DONG: Celebrating the Lunar New Year

illustration new year
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

When I was back home in China for winter break, I was surprised that the first question many friends raised was not “How is Yale?” but rather “Will you be home for Spring Festival?”

Spring Festival, or Lunar New Year, is the most important holiday in China. Celebrated on Jan. 31 this year, it is one of only a few holidays that Chinese people formally celebrate. The holiday is meant to be a celebration of family and cultural values.

When I was back in China, my parents and I used to celebrate every year by joining in the Spring Festival migration, the largest annual human migration on the planet, traveling from Beijing to Northeastern China. We would either vie for train tickets and ride in an unventilated cabin or drive for 10 hours through smog and snow from Beijing to a small city in frigid northeastern China, where my paternal grandparents live. The northeastern city is known for its low temperatures, dirty streets and excessive air pollution, but the presence of family there was more than enough to attract me.

Like Thanksgiving and Christmas, Spring Festival was always a good time. I could forget schoolwork, enjoy good food without worrying about exercise and, most importantly, spend time with family. I could converse and laugh with loved ones — pure bliss.

Now, away from home, it is impossible to replace the presence of family. But what really bothers me is that the other exciting parts of the holiday — cultural values and traditions — are becoming increasingly shallow. And that makes it hard to feel excited about the upcoming Lunar New Year.

The most staggering symbol of this cultural decline is the Spring Festival Gala staged by China Central Television (CCTV) every year on the eve of Lunar New Year. Strangely enough, on American college campuses various Chinese organizations emulate this gala. And it’s troubling to me that now when people think of Spring Festival, one of the first things that comes to mind is the gala.

The CCTV gala is subject to crafty propagandistic designs. This year CCTV banned Cui Jian, the godfather of Chinese rock, from singing his famous hit “Nothing to My Name,” the unofficial anthem of past student protests. Instead, performances will likely feature themes such as ethnic harmony and the “Chinese dream.” Citizens have ridiculed the gala’s cliché messages and protested the censorship, but no other Chinese TV station can offer a better alternative.

Many other Spring Festival traditions are similarly tainted by propaganda or drowned out by the increasingly materialistic and consumerist culture. On the holiday, people light firecrackers for fun, feast for good taste, go to temples and pray to random gods for better fortune, but culture is more than just rituals. The real meaning behind our cultural values is gradually eroding.

People forget the real meaning of our cultural values in part because the Chinese education system refuses to emphasize traditions deemed incompatible with modern society by the authorities. Family values are hit hardest because the longstanding one-child policy largely reshaped family structure.

As for cultural legacies, many children learn calligraphy or traditional Chinese instruments because of the resume-padding awards handed out in these fields, but not necessarily because students are genuinely interested. Thus, the art forms that aren’t rewarded in schools are ignored. An increasing number of Chinese students, even those in top universities, have never been offered the opportunity to fully appreciate the wonders of our culture.

My first Spring Festival away from home has been lonely. But more importantly, as I try to explain to my friends at Yale the true meaning of this holiday, I’m reminded of all the cultural values that we’ve lost.

Yifu Dong is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at yifu.dong@yale.edu.

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