How the Grinch Stole Chinese New Year

The government has banned many of the traditions associated with Chinese New Year—but the holiday may be staging a comeback.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in San Francisco

Over the past week, news agencies have reported on the massive storms interrupting China’s celebrations of the New Year. The heaviest snowfall in 50 years has left millions stuck at train stations, bus depots, and on the road. But blizzards aren’t the only thing to interrupt festivities in the People’s Republic. The government has been doing the same thing for decades.

While Chinatowns in America host flashy parades this month, city folk inside the People’s Republic rang in the New Year Wednesday night in front of the tube. Over the past century, the long-held traditions associated with Chinese New Year have been stripped away, right down to the holiday’s name: By government decree, Chinese New Year was rechristened “Spring Festival.” For most urban families, celebrating is limited to eating dumplings, setting off fireworks, and watching the national TV program (this year’s theme, “Thriving China, Harmonious Society“), which will feature a blind singer and a comedy routine called “Olympic Torch Bearers.”

Gone from cities are rituals like kowtowing to elders and burning the Kitchen God. (As is also the case with the fortune cookie, large Chinese New Year parades like San Francisco’s are an American invention.) Almost every one of the Chinese New Year traditions has been banned at some point in recent decades. It’s as if the U.S. government outlawed and vilified Santa Claus costumes, nativity scenes, and Christmas lights.

What happened to the Chinese New Year? The story starts in 1912, when the new nationalist government renamed it “Spring Festival” to encourage people to transition to celebrating the Gregorian New Year instead. Then, in 1928, the government officially moved the holiday to coincide with the Western world’s New Year celebrations. Japan had done so a half century earlier and still celebrates the New Year on Jan. 1. The Chinese government banned fireworks and holiday paraphernalia, and moved official vacation days to force the change, but it didn’t work—and a year later, the Spring Festival was back to its normal time of year.

After the 1949 Revolution, the Communist Party enacted the philosophy Karl Marx had written a century before: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. Religion is the opiate of the people.” Just as Chairman Mao Zedong eradicated opium by executing dealers without clemency, he rooted out religion by arresting high monks, busting up temple gatherings, censoring icons, and generally heaping scorn upon such “superstitions.” During the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, there was no celebration for the New Year at all. Red banners, which for 1,000 years had featured couplets about springtime and prosperity, now had to have revolutionary slogans lauding Chairman Mao. Temple fairs vanished. Lion and dragon dances were scorned, bunched in with the detested Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Teachers told students to reject traditional gifts of money in red packets from their parents, because money had to be earned through the sweat of the brow.

Perhaps the most significant blow to Chinese New Year was the government’s decision to forbid the annual burning of the Kitchen God, whose paper effigy hung above the stove. From this post, he could see whether a family was naughty or nice, and once a year, he passed along that information to the Jade Emperor, the top god in Daoism. A week before the first day of the lunar New Year, the family would feed him homemade candy and sticky cake to sweeten his words (or glue his mouth shut) during his annual report in heaven, and set out grass and water to nourish his horse for the journey. The family would then torch him and kowtow as he went up in flames, touching the forehead to the floor three times. Without burning the Kitchen God and replacing him with fresh paper, it was as if the year hadn’t passed.

But for more than 50 years, the Kitchen God’s effigy has been censored material. While low-ranking gods like the Lords of the Door, who guard courtyard gates and inner doorways, were more tolerated, the Kitchen God was not. In the more traditional countryside, peasants evaded censors by printing the Kitchen God at home on crude wooden blocks. But many young Beijingers I recently asked had never heard of the Kitchen God. Others laughed sheepishly, as if he were a national embarrassment—the equivalent of still believing in Santa Claus as an adult. But the Kitchen God might soon become easier to get hold of—for those who still worship him outside major cities. In December, President Hu Jintao announced that he wants the government to recognize religion’s role in society, reach out to believers, and support self-governance of religious groups. It may just be an attempt to seem more human rights-friendly in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, but some academics think this announcement may signal a significant change in China’s treatment of religion.

While the Kitchen God left major cities for good, another ritual has made a comeback after being banned: firecrackers. They were not just for fun: Firecrackers were meant to scare away the New Year monster, whose name happens to be “Year,” so that when you say the monster has passed, it is a pun meaning the year has passed. Originally, firecrackers were just bamboo shoots, which crackle and pop when set afire. But the flashier modern fireworks sometimes take out fingers and damage hearing. In 1993, the Beijing government banned them for safety reasons, and most cities followed suit. More than 100,000 volunteer guards wearing red armbands were charged with arresting people who ignored the ban and taking them to police stations to be fined. As a replacement, some people bought cassette tapes with recorded firecracker sounds. Others simply ignored the ban, and two years ago, the Beijing government lifted it, much to many people’s annoyance. Since they are one of the only celebratory outlets permitted today, a few people overindulge, keeping the neighborhood awake into the wee hours.

Other rituals reserved for Chinese New Year were lost along the road of economic progress—particularly luxuries now affordable all year. People in the north used to shower only at the New Year and get a ceremonial haircut on the 27th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar; any later would subtract from intelligence, according to tradition. Once, dumplings were special for the New Year, and families rationed meat all year to save up for them. Now, urban Chinese can eat meat dumplings daily. New shoes and clothes were a New Year treat for children, but they too are no big deal in cities. As a child, my 78-year-old neighbor, Wu Shu Qin, couldn’t even afford red banners. Now she keeps them up all year round.

Also changed is that her children don’t prostrate themselves before her as she once did to her elders. “People used to kowtow three times to their parents and grandparents,” said Liu Yi Da, the author of a book on folk customs. “Now they just show up at their parents’ house and say, ‘Hey Mom and Dad! I’m paying you my New Year visit.’ And then they all sit down to watch the Spring Festival program on TV.”

With 200 million migrant workers, by official counts, not everyone in China can make it home for the holidays. But practically everyone tries. This year, an estimated 200 million people are traveling, with some standing on trains for 40-hour trips. Families in China are so scattered that Spring Festival traffic has its own new term: chunyun. Once upon a time, it was a given that families were already in the same place to burn the Kitchen God together. Nowadays, neither can be taken for granted. To both rich and poor, whether they still burn the Kitchen God or not, getting home has become the holiday’s most sacred—and strenuous—ritual.