The long new year’s vacation has come and gone, with my first lecture of the new semester this past Monday. However, before the new semester gets under full swing I had a few more thoughts about the new year itself. Watching the Beida History Department’s new years celebration got me curious about the institution of the New Year’s variety show (Wanhui), which seems to be a staple of East Asian communism (while spending the actual Spring Festival in Vietnam I caught snatches of a similar event dominating the airwaves there, albeit with a much smaller budget than the Chinese version). This video should give you a pretty good idea of the kind of thing the Wanhui is famous for. Like the History Department’s version, party elites dominate the best seats, and one can supposedly tell whether a given official is on the rise or about to be given the boot depending on his seating position relative to the previous year. Sketch comedy routines follow large-production dance numbers, all couched in enough sequins and fluorescent colors to make your retinas tingle.
This isn’t to say that all Chinese are suckers for patriotic drivel and garish spectacle, however. I asked around what my friends in Beijing thought of the event, and the responses made me wonder if this mainstay of the Chinese New Years celebration will survive another generation. For one friend, the event is the preeminent symbol of the dearth of Chinese creativity in the entertainment industry. No one watches the event, which he described as 傻得要死(so stupid it makes you want to die), except for people from his grandparents’ generation who are too accustomed to the routine to stop. For most people of my generation, though, the event is about as important to them as Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve–that is, it provides background noise to family gatherings during the holiday, who may watch snatches of it as they drink together or munch on snacks. Few people seem to devote their whole attention to it, except to watch a sketch featuring a favorite celebrity and the actual countdown to the new year itself. For a number of my friends from smaller cities in China but who go to school in Beijing, the television program is just one aspect of the boring small-town life from which they eagerly escaped but are obliged to return to each year to see their families. From the day he returned home 博哥 complained to me endlessly about the lack of things to do in his hometown of Changsha, and how he could not wait to return to the fast-paced and dynamic Beijing.
The cultural trappings themselves may be bewilderingly different, but the overall effect seems to be the same. My few attempts to explain the concept of dropping a ball on new years seemed to elicit just as much confusion on their end.