Then and now
"Ban tien"m (half a day) in China and you'll already be aware that the two things most often on your interpreter's lips are "the four modernizations," which means modernizing everything, and "scientific research." So, this week, with the Chinese Lunar New Year falling on February 16, I naturally said to C.V. , "What about a little scientific research into what came before this modernization of the New Year?" and my husband chuckled, "Well, I'll investigate among the in-laws."
The first universal factor his research revealed was a mammoth spring-cleaning beforehand. The old Empress Dowager would consult her little book and decide on an auspicious day. Then all the Buddhas, the brocades and everything else in the Palace would undergo a mighty cleaning, except her jewelry, which, she said, didn't need cleaning because only she wore it! We don't consult the astrologers these days but we springclean our universities and schools on the last day of term, then we take advantage of one or two auspicious days' holiday before New Year's Eve to clean our homes. This was important in the olden days because custom wouldn't allow you to sweep the floor during the New Year days; that would mean sweeping the wealth out of the house. The ignorant daughter-in-law who swept towards the door instead of inwards was lucky if she got nothing worse than a beating from her mother-in-law. Nowadays, everyone is expected to clean the house, to wash all quilts and bed linen, to have baths and to put on clean clothes. The most delightful sight on New Year's morning is all the children peacocking around in their beautiful new clothes and shoes. It's a matter of pride for parents to provide each child with a complete new outfit, so you can see why the poor child of the past hated the New Year.
After the cleaning came the cooking. On the 23rd day of the last moon, the Kitchen God had to go up to the King of Heaven to report on what the people in the house had been doing in the past year; then he'd return on the last day of the old year. Some people used to offer him glass dishes of candy or smear his mouth with treacle or sugar before his picture was taken down and burnt to go up to heaven . . . in order to sweeten his report! Nowadays I don't think it's even possible to buy a picture of the Kitchen God.
Each part of China had and has its own typical New Year food. In North China the sound you hear most before New Year is chop, chop. Meat and vegetables have to be chopped to fill little semicircular patties called "jaoz"m and to fill small rolls of thin paste called "spring rolls". The "jaoz"m are boiled and the spring rolls are fried in deep oil. In the Lower Yangtze plains where we live, hard rice cakes chopped in slices and boiled in meat and vegetable stew are real New Year food, too. There are lots of other things to prepare for the New Year parties and symbolical dishes to be offered to friends: apples (peace), olives (long life), lotus seeds (blessing) and golden oranges (wealth). However, I very much doubt that anyone ever thinks of these meanings now.
In the olden days, a spirit table had to be set up. It was arranged with candles, incense and bowls of food for the spirits of the ancestors. Our son, being the eldest son of the generation, should have kowtowed in front of the table to the ancestors each year, but C.V., being quite free from superstition, wouldn't allow the child to do so. And Grandma soon gave up the table herself, saying that she'd appreciate the food more than the spirits would!
It used to be the custom to settle all debts by New Year's Eve. Naturally, the poverty- stricken peasant and the poor people in the town dreaded the New Year as the most terrifying time in the whole year. You could expect no mercy and had no redress. Now, happily, the younger generation knows nothing of this except in story and film. Another thing they would never recognize is paper money (ingots made of gold and silver paper) to be burned at the memorial service to the ancestors. Sheets of yellow, red, or green paper would be prepared, then a good calligrapher would brush the character "shou"m (Long Life) on some and "fu"m (Prosperity) on the others to be given to friends. I remember when the New Year greeting was "Gung hsi, fa tsai"m (Congratulations; become rich!) Nowadays, if you said this even as a joke, people would be shocked. You must say: "Hsin Nien hao!"m (New Year good!).
Present-giving was a major item in the olden days. Son-in-law had to give his in- laws presents, you had to give presents to all the people who had done anything for you during the year, you had to give them to the boss and to your elder relatives! Now all that is out and it is the "bosses" who must visit the workers, the cadres who visit, chat and make friends with the workers below them. The First Party Secretary and the Second visited us last year. Headmasters visit teachers and so on, no presents involved!
Of course, the children still let off firecrackers early on New Year's morning. But they are certainly not chasing away the evil spirits as they were originally intended. They're providing the nosiy fun the children enjoy, and waking everybody up far too early.
I remember long ago going to the City Temple at New Year and, with thousands of other people, surging past hundreds of huge, glaring, terrifying golden gods with flaring tapers and glowing incense sticks in front of them. I wondered why the broad wooden stairs and the creaking upstairs floor didn't catch fire and was told that it often did. Those people were there for fun, not for worship or superstition. Nowadays the City Temple is a warehouse and the streets below are thronged with shoppers.
In the olden days there were strict visiting days: the family must be together for the New Year's Eve party and on New Year's Day; on the second or third day, one could begin paying visits to other relations and friends. Now, you go when you like. Another item characteristic of the modern New Year is "the army and the people are one;" the soldiers give the people help from street-cleaning to transport while the local governments send troupes to entertain the men in the barracks at New Year. The local lane committees visit any old people without family as well as the families of revolutionary martyrs to give them whatever help they need.
On balance, I'm satisfied that our New Year is pretty well modernized, so I can wish you a very Happy New Year of the Monkey. It ought to be spritely, mischieveous and great good fun.