Thursday, February 7, 2008

The 'New' New Year

Jon, Cherry, and I spent the past couple days in her hometown of Beibei, sharing the Chinese New Year's celebrations.

For those who don't already know, the Chinese have traditionally kept a lunar (rather than solar) calendar, and celebrate the beginning of spring as the start of the new year. This celebration usually takes place sometime around February, but the dates vary from year to year on the international solar calendar. This year's Spring Festival marks the beginning of the Year of the Rat.

Spring Festival is a crazy time in China, marked by one of the greatest temporary migrations of creatures on the planet, comparable to lemmings and locust swarms. A combined several billion trips by train, bus, plane, bicycle, donkey, etc, in order for most Chinese to make it back to their hometowns and extended families in time for the Spring festival are expected.

This year has been particularly difficult for China, as unusually cold weather has stranded millions of migrant workers (ironically, many of them working in Santa's toy factories in Guangdong province) on the wrong end of the railroad. The Chinese government, fearful of the wrath that proletarians without holidays are capable of, have gone on a massive public relations drive to assuage the damage.

This year's CCTV Spring Festival Gala featured many not-so-veiled references to president Hu Jintao's so-called "Harmonious China" doctrine. Don't ask me what Harmonious China is actually supposed to be, other than a China that doesn't challenge Party orthodoxy or the right of government officials to drive the latest BMWs and Hummers. I handled that question in a previous post, quite possibly on my previous blog before local censors made accessing it nigh impossible. The CCTV propaganda Gala also featured a bus skit billed on the English-language channel as being somehow related to the changing attitudes of Chinese towards environmental protection and energy conservation, as well as one heart-warming song dedicated to migrant workers and another repudiating the winter's harsh chill.

In any case, my friends and I were able to make the forty-minute journey to our holiday destination with little or no trouble, despite weather and masses. Once there, we were (as always) bowled over by warm hospitality and perfect generosity. I spent some time questioning Ye Ye (grandpa, namely Cherry's paternal grandpa) about his family's history, while Nai Nai (grandma) and Ba Ba (father) prepared a sumptuous feast composed almost entirely of meat. Yes, no SDA dancing around phony baloney this holiday season--quite fine by me. Chou Chou, the dog whose name not inappropriately translates as 'Ugly Ugly' (but cute ugly, not nasty ugly) certainly desired to join the festivities. I stole a page out of my Dad's book when dealing with the canine... oops! A variety of comic skits and variety show 'numbers' played on the TV in background to the slurping of delicious foods.

Then at the stroke of midnight, the true explosive magic of the holiday revealed itself to us! Try and imagine yourself in this scene:

A barrage of gunfire seems to erupt from outside, coming from all sectors of the city. Booms and crashes and sounds that one--inexperienced in warfare as I am--might associate with rocket launchers are so loud and so constant that you might begin to wonder whether warfare auditory analogies are appropriate at all: perhaps a meteorite shower striking the stratosphere above, or a sudden deluge of biblical proportions fit the bill better! Had we been, on the stroke of midnight, magically transported to 1990's Bosnia? Have the peasants finally seen fit to overthrow their pseudo-socialist overlords?

Venturing outside--cowering, in fact--I can see Cherry's uncle throwing poor Chou Chou up in the air, while handling a long firework that shoots forth flame every couple seconds, variously deflecting off the neighbors porch, caroming off the tree, bouncing across the street a few times, or launching up over the roofs. Serious 'fourth of July' fireworks are being launched from the street corners all around us, as strings of firecrackers explode with flashes that sear the eyes and deafen the ears. Cherry, Jon, and myself are getting into the spirit of things: dancing with bunches of sizzle sticks in our hands, rather than cowering away from this boundless, cackling energy that suffuses and explodes in the air all around us. Nai Nai wanders out into the chaos to ask if we want anything more to eat. Gunpowder smoke is thick everywhere, further illuminating every flash, crackle, and boom throughout the city. A little boy across the street is holding his sizzle stick with utmost suspicion--which is very well, given the number of fingers and toes likely to go missing this very night--first holding it against a concrete telephone pole, and then throwing it into a puddle. His mother is instructively making twirling motions at him as he does so.

Yes, Chinese New Year's Eve in China is not really like the Fourth of July (the medium sized city of Beibei, population 600,000 put on a show more impressive if less choreographed than any I've ever seen) or International New Years elsewhere. I believe it's the fact that semi-oppressed masses of a billion or more are given fairly free access to any manner of explosive device purporting to be a firework and let loose upon the countryside. The result is much like war, but more patriotic and with relatively less casualties. The fact of matter is also that the Chinese people, despite many grim ghosts of past, present, and future to contend with, have quite a lot to celebrate.

1) Mao is dead (and barring a zombie plague, or armageddon, is likely to stay that way).
2) Deng Xiaoping was allowed to introduce capitalism into a socialist society.
3) Chinese international political and economic clout is growing every year along with double digit increases in the size of its domestic economy. US political and economic clout, by contrast, is stagnating.
4) Despite limitations of censorship, China has access to the internet and thus nearly limitless potential for instant messaging, digital romance, World of Warcraft, and porn.
5) It doesn't matter that the vast majority of Chinese are likely to remain in poverty, as long as they have the perception that they have the possibility of upward mobility. This is an underrated foundation of democracy often overlooked by progressive advocates when rating China's cuddliness factor.
6) Children receive hongbao (bribes, er... gift money) at Spring Festival. Along with the fireworks and permission to watch the variety show on national TV rather than doing homework, what is there not to love?

So, as blasts of fire rapped across the evening sky, even I felt a bit moved and a bit hopeful for a China that is allowed to demonstrate honest exuberance in such an explosive fashion*.

*Note: I exclude East Turkestan/Xinjiang, and Tibet from this statement. Residents of those Chinese protectorates are likely to continue to live a bewildered existence caught between the benefits of state subsidy, and the culture-clash inflicted by waves of imperialist bureaucrats and businessmen from the east.

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