It has been 42 years since my first Chinese New Year in Beijing. And 28 years since my last in the Chinese capital, as I, with my husband Mario and our two Chinese-born daughters, returned to the Philippines in 1986 right after the first Edsa People Power Revolution that brought down the Marcos dictatorship.
The celebration of Chinese New Year differed in content during those 14 years that we lived in China and the three important periods that we were there—the Cultural Revolution, the downfall of Jiang Qing’s Gang of Four and the period of reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping.
Official guidelines on how to celebrate the occasion may come and go, but the Chinese people will retain in their hearts the significance of the day.
It was Feb. 14, 1972, the eve of Chinese New Year, and our first celebration of the traditional feast day known as Chunjie, or the Spring Festival. I was with Mario and the other members of a Philippine delegation attending a state banquet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, speaking in fluent English, asked after my health. I was in my seventh month of pregnancy and my condition elicited concern and kind words from him.
Chair Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, expressed surprise that the premier could directly communicate with me in a language other than Chinese. I would be surprised if she knew it was Valentine’s Day, too.
On new year’s day itself, we watched a cultural presentation by the People’s Liberation Army. It was the period of the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese people were enjoined to spend the three-day holiday with a simple celebration in their homes.
We had all the programs for Radio Peking that are beamed to the Philippines, pretaped for the duration of the holiday. Mario and I were working in the Philippine section of the radio station. We were the so-called waiguo chuanjia, or foreign experts. The term was also used to refer to our Chinese colleagues, some of whom were balikbayan from the Philippines and others who learned Filipino in the Radio Peking Language Institute.
‘Three for the Living’
I enjoyed our three-day Valentine’s celebration, the first time we would be on such a date. Outside, the temperature remained at subzero. The festival, which was supposed to celebrate the arrival of spring, fell on the height of winter.
The Spring Festival, or Chunjie, is one of the “Three for the Living” festivals in the lunar calendar. The two others are the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu) and the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhongqiu), also known as the Mooncake Festival.
Chunjie is the equivalent of our Christmas and New Year combined. It is the most important holiday in China when family, relatives and friends get together.
Lunar days do not directly correspond with solar ones. The traditional festivals vary from year to year by our Gregorian calendar reckoning. Just like our Easter, which follows some kind of Roman lunar calculations, Chinese New Year as such may be celebrated anywhere from the third week of January to the third week of February.
Animal zodiac revived
After the Cultural Revolution, the system of using the animal zodiacal signs was revived. The Chinese Zodiac is based on a 12-year cycle, each year in that cycle related to an animal sign. These animal signs are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
As legend goes, Buddha called on all the animals to meet him in the new year. But only 12 came and they had the good fortune to be named in each of the 12 years in the cycle.
Buddha is also supposed to have declared that people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality.
Our first Chinese New Year in Beijing was the Year of the Rat, the year when our eldest daughter, Maningning, was born. I believe Buddha was right in that our late daughter indeed was imaginative, charming and generous to the one she loved—traits of one born in the Year of the Rat.
Her sister, Banaue, has a special sensitivity to art, beauty and faith in a certain religion. She is wise and compassionate, and can cope with business cautiously and circumspectly, traits of one born in the Year of the Sheep.
This year, the Year of the Horse, traits like capacity for hard work and independence are endowed those born under this sign. They will also attain success as adventurers, scientists, poets or politicians, according to the legend.
The Chinese Post Office issued special stamps on new year’s eve representing the particular animal of the year. Long queues would form in front of post offices in the freezing early morning temperature to get the stamps, which could later be sold for a tremendous amount or exchanged for expensive items.
Dumplings, or jiaozi, are the most popular holiday treat in North China, including Beijing. Preparing them is a collective undertaking. One person kneads the dough, another minces the meat and yet another mixes the ingredients together. The adults then enclose the mixture of meat and vegetable in a covering of dough that is shaped like silver ingots but in mouthful sizes. Lastly, they are either steamed or boiled in broth. The preparation of jiaozi fosters unity in the family (on the first day), relatives (on the second day) and friends (who come knocking on the third day).
When we came back to the Philippines in 1986, our first Chinese New Year away from Beijing, my family invited some Chinese expats and Filipino balikbayan from China to our home to prepare jiaozi together. We did that for several Spring Festivals. But we couldn’t seem to approximate the tradition of the Chinese, let alone recreate the ambiance that is quintessentially Chunjie.
Chunjie is also the time to display nianhua, or new year’s pictures. Originally, the custom was to paint the likeness of legendary heroes or deities, particularly the Kitchen God and the Door Gods. Nianhua developed into folk art, featuring auspicious symbols like cracked pomegranates, peaches, fish and well-nourished and chubby children. All these express the wish for a better life, happiness, wealth, many children, long life, fame and success.
The pictures were soon mass-produced with the use of woodblock printing, becoming very popular during the middle of the Ming Dynasty, around the 15th century, and reaching its zenith in the 18th century. The Cultural Revolution would change the content of this folk art, evolving into proletarian posters of peasants, workers and soldiers. However, the old woodblock prints have made a comeback during the post-Mao era.
Gong Xi Fa Cai
The Cantonese greeting popular in our country during Chinese New Year, “Kung Hei Fat Choy,” means “May you become rich!” In Mandarin, it is “Gong Xi Fa Cai.” This kind of greeting was frowned upon by the mainland mandarins who would rather emphasize spiritual or intellectual accomplishments than personal economic gains. Times have changed, however, and getting rich, or trying to, has indeed become the vogue in today’s China.
Other old traditions, which were suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, have eventually been revived. One popular tale is the story of the Kitchen God. It is said that he goes to heaven on new year’s eve to make his annual report about each household. In some areas, people smear the god’s lips with honey so that he will report only the good things. It is said that some even use opium to make the god “high” and forgetful of all unpleasant incidents. These offerings practically become some sort of bribe to the god.
Nian gao, or what is known in our country as tikoy, is also served as dessert. Tikoy is made so sticky as to practically seal the mouth of the Kitchen God in case he is inclined to report on the seamy side of family affairs.
Another tradition that goes with Chunjie is the hongbao (ang pao). These are gifts of money placed inside red packets or envelopes and given by the matriarch to the children, very much like our pamasko during Christmas.
When we were living in China, our office for foreign experts would organize new year’s activities for our families. Our guides would forgo their holiday reunion with their families just to accompany us. In our heated cars or buses we were brought to parks, county towns or cultural centers to watch the best dragon, lion and stilt dances. On the way home, not a few foreigners would complain about having been herded to such tiresome and tedious affairs. On the streets, Chinese children frolic in the snow. I could see my Little Maningning and Baby Banaue smiling with them.
(The author lived in China from 1971 to 1986. She cowrote with her husband, Mario I. Miclat, Ph.D, retired dean and professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, and daughters Maningning and Banaue the book, “Beyond the Great Wall: A Family Journal” [Anvil Publishing, 2006], which won a National Book Award for Biography in 2007.)