'Xin nian kuai le' meaning simply 'Happy New Year!
Rather like the 'Twelve Days of Christmas', Chinese New Year celebrations continue for 14 days until the first full moon (Yuan Xiao) of the New Year in fact, when they finish with the ceremony of the Lantern Festival. Possibly Yuan Xiao originated with the increasing light and warmth as the New Year progressed. The first full moon of the year was also a time for romantic thoughts and match making.
In Liverpool, Manchester and other cities, a Chinese dragon is paraded through the streets. The Manchester dragon is believed to be actually stored in the basement of the town hall in Albert Square. Crowds gather in the square and at one o' clock in the afternoon; the entry of the dragon into the square is preceded by firecrackers, which seem to get louder every year. The dragon, all 125 yards of it, slowly emerges from the town hall, circles the square a few times and then proceeds 500 yards down Princes Street to Manchester's Chinatown. There it enters the 'Chinese car park' where a stage is set up. A series of seasonal greetings by the Lord Mayors and Mayors of several of the cities and boroughs of Greater Manchester precede a Chinese cultural show. A firework display ends the more formal proceedings at about 6.00 p.m. There are also street stalls and a fun fair that continues until late into the evening.
The Chinese students have for many years held their own cultural show with the Chinese consul present. Previously held in the large lecture at UMIST, the 2004 show was held in the Opera House theatre in the centre of Manchester.
Liverpool's dragon is much smaller but considering the traditional rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester it is only a matter of time before it grows! Chinese culture shows are put on at the Liverpool Wah Sing Community Centre and the Liverpool Chinese Youth Orchestra; under the direction of Mr Liu entertain at the Pagoda Community Centre. Chinese films are usually shown at the Liverpool Chinese Church in Great Georges Square. A banquet and cultural show is held, at the Britannia Adelphi Hotel in the evening with civic dignitaries and Chinese community leaders present.
In multicultural Britain, Chinese New Year is being celebrated in an increasing numbers of British cities.
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) China Eye magazine Winter 2004
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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