Chinese New Year vs. "Spring Festival"
Dear Cousin Zhongming,
I received your letter and was delighted to hear that you read my letter thoroughly. It sounded like you had truly analyzed the situation on your own. In your letter, you mentioned that the "Spring Festival" was getting more and more boring. The evening show on TV on the eve of the Spring Festival is not very interesting. Going out to eat, drinking, and shopping are also less appealing than before. Actually, this reflects another issue I mentioned in my last letter. Since the Chinese government changed the name of the festival from "Chinese New Year" to "Spring Festival," although on the surface it was only a matter of semantics, the inner meaning in the traditional Chinese culture contained in "Chinese New Year" was also cut off. As the festival lost its original cultural connection, of course people would be less interested in it.
Traditionally, New Year's Day was more than just the first day of the year. The New Year holiday season spans from December 8 of the traditional lunar calendar to January 15. It was about the same length as the holiday season in Western countries. The main events of the New Year holiday season were focused on thanking the gods and deities for their blessings in the past year, praying for the next year, remembering ones ancestors, and recalling traditions. It had deep cultural inner meanings.
The "December 8 Festival" in the lunar calendar was a day for eating congee. In the folk tradition, December was also called "Month of La (preserved meats)." According to the first dictionary of ancient China ("Shuowen Jiezi", or "Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters"). La means to jointly offer sacrifices to the gods. In as early as the Shang Dynasty (1766 1050 BC), the Chinese people had the habit of jointly offering sacrifices to heaven and earth, gods and spirits, and ancestors. This was called the "joint sacrifice." There were four such occasions, one for each season, with the winter sacrifice being the biggest in scale. This type of sacrifice expressed the ancient peoples modesty and humbleness. These ceremonies were held because the people wanted to thank gods for giving them food and clothes for the entire year. Because most winter sacrifices took place in December, since the Zhou Dynasty (1122 256 BC), December has been known as the Month of La. The day on which the winter sacrifice was held was called the Day of La. The tradition of eating congee on December (of Chinese calendar) 8 came from Buddhism. It was to commemorate the day when Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, achieved consummation under a Bodhi tree after eating apple-and-sticky-rice-ball congee made by a shepherd girl. When Buddhism was spread to China, December 8 also became an important festival. People offered congee made of a variety of grains and fruits to gods and ancestors. The congee, with its rich ingredients, also represented their gratitude and wish for another year of abundance. In the Yonghe Lama Temple in Beijing, there is still a giant ancient bronze pot that weighs several tons. It was used by the emperor's family to make congee on December 8. On this day, many temples held gatherings, scripture readings, and the giving of congee to the poor.
December (of Chinese calendar) 23 of the lunar calendar was another major holiday. It was called the "Small New Year." On this day, people paid respect to the God of the Hearth. In the folk tradition, it was believed that the God of the Hearth watched over and took care of families. On December 23, the families would report to the God of the Hearth. By New Years Eve, the families would post new pictures of the God of the Hearth on the wall. This was called "welcoming the God of the Hearth." In ancient times, people believed that everything in the human world was controlled, arranged, and monitored by gods. There was a God of the Hearth for the stove, a Well God for the well, a Door God for the doors, and an Earth God for the fields. These gods each took their own responsibility to watch the good and evil in the world. The time to welcome these gods fell between December 23 and New Years Eve.
December (of Chinese calendar) 24 and 28 were usually days for thorough clean-ups of the homes. Since at this time, all the gods returned to the heavens, areas where one usually didnt want to sweep (for fear of offending the gods who were everywhere) became safe to clean.
On New Years Eve, the celebration reached its peak. Besides saying farewell to the old year and welcoming the new year, the most important thing was to offer food to the gods and ancestors. On New Year's Eve, families gather to share a meal and stay up to celebrate. From noon on, food was offered to the gods, Buddhas, and deities in the Buddha's Hall. People also burned incenses and candles. From noon on New Year's Eve until January 5 of the lunar calendar, incense was burned continuously. There was a table with food to welcome the gods and deities back to the human realm. Posters of the god of doors were posted on the doors, while posters of the God of the Hearth was placed in the house. Poetry lines about the New Year were written on paired red paper strips and posted outside of door frames. All of these customs had to do with the Chinese tradition of respecting gods. The red paper with the poetry lines use to be of the shape of a peach, as in folktales, ghosts are afraid of peach trees. Offering food to the ancestors was also done on New Year's Eve. This was not only the way people expressed their filial piety to their ancestors, but also a continuation of traditional morals.
On New Year's Day, everyone woke up very early in the morning and dressed formally. They burned candles and lit firecrackers. People all opened their front doors and placed food, tea, and wine in the courtyard to offer them to heaven, earth, and their ancestors. This was called "great fortune on the opening of the New Year" (xin nian da ji in Chinese).
During the holiday season, there were also local fairs held at temples, folk opera performances, dragon and lion dances, martial arts performances, and acrobatic shows. The festive atmosphere continued until the Lantern Festival on January 15. January 15 was the birthday of the Emperor of Heavenly Officialdom (tian guan da di) in Taoism. People everywhere celebrated his birthday and prayed for his blessing (tian guan si fu).
Traditional New Year celebrations were based on the Chinese people's respect for heaven, earth, gods, and deities. They sought to bring back the traditional cultural atmosphere. These traditional values are also at the core of the orthodox Chinese culture. The cultural atmosphere helped people to live with modesty and satisfaction. For example, if the crops had a good year, people believed that it was because gods had bestowed good fortune on those who had done good deeds or whose ancestors had passed down good virtue, not because men won "the struggle against heaven and earth" as Mao Zedong termed it. Since gods and deities watched everything in the human world, people knew to be humble to the gods and do good deeds. Even when they did something bad, they had reservations. Sham doctors and unscrupulous merchants that we see so often today were far less common. People made offerings to gods and their ancestors to express respect, gratitude, self-reflection, and their wishes. Their wishes were also mostly about receiving more blessing through doing more good things. This is quite different from the "worshiping" for money, power, and fame that is so common today. Having gone through many political movements since the CCP took power, most Chinese people today do not believe in retributions from wrongdoings. Those who "worship" are also atheists who actually believe in fame, power, and money. Since the connection to the culture has been severed, the activity of worshiping itself now has a distorted meaning. It no longer has the power of restraining people's bad behavior.
Right before the CCP took power in 1949, it changed the Chinese New Year to "Spring Festival." The government also decided that people had to work during several important traditional holidays, including the Lantern Festival (yuan xiao), Dragon Boat Festival (duan wu), and Mid-Autumn Festival (zhong qiu). People only had time off or held celebrations on politically-themed days such as May 1 (Labor Day), June 1 (International Children's Day), July 1 (CCP's Anniversary), and October 1 (National Day). These changes reduced the once-rich "holiday season" to "welcoming spring." The inner meaning that connects the holiday to the traditional Chinese culture was also obliterated. Since 1949, the CCP has carried out a number of political movements to "break feudalistic superstition," leaving the traditional, orthodox Chinese culture no place to stay. In the last nearly 20 years, the annual Spring Festival Evening Show produced by the official TV network of the CCP has been soaked in the Party Culture, which constantly sings the praises of the CCP. It relies on crude humor to attract viewers and has no inner meaning or anything worth reflecting on. Naturally, it is losing its appeal among the people.
If people could choose between having a traditional New Year and the "Spring Festival," I think most people would choose the former. What are your thoughts on this?
Hope you are well!
Your Cousin Zhenyan
February 7, 2007