Chinese New Year

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It’s a time of homecoming, when all generations of a single family gather under one roof. Food, drink and, of course, fireworks are the outward signs of this gathering but what they represent and the history that they pass on is vastly more important. Marcus Garvy said it best: A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. Like its counterparts all over the world, Chinese New Year fulfills a fundamental human desire for unity and a connection with our past.

For a newly arrived foreigner in China, midnight of New Years Day can be terrifying. Strings of firecrackers erupt on every street corner as people compete to make the most ear splitting performances of firepower. Looking down from an apartment gives a bird’s eye view of what could easily be confused for an artillery barrage as smoke drifts across the warring sides. These are no isolated incidents. Across the city the scene is the same. The Chinese have come out in force to drive away the evil monster Nian, which use to plague villages by burning the fields, killing livestock and even devouring little children. This would have continued if not for a mysterious old man who showed villagers that the monster was afraid of loud noises.

The newly arrived foreigner will undoubtedly notice the color red. Red streamers, red lanterns, red calligraphy, red clothing and red envelopes barrage the senses and fill the streets with good fortune and joy. Although red is an important color at any time of year it is especially so during the New Year festivities. As the evil monster Nian rampaged through the villages he was frightened by the firecrackers. Turning aside to find a more convenient victim his vision was assaulted by a loathsome color, a color that made his head spin and his stomach turn. The villagers had draped red across their doors, over the streets and on the roofs as they had been shown by a mysterious old man.

Our newly arrived foreigner may have seen the lion, or dragon, dances in films before. A tradition where dancers are dressed and masked to resemble fierce creatures, they dance in teams to move the body in leaping motions. Accompanied by drums and cymbals the beasts parade the streets in bright colors. As the terrible creature Nian turned from the firecrackers and became disgusted by the color red, he finally felt terror facing these new foes and fled the villages. Again, the mysterious old man had shown the villagers that Nian was a coward and feared these outlandish animals.

These traditions have been passed on for centuries and are still observed across China. Along with Confucian ideals of respect for your elders and cultural values of good manners, New Years takes all the indefinable qualities of the Chinese and embodies them in something as simple as a pair of chopsticks. Though the monster Nian may not be bold enough to assault the streets of modern Shanghai, the mysterious old man might still be sharing his ancient secrets and teaching children the importance of their heritage.