The Chinese New Year has been one of my favourite holiday seasons. If I were in Bangkok, I would have purchased a red shirt printed with a little snake, the zodiac sign and mascot for this year, and attended a ritual of worship at any of the Chinese shrines you see in Yaowarat and other Chinese communities in the city.
In Thailand superstition and animism thrive; it does not matter which religion or ethnicity you belong to.
The Chinese New Year is now part of mainstream culture and Thai people, even those not of Thai-Chinese descent, have embraced rituals associated with it, from the handing out of ang pao money gifts in red envelopes to home decorations, lanterns and clothes _ red being the colour of choice. And of course the raucous lion dance. It is a time to pay respect to deities with offerings like fruits and food, and asking them for blessings in the new year.
I have always wondered what the occasion is like or how it's celebrated on mainland China. Certainly, they have ang pao gifts, family reunion feasts, explode firecrackers and there is that unmistakable sea of red in the form of clothes and home decorations. But do the Chinese who are supposed to be atheists worship deities at shrines in the same manner as their Thai-Chinese counterparts do?
Personally, New Year festivities on mainland China remind me of the Christmas tradition in the West. It is a time when people return home _ some spending days on the road before they can reunite with their families, old friends and neighbours, and celebrate the occasion.
Known on the mainland as "Spring Festival", the vacation which this year lasts from today until next Friday has been described by the media as "the world's largest annual migration", because hundreds of millions of workers return to their home towns. They made a total of 3.5 billion trips last year.
Since last week, subway trains have been crowded with commuters lugging suitcases and bags loaded with gifts. Needless to say, these happy-faced commuters were heading back home.
During the past two decades, the number of farm workers migrating to work in cities rose considerably, forcing family members to drift apart. Countless couples work and live in separate cities. Old parents are far and away from their children. Many family members only see each other once a year.
In my opinion, the Chinese New Year in Bangkok is about celebration and animism, the one on the mainland is more about family reunion, which is vital to the fabric of Chinese culture.
Family reunions were not the original purpose of Chinese New Year celebrations when they were conceived during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). Based on the ancient lunar calendar, the event was meant for peasants to celebrate the farming season and ask for blessings from the gods _ for less severe weather, no raging rivers and better crops. It was a celebration of a new year and season.
When the kingdom became a republic in 1912, the event became less popular. Western-leaning reformers replaced the ancient lunar calendar with Gregorian version. Traditional Chinese New Year activities were perceived as feudal and backward superstitions after the country became the People's Republic of China in 1949, and banned during the maelstrom of Cultural Revolution from 1967 to 1979. At the time, people were made to celebrate Revolutionary Day instead.
Therefore, these days you will only find traces of superstitious elements if you happen to be on the mainland when the Chinese celebrate New Year.
"Oh, people in remote areas like Fujian still do that kind of thing," said one of my Chinese friends, revealing one of the few places in China where the god-worshipping tradition is still intact.
"So where can I go if I want to pay my respects to Chinese deities in Beijing?" I prodded, knowing my friend was Christian and that Chinese people are now seeking to connect spiritually.
Christianity is a new alternative to the dominant Buddhism and Taoism, while Islam holds sway in China's autonomous states in the western regions. I also saw shops selling amulets and the Hindu god Ganesh _ shipped from Thailand _ and few of the traditional Chinese shrines of the kind that exist in many communities in Bangkok.
"Perhaps, you can go to temple fairs. There will be many in Beijing," my friend prompted.
Is there any worshipping at those fairs? I searched the internet and found interesting activities _ mainly traditional performances and other celebrations. I have visited temples in China and found them to be like well-managed cultural heritage sites: well-kept and clean, these places do not bustle with worshippers, no carcinogenic smoke from joss sticks, no handicapped people selling lottery tickets, no releasing birds or turtles from cages to make merit, and no soothsaying services by monks. I must confess I miss the superstitious hodgepodge of Chinese New Year in Yaowarat's Chinatown.
After all, the worshipping of gods and the animism that have become core to Chinese New Year celebrations in Thailand may not be just superstitious rituals. They reflect a tradition that once existed on the mainland _ perhaps idiosyncratic cultural heritage denied by reformers, a cultural heritage that Chinese immigrants brought with them as spiritual lifesavers to an unknown land.
These rituals might be laughable and ludicrous for many. But isn't it part of freedom and human rights for everyone worship whatever they believe in, no matter how unreasonable it sounds?
So gong xi fa cai _ Happy Chinese New Year! Feel lucky to be able to worship and pray to those mystic gods simply because you can.
Anchalee Kongrut is a feature writer for Life, currently based in Beijing on the FK journalist exchange programme.
About the author
- Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter