I’m far too behind schedule to get away with still blogging about Chinese New
Year, but the rest of my New Year’s Eve was pretty fascinating too. We last left our heroes shortly before midnight, having just set off probably several thousand RMB worth of fireworks while at a questionable level of sobriety. Leaving a wasteland of smoking and discarded packages strewn across the pavement (this is China, after all), we set off for a temple, where it is tradition to burn incense and make a prayer for good fortune at the start of the New Year.
The main road up to the temple was lined with stalls selling incense of all sizes,
from small conventional sticks to massive columns at least six feet high. Our hosts bought a half dozen three-packs of large, four-foot sticks of incense, which we lugged up the road with us to the temple. Reaching the temple and climbing a set of stone steps up to the first main altar, we found it already packed with people lugging bundles of incense. I had seen people make offerings of incense before at Chinese temples. Given a less crowded day at a temple, people will generally take the time to light the sticks and hold them up as they bow three times before placing the incense at the altar to burn or placing them to burn in a nearby small stone tower housing a fire. But this evening, crushed by the growing throng of “worshippers,” people showed little interest in attaching even the most basic sense of ritual to the act. One by one, people approached the pyre and unceremoniously lobbed their package of (expensive) incense into the flame. The environmentalist inside me winced as I watched plastic packaging, unremoved, curl up in the flames. Many people tossed in entire plastic shopping bags of incense. By the time we had arrived, the stone tower held a massive, roaring fire and belched thick clouds of black smoke into the air.
This type of folk religion was, of course, forbidden for much of the last century in China, and has only re-emerged as a consequence of opening up in the last two decades. I find the role that it plays in contemporary society puzzling. From what I can tell, many families do still pay respects to ancestors, and give offerings during visits home and on important holidays. However, out of everyone I’ve spoken to, no one seems to attend rituals like the midnight New Years prayer out of any real religious feeling. Most go just because it’s the thing to do, or, as a cousin told me that evening, to 感受气氛—just to take in the atmosphere, and enjoy the novelty of it.
The pervasive commercialism seems to have become inseparable from the ritual itself. I remembered seeing the same thing when I visited Wutaishan 五台山, a famous Buddhist pilgrimage site, with 博哥 a couple of years ago. The amount of incense and other Buddhist paraphernalia for sale, which rose exponentially in price the closer one got to the actual holy sites, was staggering. It must have cost several hundred RMB just for each member of the family to toss in a sizeable ream of incense as part of the New Year’s prayer. The temple in Yiyang, 博哥’s dad informed us later, had held an auction for the right to be the person to give the first auspicious offering in the temple right after the stroke of midnight. The winner had spent 40,000 RMB (6,330 USD) for the privelege.
The worshipers thronging around me had spent quite a bit on their bundles of incense, too. And yet, though people line up to throw their money at these rituals, they often take no time to savor the actual ritual of it. They just the incense in the fire and move on, as if the simple act of having purchased the incense is all the spiritual credit you need.
We climbed another level of the temple, reaching its highest point shortly
before midnight. As the official start of the New Year approached, I realized that we had deliberately set off our fireworks prematurely. Most families waited until midnight, and before long, the air was filled with rumbling and cracking from all directions. Looking out over the edge of the temple platform, I saw that the entire skyline was ablaze, looking (and sounding) as if the town was experiencing an air raid. It was an incredible sight, and I tried to get photos of fireworks going off all along the river, but smoke from the incense fires below blocked a lot of them out.
A couple of the aunts were determined to make the rounds to all of the different
altars. Families who must have been waiting to set off their fireworks continued to stream in, and by the time we started the climb down, the temple was absolutely teeming with people. Rather than go straight to bed, we returned to the second relative’s home for a family tradition of eating 夜宵, a late-night meal (the Chinese equivalent of post-partying drunk food). Here we finally got the famous Chunjie dumplings, though I learned that the tradition of eating dumplings on Chunjie is in general a tradition confined to northeastern China. However, because several relatives had worked in Shenyang, Liaoning province for several years, they had brought the tradition back with them. Another meal of course brought more beers. Though this now marked their third attempt of the day to get us drunk, we held on as best as our endurance would let us, before we all staggered back home and crashed around 3am.