In China, texting home for the New Year

Modern technologies update Chinese traditions as billions of text messages zing phone to phone.

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Chinese New Year has long been an occasion for family reunions, dumpling feasts, firecrackers, and red envelopes full of cash for the children. In recent years, however, a new ritual has introduced itself into the celebrations here: sending an SMS.

Last year, clients of China's two state-owned mobile phone companies sent each other a staggering 15.1 billion text messages, via short message service technology, during the week-long holiday, according to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. That figure is expected to jump, with nearly 4 billion messages zinging around Wednesday and Thursday, the days upon which the New Year's holiday falls in 2008.

"We use these new technologies because friends and relatives don't live close enough," says Wang Rong, a real estate consultant in Beijing. Her husband, currently working in Japan, will get no nearer to this week's family get-together than a view over a webcam of his relatives' groaning Spring Festival table.

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"There are some advantages about using new technologies, and we can contact more people," adds Ms. Wang. "But it doesn't feel very festive."

Modern technology first impinged on Chinese New Year festivities in 1983, with the launch of a four-hour, all-singing-all-dancing televised gala spectacular, broadcast across the country, that has become a national fixture on New Year's Eve.

But if China has changed beyond recognition in the past quarter of a century, the show's heavily patriotic and often overtly political style has not, and many younger Chinese say they watch only to catch Zhao Benshan, China's most popular comedian, who has been doing an act for years.

Still, 700 million people are expected to tune in Wednesday night, making "Spring Festival Happy Together Evening Show" the most-watched program in the world.

Some viewers will be watching only so as to take part in a special New Year competition being run by Sohu.com, one of China's biggest Internet portals. In another illustration of the collision between the Information Age and Spring Festival traditions, Sohu.com is offering prizes to "netizens" who spot mistakes that the show's emcees make.

Other websites offer no prizes, simply more of the noise that is such an essential part of Chinese New Year. The Anhui provincial government's agricultural affairs website, for example, as well as carrying a message of "best wishes to my peasant friends" from Zhao Shucong, the provincial Communist Party boss, gives visitors a chance – through a flash animation – to let off as many fireworks as they like with a click of the mouse.

There are still plenty of people here who will be setting real fireworks off Wednesday night (all Wednesday night, if my experience last year is anything to go by). But there is no doubt that for many of the younger generation, the virtual is creeping up on the real, even for a tradition as sacred as Spring Festival.

"I used to spend a lot of time playing cards, chatting, and watching TV with my family," says Zhang Guoyue, an information technology specialist.

"But now I use my cellphone a lot and I surf a lot. Instant communication … means high efficiency and lower costs," he says. "But the festival atmosphere is not as festive as it used to be."

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