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Spring Festival: the Unbearable Heaviness of Tradition

As many other celebrations like the Double Seventh Festival and Dragon Boat Festival have gradually faded from public attention, Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year, seems to be the last tradition still cherished today, although a lot of its cultural content has been lost or changed.

According to 56-year-old Cao Baoming, vice chairman of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society, in ancient China, based on the Sun's apparent movement on the ecliptic, people divided the solar year into 24 seasonal division points. The traditional calendar starts the solar year with the Beginning of Spring (marking the Sun's position at 315˚) to suit seasonal changes in the North China Plain and the Lower Yangtze Basin.


In inscriptions on tortoise shells and animal bones from the Shang Dynasty (c.16th-11th centuries BC), the pictographic character for "year" looks like a plump, drooping millet ear, standing for people's anticipation and joy for a good harvest as well as for gratitude to heaven, said Cao.


From heaven worship to offering sacrifices to ancestors, Spring Festival has gradually evolved into a holiday representing family reunion. Every Lunar New Year sees a mass migration: Chinese people from different parts of the country and the world set out for a same destination -- home -- to seek the happiness of a family living together.


Besides being about family, as the nation's main holiday it also carries affection for one's hometown, national consciousness and patriotic feelings, Cao said.


There used to be a whole set of rituals to celebrate the holiday, such as putting up couplets to ward off evil spirits, eating dumplings on the eve of Spring Festival, paying calls on the Lunar New Year's Day to exchange good wishes and so on.


Along with social change, in particular with rapid urbanization, a number of ceremonies have sunk into oblivion; and those that remain have often lost meaning or importance, said Cao.


He attributed this to the amazing development of science and technology. For example, the Dragon Boat Festival happens to be the hottest time of the year in south China, when, in ancient times, people used to plant cornels (Cornus officinalis) to drive out mosquitoes. With modern insecticides the need for planting cornels died out, as did the tradition.


Since phoning people is an easy way to extend greetings, less and less people pay visits on the Lunar New Year's Day, thus reducing the amount of face-to-face communication between neighbors.


Mr. Li, a taxi driver in Changchun, Jilin Province, said that as living standards have risen, he has less special feeling about Spring Festival. He said he still puts up couplets and lets off firecrackers, but knows nothing about the cultural content of these ceremonies.


Wang Shaogang, a company employee, recalled spending Spring Festival in his rural hometown during his childhood. "We looked forward to the Lunar New Year during which we would put on new clothes, taste delicious food and light firecrackers," he said.


"A month before the holiday, adults began shopping, making buns with sweetened bean paste filling, and slaughtering pigs for sacrificial purposes," Wang said. "After each pig was killed, all the villagers would be invited to accept the host's gratitude. Regrettably, despite improved livelihoods, the arrival of the holiday no longer gets villages bustling with activity as before."


Yangge is a rural folk dance with a history of over 1,000 years. Guo Yi of Jilin's Changling County said that in the past, every village organized yangge performances during Spring Festival.


With the music of the suona (a woodwind instrument) and the beating of gongs and drums, men and women, old and young would dance together. There was a smile on every face and cheers everywhere. However, "people nowadays spend most of the time staying at home to watch TV," Guo sighed.


Song Haitao of Changchun said that on the eve of every Lunar New Year, his family watches the Spring Festival live broadcast on CCTV. People overly rely upon TV to create an entertaining atmosphere, in which the holiday's original cultural traditions have been neglected, he said.


Western holidays appeal more to young people, said Wang Qi, a high school student. "Spring Festival has a strong sense of tradition combined with routine ceremonies. I don't feel any humor or pleasure in celebrating it," he complained.


According to Shi Lixue, chairman of Jilin's Folklore Association, modern culture is about inheriting and developing traditional culture -- they are not contradictory. Activities like watching TV and Internet surfing have been absorbed into the common way to celebrate Lunar New Year, thus changing the festival's rigid style and solemn color, he said.


Cao Baoming said that the increasing celebration of Western festivals such as Valentine's Day and Christmas reflects the younger generation's ignorance of or disrespect for traditional culture.


For instance, he said young lovers favor the romantic atmosphere of Valentine's Day, while they seem to take no interest at all in the Double Seventh Festival, based on a legendary love story.


Interestingly, overseas Chinese seem to place greater value on traditional festivals. From hanging up red lanterns to performing lion dances, they are more likely to follow every detail of traditional ways to spend the Lunar New Year. It has become a cultural link that helps enhance confidence and cohesiveness of their communities, Cao said.


(China.org.cn by Shao Da, February 28, 2005)

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