Imperial Traditions in Red China

This new year, Chinese revive old culture. But some youths send greetings by e-mail.

Every year during the New Year Festival ancient Chinese traditions and beliefs undergo a phoenix-like rebirth.

From the outskirts of Beijing to the streets of Taipei, from Hong Kong to the Chinatowns scattered across the United States, ethnic Chinese gather together to set off firecrackers to scare off the ghosts of the past and celebrate the new.

In the Chinese capital, families paste festive poetic couplets on doorways calling for good fortune with the New Year. Red posters, inscribed with gold letters and featuring the Chinese god of wealth, are strung throughout the country.

From one-room hovels to traditional courtyard houses, to newly built high-rises, the simple artworks repeat a single wish that for centuries has greeted the New Year: They ask for prosperity.

For many urban Chinese, that wish is becoming reality nearly two decades after leader Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms and opened the country to the rest of the world.

"When I was a child, the Lunar New Year was so special because it was the only time of the year that we could feast on dumplings and candied fruit despite the poverty of the rest of the year," says a retired worker in Beijing. "Acrobats ... and every manner of musician captured the imagination of children at temple fairs during the holiday," he recalls. "But today, many youths have been spoiled by prosperity, and some would rather go to a disco than to the traditional fairs...."

But while individualism and a fascination for Western culture burgeoned in the 1980s, an interest in ancient Chinese philosophy and customs has seen a recent resurgence. And growing links between the Chinese diaspora and the motherland are helping fuel the rebirth of Chinese culture.

"The Chinese New Year Festival is much more lively in New York than in Beijing," says a Chinese scholar who visiting the US. "In many ways, New York's Chinatown is more Chinese than China." He cites two major reasons for the phenomenon: "First, Chinese communities in the US, especially the elderly, have been largely isolated from change. Second, Chinese and their traditions abroad were never ravaged by the Cultural Revolution."

During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, launched by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966, radical young Red Guards were ordered to wipe out the country's "feudal past" by razing temples, brainwashing Confucian scholars, and destroying all remnants of China's pre-communist beliefs.

But overseas ethnic Chinese have in recent years begun investing in rebuilding temples, setting up Confucian study centers, and making other moves aimed at restoring Chinese culture.

China's renewed strength on the world stage is acting as a centripetal force on overseas Chinese, many of whom return to the mainland with their traditional ideas and practices intact.

Meanwhile, the temple fairs of old have returned to Beijing and other cities to mark the coming of the New Year. At the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, Chinese yuppies bring their children to watch centuries-old dragon dances, play games, and listen to masters of the erhu, a traditional two-stringed instrument.

In northern Beijing, performers reenact a sacrificial ceremony to the gods at the Temple of Earth that was carried out by generations of Chinese emperors to ask for an abundant harvest. Although fireworks are now banned in the capital, thousands travel to the suburbs to witness elaborate pyrotechnic displays. Others will stay up to play cards and mahjongg and welcome the first dawn of the Year of the Ox that begins today.

And just as the communications between the various parts of Greater China are helping foster the rebirth of Chinese civilization, so is the sending of traditional holiday greetings becoming more modern. A growing number of youths and intellectuals are forgoing post offices to send "virtual New Year cards," in English or Chinese via the Internet.

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