Fresh breezes sweep China's new year festivities

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''Wishing you wealth!'' This traditional Chinese new year greeting, frowned on since the advent of the People's Republic in 1949, has been revived this year with the addition of two words: ''through labor.''

Firecrackers exploded prematurely as China's billion people prepared to celebrate the Year of the Pig, which began Feb. 13. Almost every shop in Peking is festooned with bright red banners proclaiming, ''Welcome the Spring Festival!''

Every fourth shop or so seems to be selling firecrackers - the louder and noisier the better. China officially uses the solar calendar. But Jan. 1 is just a public holiday, whereas the lunar new year, renamed the ''Spring Festival,'' remains a day of popular celebration. And to most Chinese, a celebration means two things: noise and feasting.

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Railway stations are crowded with students returning home for the holidays, or city folk off to visit their ancestral homes in the countryside. Shops are bulging with goods - mostly food - and though some prized items such as lean pork require queuing in some areas, generally speaking this year there is more abundance than seen for many a season.

The free markets, which have done so much to restore prosperity to the countryside, are overflowing with fresh green vegetables, quacking ducks, and cackling chickens. For families decorating their homes in traditional fashion, there is a wide selection of new year pictures, many popularizing official themes such as ''one child per family,'' but others are based on more traditional Chinese themes.

Here in Peking, the city authorities have opened a lantern exhibit in the old drum tower, one of the city's few surviving traditional structures. Lanterns of all shapes and sizes are on display, as well as paper peacocks with magnificently spread out feathers, paper goldfish with moving fins and tails, and jade trees fashioned of glass - a traditional Peking art.

''I haven't seen a display like this since 1956,'' said a senior citizen who had brought his granddaughter along with him.

''It's a good thing,'' the grandfather said, ''that young people have a chance to see these traditional displays for the first time.'' And in a notebook for visitors' comments, a high school student wrote: ''This exhibit has wafted the fresh breezes of spring into our hearts.''

In stalls at the foot of the drum tower, a counter selling earrings, brooches , and other trinkets was crowded with young girls and their boyfriends - another sign of the more relaxed atmosphere of these times. The new slogan is that it is quite acceptable to make money, so long as one does so through one's own labor, and that it is equally acceptable to spend the money one makes on whatever one desires.

Thus the World Economic Herald, Shanghai's economic weekly, greeted the lunar new year with red banner headlines: ''Congratulations on overall reform, wishing you wealth through labor.''

''Ring out stereotyped old modes, ring in a new Chinese style of socialism,'' it said. ''Ring out fearing to talk about wealth, ring in a new way of reaching riches through labor. Ring out looking down on intellectuals, ring in a new style of valuing intellectuals.''

These slogans reflect the present leadership's determination to move away from the bleak egalitarianism of the Cultural Revolution years (1966-76) and to make China moderately rich through economic incentives at home and an open door for investments and joint ventures from abroad. There have been problems and setbacks, but on the whole the policy seems to be working.

The incoming Year of the Pig is likely to be a year of modest but steady wealth-creation, for individual citizens and as well as for the nation as a whole.

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