Posts Tagged ‘Holidays’

New Years Pt. 3: Religion For Sale

February 22, 2012

I’m far too behind schedule to get away with still blogging about Chinese New

Incense for sale on the way to the temple

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,

Lining up to burn incense

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.

Burning incense

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

We were waiting by another incense pyre just as the fireworks began to go off

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

View of the street below

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.

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New Years in the Middle of Nowhere pt. 2: Drunken Fireworks

February 4, 2012

My experience in Yiyang, Hunan included just a few brief respites from constant eating and drinking. After a massive dinner on New Year’s eve, and after chatting through several hours of the 春节晚会 (the New Year’s variety show which is sort of the Chinese equivalent to Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve), we went outside for the part of the evening that I’ve been looking forward to the most: fireworks. 博哥 knew how excited I was for this part, and I think I had his father prepare a particularly large haul for this year. Leaving the apartment, I helped haul a load of boxes out to the pedestrian street, which at this point was mostly deserted. These were filled with a massive assortment of fireworks of all shapes and sizes, including many of a size that I’m sure require some sort of professional license to use in the US.


(The video starts getting good about 15-20 seconds in)

The last time I was in China over Chunjie I remembered reading stories of fireworks-related burns and injuries—I’m sure, with the combination of professional-grade fireworks and heavy drinking that there are dozens of accidents a year. So I was a little nervous when Bo’s father lit a cigarette and thrust it into my hand. “Just touch the cigarette there and then run this way,” he said. As I walked up to the first case of fireworks, my boots slid a little on the pavement, which was smooth and slick with half-melted snow. I lit the fuse, though, hopping frantically over the slippery pavement as I heard it sizzle behind me. Looking up into the sky I was rewarded with explosions of the size that you’d only see at Fourth of July in the US.

While the show was amazing, it did little to quell my concerns about the irresponsibility of making such large explosives so widely available to drunk people. One uncle lit a box of big rockets and then, as the rockets began to shoot into the air, shuffled immediately to another box a few feet away so that he could set both off simultaneously. While the first few rockets launched into the air without a hitch, the third rocket only lofted a lazy ten feet into the air, exploding just above his head as he was crouching to light the second box. Another big rocket lit soon after gave off sparks but never got off the ground, instead exploding in a shower of green sparks just ten feet away from us. No one was injured, but it did make me wonder how often one comes across a defective firework. The big expensive fireworks were soon expended, leaving an assortment of sparklers, roman candles, and other novelties. My favorite among these, which they called a “butterfly,” consisted of a small rocket with a set of small cardboard wings. Once lit, a stream of sparks causes it to spin rapidly, such that it lifts into the air like a flying saucer, making an unearthly buzzing sound before exploding with a crack.

When we finished, a wasteland of smoking and discarded cardboard packages lay before us. This being China, after all, we of course simply left them behind us and took off for the last activity of the evening. The residents of Yiyang have a tradition of visiting a local temple to burn incense and make a prayer for the new year. More about that next week.

New Years in Middle of Nowhere, Hunan pt. 1

January 26, 2012

Cousin Katie and I spent Spring Festival 春节this year with 博哥’s family in Hunan. While this was the second Chunjie I’d spent in Asia, I

Picturesque Yi Yang

had spent the holiday during my year at Beida travelling outside China, and was thus excited for my first chance to have an authentic Chinese New Year experience. We flew into Changsha Hunan, early on Saturday morning, and 博哥’s mom (who I’ll call 李妈妈 for the purposes of the blog) and dad (李爸爸) met us at the airport for the drive to Yiyang 益阳, where 李妈妈’s family is from. Yiyang,a tiny (by Chinese standards) city of about half a million people, lies about an hour and a half northwest of Changsha. It’s got the rather drab uniform look of most middling Chinese cities: most of the buildings share a similar beige color and few are over eight stories high. We stayed in an apartment just off of the wide shop-lined pedestrian street (perhaps modeled after Shanghai’s Nanjing East Street) that is also a mainstay of all mid-level Chinese cities. It snowed most of the afternoon and evening of our first day there, such that the whole city was blanketed in snow by the second day. Covered in snow, the city resembled a less picturesque version of the homely town where the blockbuster Pepsi commercial I wrote about earlier this month is set.

We arrived in Yiyang mid-day on Saturday, in time for a massive meal with several aunts, uncles, and cousins, including a mid-sized bottle of baijiu split between the five men (including me) at the table. Unsurprisingly, non-stop eating and drinking were the dominant theme of the entire trip to Hunan, to the point of exhaustion. Every lunch and dinner became a big production,

All the meals were this awesome. Only thing missing from this photo is the boozeHanging out around the fire after a meal. It was too cold to do much else

with plenty of relatives crowded around a table piled high with food. The homemade food was, also unsurprisingly, amazing, although I was surprised that this Hunan crowd ate very little spicy food. Most meals consisted of a couple of large stews which boiled throughout the meal in electric kettles, flanked by an assortment of stir-fried dishes. As the meals wore on and the stir-fried dishes cooled, the remainders were dumped into the boiling electric pots, presumably to re-heat them and to soak up the flavor of the stew. Several family members live on farms, giving us ample access to amazing home-raised free-range chicken, and incredibly fresh home-grown vegetables, including some I’d never seen before.

Even this amazing food took a back seat to the single-mindedness with which a Chinese family at New Years pursues its alcohol. The level of drinking was

View from on top of a temple on a hill overlooking the city

exhausting. It felt like an act of physical exertion to drink heavily over a big lunch and then, just in time for the buzz from lunch to wear off, to start all over again. Luckily, this family was willing to spare us from drinking baijiu most of the time, leaving us to choose between beer and wine. The downside of drinking one of these, though, is that an appropriate toast often requires draining a full 5 ounce glass—whether it was full of beer or wine. According to custom, one is expected to toast everyone at the table, as well as be toasted back by the other drinkers. On several occasions, thus resulted in me finishing off more than a full bottle of wine to myself, to say nothing of the beer. A couple of times, 李爸爸 brought bottles of wine with him to toast us with when we went to visit other relatives. However, as the wine was mostly for our benefit (had it been up to them, they would have drunk just baijiu), few people had an opener handy. We watched instead as an uncle, showing remarkable ingenuity, drove an ordinary screw through the cork and used that as leverage to remove it.

While Chunjie festivities often last a whole week, the official start of the new

Burning "money" for ancestors to use in the afterlife

year was Sunday night. We gathered in an aunt’s apartment for the meal, but before we could eat, the family had to make a New Year’s offering to their ancestors. We gathered in the small apartment’s dining room, where several Mao posters overlook a round wooden table. We watched as Grandma laid out two plates of meat and a full stewed chicken in a bowl on the table, as well as a couple of plastic cups of rice, and two glasses each of water and baijiu. She placed a sprig of green onion over each of the dishes of meat, and lit a couple of sticks of incense. Each member of the family took turns bowing over the table, following which she burned a small handful of rough yellow paper, which I’d seen before to represent money. The little dish

Also from a temple overlooking the city. The low buildings in the background are a cement factory.

of incense was transferred to a small altar inset in the dining room wall.

I’ve decided to split this into a couple of entries since it’s too long for one blog post, but stay tuned next week for drunken fireworks.