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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Ushering in the Year of the Rat

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on January 27, 2020 and can be accessed here.

The streets of Beijing are eerily quiet. Buses and taxis don’t run, shops and restaurants are shuttered. Across the country, everyone has gone home. This is the largest annual migration in the world: this year an annual 440 million people will travel back to hometowns from cities across the country for the Spring Festival (春节). The Spring Festival is the Lunar New Year and is celebrated not only in China but across East and South East Asia with pomp and splendour.

Spring Festival is an agrarian tradition going back to the 3rd BCE. The seven-day festival is one to be spent with family: dumplings and rice cakes are made, red packets filled with money (now virtual) are given out, firecrackers are burst at midnight and red decorations are everywhere. Legend has it, that a monster called nian (supposedly a bull with a lion’s head) used to raid villages every Chinese New Year, but villagers would scare it away with firecrackers, the colour red. There are other legends about and traditions interspersed and varied by region. Some include taboos against cutting hair or gifting shoes while others are about food that could be eaten to bring good luck. As one report notes, “In the area around Guangzhou (Canton), one preferred dish is oysters, because in Cantonese, a homonym of oyster, houxi, means “good business”; shrimp, the Cantonese pronunciation of which is ha, sounds like happy laughter, and is therefore often found at such feasts. Clams are sometimes served because they open as they are cooked, signifying the opening of new horizons. Likewise, according to tradition in Shanghai, egg-skin dumplings (danjiao) resemble gold ingots and cellophane noodles look like silver chains.”

Another important tradition has evolved in the mainland since 1983: watching the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala. On New Year’s Eve, it is broadcast for about four hours and ends a little after midnight. 90% of Chinese families tune into watch the program that broadcasts skits, acrobatics, comedy sketches, song and dance performances, opera etc.

Over the years it is also interesting to see political ideology seep into the gala. Songs about the Communist Party, China’s history, unification and the People’s Liberation Army are now regularly part of the line-up. In 2015, during the peak of the anti-corruption movement, the show had three comedy skits (not very funny ones at that) about anti-corruption. From 2016 onwards, shows about the One Belt One Road project have become commonplace. In 2018, racist stereotypes about Africans came under fire because of one sketch meant to celebrate China’s relations with Africa used blackface. But criticism of the Gala now seems to be part of the ritual as common as dumplings.

By the end of the week, people will slowly begin to travel back to their jobs and lives. With a rising trend of the more affluent travelling abroad during this period, about 7 million people will also return to the country to resume their routines. And soon, traffic will resume, winter will recede and life will go on.

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