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Shanghai Diary: Musings on Chinese New Year 2018; By Jayshree Borah

Updated: Feb 9

Image of tourists at Yu Garden in Shanghai during a lantern fair. Image courtesy: DailyMail/ImagineChina/REX/Shutterstock

Starting this week, C3S is delighted to showcase Shanghai Diary, a fortnightly series of first-person accounts of experiences in China.  Penned by Jayshree Borah, these firsthand perspectives will capture the essence of living in China, her interactions with the local people and her thoughts on various Chinese events and trends.

Shanghai Diary entry 001/2018

I reach Shanghai on a gloomy rainy morning on 16th of February, which is the 1st day of this Chinese New Year. This is the year of Dog according to Chinese animal calendar. Everywhere in the airport of both Kunming (I travelled via Kolkata-Kunming route, yes the famous BCIM route. Since I am from Assam that’s the closest, convenient and cheapest route to travel to China) and Shanghai Airport, the surroundings are flushed and blushed with canine pictures, figurines and toys. Just move your head and you see a cute little puppy saying hello to you, literally.

A dog-shaped lantern in Shanghai 

Image courtesy: DailyMail/ People’s Daily/ Wang Chu

However, I am a little surprised to see the more or less empty airport, which one can hardly imagine in China. It’s people, people and more people everywhere. If you have ever traveled in Rajiv Chowk Metro station, Delhi during the rush hours-you have to simply count double the amount of people; yes that’s everyday China. Nevertheless I remind myself, how could I forget its Chinese New Year- all the city-dwellers had gone to their ancestors’ homes, which are locally called laojia, to celebrate the New Year with their family. Some were travelling abroad too- according to the China Daily report 500 million Chinese tourists have traveled abroad during the Spring Festival break. This is the longest holiday in China. In addition, the newly rich Chinese people love to have a vacation abroad, due to peer pressure and attachment to social media (of uploading selfies in Wechat, QQ, Weibo etc.).

I decide to take the metro till People’s Square and a cab from there to Hong Kou, where I stay. It takes a long time to book a taxi through the app DIDI, (similar to Uber and Ola in India) since most of the taxi drivers were on vacation. As I pass through the roads in Shanghai through the bund (the most crowded place on a normal day) I have this feeling of everything slipping into hibernation. The whole city is empty and gloomy. In the evening, after a sound rest, I wish some of my Chinese friends Happy New Year, “Xinniankuaile” in Chinese. My We chat is already full with passionate greeting messages (of which you have to reply with a lot of polite happy face emojis, yes, Chinese love to use emojis and stickers a lot).

I get a prompt reply to my greetings from a Chinese friend, who is currently studying in Europe. He texts me back- “Happy New Year, but did you see the New Year Gala yesterday, I am so ashamed of it.” I get intrigued, because I had just landed and have no idea what it is about. Then he describes an African skit that was aired on the National Television’s New Year Gala on February 15th. It portrayed a Chinese woman with a blackened face and fake buttocks, praising China with those in the roles of her African daughter and peers.  I later get the same reaction from some other Chinese friends as well. They are sad and ashamed to see such kind of racism on National Television.

A Chinese woman portrayed as as African on a CCTV skit broadcast for Chinese New Year 2018

Image courtesy: CCTV/YouTube

Unfortunately, most of my Chinese friends are from privileged English speaking background, as I am yet to perfect my Chinese communication skills. Despite this, the occurrence gives me some food for thought, and I decide to dig into all Chinese social media platforms to see what it is all about and how the young people are reacting to it. No huge fuss has been made, like we would have done in India. But there are definitely some people reacting to the event. While the Chinese media was largely silent over the issue, South China Morning Post (SCMP) came out with a detailed account of the event which was commented on as offensive and racist. In this particular comedy sketch, the plot was African people’s celebration of the opening of a rail line between Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya thanks to China.

According to me, the whole point of bringing a scene (showing joyful African people) was to educate the Chinese audience about the good deeds Chinese government is doing abroad as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to keep the nationalist spirit alive at home. Spring Festival Gala is very much part of the custom of Chinese New Year, which is aired by CCTV every year, and the tradition is to watch it with the entire family, after having a lavish New Year supper. Every year it draws some 700 million viewers from both home nation and overseas Chinese. Along these lines, nothing could be the appropriate stage than the New Year Gala to promote the most vital mission of the decade.

On the other hand, to me the social side of the Chinese New Year festival is pretty much the same as Indian festivals. I had been invited by a Chinese friend to stay in her house for the whole week of the festival, however I could not make it. Another friend who took her invitation told me later, that it’s all about food and visiting relatives. Here comes the social stigma related to festivals. Visiting relatives could be a nightmare, if you are in your late 20’s and still have not reached a happily ever after scene in your life. Sounds familiar to Indian society? Yes, it does. It reminds of when last year, I was giving an examination for my Chinese language course- In the passage section; we got a whole write-up on how weird it gets for a single woman to go back to their hometowns if they have already crossed the social standard of the marriage age. In fact, there is a word for those women in Chinese, Sheng nu , translated as ‘leftover woman’ in English.

I recall a conversation from last year, where one of my beautiful and confident friends, who was doing Ph.D. in English Literature and also stayed in the U.S. for a year, was afraid of going home for the festival. How it differs from the Indian society is that the Chinese relatives are okay if the girl has at least a nenphengyou or boyfriend (who definitely has to have a house or apartment).  Going back to traditions and customs, as one friend told me, the traditional way how Chinese count their age is – you’re one year old once you are born, which makes you 2 years old on your 1st birthday. Also, they add the year on your age on the eve of the New Year. It does not matter when your actual birthday is. For instance, if you are 28 years old on 31st of October, for the Chinese you would be already 31 years old. This has added the difficulty a little more for Chinese women. I would love to write extensively on this socially sensitive issue on some other day.

Youth showcasing duìlián (spring festival couplets)

Image courtesy: GlobalTimes/CFP

Let’s not end my first column on a sad note. Even though the tradition has faded away among the Chinese youth these days, the family bond is still the first priority among many Chinese. They might go home and end up spending time with their phones (i-phones! I hardly see people using any other phone in China), but they will go home for sure for the New Year. There are certain rituals involved with the festival. First of all is hanging duìlián (spring festival couplets) – small phrases are written on a red paper with blank ink. These are mostly best wishes or sometimes verses from ancient philosophy. The popular belief is hanging duìlián in the main entrance door of your house keeps evil away. Another interesting custom is that while making dumplings or jiaozi for the New Year feast, the elder member generally put a gold coin inside a dumpling. The person who gets the coin is considered to have good fortune throughout the year.

Chinese New Year custom: ‘Hongbao’- Red envelopes with money for younger family members

Image courtesy: Kenny Louie/Wikimedia Commons

Also, giving hongbao or red envelopes containing money to the younger family members is the custom. In the age of We Chat and Ali Pay, hongbao is mostly being sent through these two apps. In my experience, it’s interesting to receive hongbao in We chat. I also have received some hongbao greetings from some stores containing shopping coupons, which was of course enough to bring a smile to my face.  Burning firecrackers or fàngbiānpào at midnight to welcome the New Year is also part of the custom. The louder the firecrackers, the better and luckier it’s believed to be for business and farming in the coming year. However, burning firecrackers on a large scale is now banned by the government in China since 2016 for environmental reasons. In remote areas, firecrackers are still burnt although not on a vast scale. In big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou and Shenzhen it has been strictly prohibited; this is commendable on the government’s part. I wish the same for Indian cities during Diwali, especially for the capital Delhi, considering the smog we see right after the Diwali festival.

‘Yuanxiaojie’ or Lantern festival in Shanghai

Image courtesy:

The Chinese New Year Festival ends on the 15th day by celebrating Yuanxiaojie or Lantern Festival. After the 15 days long break, Shanghai looks even prettier. Red lanterns are strung all over the city, which is once again welcoming its people to merge into its busy life.

(Jayshree Borah is a PhD Scholar at the School of International Relations and Public Administration, Shanghai International Studies University, Shanghai. She is Member, Young Minds of C3S. This write-up is a non-political post based on the personal experience of the author.)

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