The thing with Chinese New Year in rural China: it is the same every single year; at least since I started celebrating together with my Chinese parents-in-law. There have been very detailed and colorful descriptions in general about Chinese New Year. Constance from the Foreign Sanctuary has a couple of posts explaining different aspects of the Chinese New Year’s traditions.
What I would like to share with you, is my personal experience. I have spent a couple of new years together with my parents-in-law in China. Last year when we welcomed the year of the snake I took a couple of pictures. Here is how people in Niuji village, Anhui province celebrate the new year.
Cleaning the house and yourself. Out with the old, in with the New.
In a previous post I have already explained Jizao, the Kitchen God festival, which falls on the 23rd day of the 12th month of the Chinese lunar calendar and marks the beginning of the major New Year’s preparations. During those few days leading up to the New Year’s Eve we, the female part of the family, in our case, my mother-in-law and me, would be cleaning the house from top to bottom. Being careful not to sweep towards windows or doors as this would sweep out all our luck and fortune. After that my MIL would lock up all mobs and brushes, so no one would get the idea to sweep anything during the New Year. I wasn’t allowed to clean the first three days of the New Year (which is really hard if you know the amount of dust and dirt flying through the air and settling on every little space it could find, including our bed).
Jin and his father would get a haircut (you are not allowed to cut your hair during the first few days of New Year). And all of them would go to the local bathing place. I think I was the only one in the whole village who would use the bathroom in the house (even during winter without heating). People always went to the local bath house, especially during winter. Women and Men alike. But, honestly, I could never get myself to go. The staring is hard enough to bear when I am fully dressed, not to think of the staring if I am butt naked.
Last preparations: Red underwear and firecrackers
Anyhow, after the cleaning of the house and oneself, my MIL always gets Jin and me red underwear, which is really funny; because, usually, she is extremely conservative. There is never talk of sex, no kissing or holding hands in front of her, or any improper suggestions… but giving us both red underwear, sometimes in front of half the neighborhood, is totally ok for her. My father-in-law would be busy bargaining with the street vendor selling the latest firecrackers. Most people would come with a little trailer so they could take a lot of firecrackers back home. I hate firecrackers.
Spring Couplets transforming every house
And of course, the day before New Year’s Eve we clean every door and window and hang new traditional Spring Couplets 对联 with wishes for the New Year on every single door and window. It’s interesting that the whole street uses the same red couplets with golden paint. Every single year. There must be just one vendor selling the same couplets every year. But it’s one of my favorite parts. Makes the grey and dirty houses look somewhat nice.
No big feast in Niuji village
Contrary to many big cities in China, on New Year’s Eve we never have any big feast in Niuji. During the afternoon, my mother-in-law and me make jiaozi 饺子 (filled dumplings). If I wouldn’t be there, she would make them alone. Well, actually even if I am there, I am more an obstacle as a help. While she makes ten dumplings, I make one. And mine tend to fall apart while cooking. Well, it’s the thought that counts, right?
I always thought it’s a family activity, but in Niuji on the day of New Year’s Eve just the sons stay with their parents (and his wife if he has one). Married daughters spent that day with their husband’s family. That meant we didn’t see Jin’s two sister for a few days. Also the whole day is somewhat unspectacular. After making jiaozi Jin and me usually just stroll through the streets, visit people here and there, and wait for the evening to come. Around 6pm we usually eat. Due to the better living standards nowadays you can eat whatever you want whenever you want. So the food we have for New Year’s Eve is more or less the same we have most of the time, except Jin’s father always adds a big fish which no one is allowed to eat (yu 鱼meaning fish in Chinese, also means surplus 余, thus symbolizing having a surplus of fortune and luck in the New Year). We are also not allowed to eat the jiaozi yet. That is saved for midnight.
CCTV New Year’s Show 中央电视台春节联欢晚会 or Mahjong games?
After the dinner, one new modern tradition is to watch the New Year’s Show on Chinese CCTV, which airs every year at 8pm. I have to admit, I am a fan. I love the show, the dances, and I finally even understand the jokes. But my parents-in-law must have watched this show too many times already. They always go out and meet with friends and neighbors for a round of Mahjong 麻将 or card games.
At Midnight Niuji turns into a war zone
Around 11pm we have to leave the house. Before we do so my mother-in-law instructs us to close every window and door (and open it just after midnight to let the New Year in). Meanwhile, my father-in-law starts meticulously preparing those firecrackers he bought before. Rolls can be as long as five meters, and longer. He starts at the backyard, behind the house, and continues in a circle around the inner courtyard, until he arrives outside, where he would circle every single tree, before he finally would light the firecrackers (starting from the back of the house). It’s like science. And no one, I mean, no one, is allowed to interfere. He is always very concentrated. I still hate firecrackers.
There are no beautiful fireworks like those ones you see on TV. And also the new government campaign to stop people setting off too many firecrackers (in order to tackle pollution… yeah) never ever reached Niuji village. I am sure if I would tell my parents-in-law not to light so many firecrackers, they would think I am making a bad joke. To me the welcome of New Year at midnight looks more like one of those war movies. Sulfur fills the air, conversations are overshadowed by explosions, and flashes of light illuminate the sky. And you would think it would be over after New Year’s Eve. So wrong.
After the last firecracker has been lit, every one returns home and gathers for a midnight jiaozi feast. Most years Jin and me would go to bed after that. My parents-in-law though, they would go back to play cards or Mahjong and try their luck in the New Year.
You visit your relatives, you have to eat. A lot.
The first few days of the New Year we would have to go and visit every single relative in hierarchical order. The first trip always being the one to Jin’s two godfathers, the second to fifth trip to the family on his father’s side, just on the sixth day we would visit his sisters and after that the family on his mother’s side. Of course every visit is connected to a big feast, a lot of drinking and gift giving. After the first day of New Year our house would have already gathered all kinds of boxes with fruits, alcohol and other stuff. Re-gifting thus was very easy, convenient and absolutely legitimate.
I always love the eating part. New Year lasting for entire two weeks tops every feasting you have during Christmas days. Every one whining about the few kilos they gained during Western Christmas holidays, should try to spend Chinese New Year with a Chinese family.
Firecrackers. More firecrackes. Firecrackers non-stop.
There is but one thing I hate. Firecrackers! I remember, way back then, my first trip to China. My first Chinese New Year. Firecrackers amazed me. But after spending a few New Year’s in Niuji… I despise them. Niuji people love firecrackers. The noise from those firecrackers is unbearable. Also, add on the constant wailing of car alarms as the explosions set them off too. In Niuji, my father-in-law, the little “pyromaniac”, lights firecrackers at 5am in front of our window. If that didn’t wake us up, he lights them again before breakfast. Then again before lunch. And again before dinner. And last but not least around 10 pm, to say goodnight. To protect him a bit; he is not crazy, every one in Niuji does it. Every single one. And it goes on for the whole two weeks. I kinda understand why the government would love to restrict the use of firecrackers… My father-in-law wouldn’t be happy. At all.
You see, Chinese New Year in Niuji village is a bit different from big Chinese cities, isn’t it? But even though I still hate firecrackers, I love my Chinese family. They make up for the terrible firecrackers noise, with lots of love, care, and good food.
I wish every one a happy new year! 恭喜发财，万事如意！
Have you experienced a special Chinese New Year? Do customs differ where you live?
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