As I look ahead to another week of working from home, I’m thinking a lot about how to keep myself occupied in my free time. So far, I’ve upped my cooking game, done some dance workouts, and invested in a PS4. I love my apartment, so being at home is really peaceful for me, albeit a little lonesome.
Over the Chinese New Year with Melissa’s family, we spent a lot of time on our phones to keep ourselves entertained, but we also enjoyed some typical activities for Chinese people. In this post, I’d like to share some of our activities, as well as a few more traditions.
TV / Phones
Let’s start with the obvious. China is a very technologically advanced country, and these days, you can do almost anything on your phone. In moving to Beijing, one of the biggest changes for me was adjusting to using my phone to pay for everything. The two biggest apps used for making payments are called Alipay (支付宝 – zhīfùbǎo), owned by Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and WeChat (微信 – wēixìn), developed by the company Tencent. Even in the smaller towns, you will always find these apps’ QR codes in shops. Just scan one, type your passcode on your phone, and you’ve paid. These two companies are HUGE in China, and their influence spreads throughout Asia.
Another popular app here is Tiktok (抖音 – dǒu yīn), which has become popular in the U.S. recently as well. While staying with Melissa, I finally downloaded Tiktok after over a year and a half in China. As I knew would happen, I was entranced by the endless scroll of cute, funny and talented videos, and I found it hard to put my phone down.
On the eve of the Lunar New Year, everyone was sitting around the TV with their phones handy. The special program, called the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (中央电视台春节联欢晚会 – Zhōngyāng diànshìtái chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì), is a spectacular hours-long live show of performers from all over China. Last week, I watched the Superbowl Halftime Show and was so unimpressed after having seen the Chinese New Year show. It was something on the scale of the Olympics shows, and must have cost a fortune. The show included Chinese celebrities, singing, dancing, comedy skits, acrobatics and Chinese opera. If you’re interested in watching it (and you have 4 hours available), the entire show is on Youtube.
As part of the excitement, some big companies, such as Alipay and Tiktok, had promised to give out billions of Chinese yuan to their users. All you needed to do was use their apps and play games during the live show. Just before midnight, a large sum of money was given out to all the users who had participated. As I found out that night, billions of people use these apps, so billions of yuan split between us all didn’t amount to very much. My final prize? About 8 yuan (a little more than $1)!
The companies gave out the money in digital “red packets,” or hongbao (红包 – hóngbāo). Hongbao are traditional red envelopes used to give monetary gifts. They are especially given to children and employees during the Spring Festival. Nowadays, though, they are often given digitally via apps like WeChat or Alipay. I’m pretty familiar with hongbao because they are given on special occasions at my job. Whenever a hongbao appears in a one of my company’s group chats, people hurry to click it and receive a (usually random) small sum of money. Hongbao can also be a light-hearted punishment. Some of my colleagues keep all their fitness buddies accountable with threats of hongbao. Whoever doesn’t go running tomorrow has to share a hongbao in the group!
One thing that really fascinates me about China is how the modern and the ancient coexist. Though posting complex poems on your door sounds like something medieval (actually it’s older!), it’s a typical part of the Spring Festival traditions, and you won’t find a door without one. Spring couplets (春联 – chūnlián) are two symmetrical, pithy lines of poetry, usually expressing some hope for good fortune in the coming year.
Fu (福 – fú) is both the character for “good luck” and the name of another banner people usually hang on their doors or around their homes. The banner is square and it’s often hung upside-down. Why upside-down? Because “upside-down” (倒 – dào) in Chinese is a homophone of the character 倒 (dào), which means “arrives.” 福 (fú) being 倒 (dào – “upside-down”) can also sound like 福 (fú) is 倒 (dào -“arriving”), hence “good luck arrives.”
As you may have noticed by now, red is an important color in Chinese New Year festivities, and Chinese culture in general. Red envelopes, red banners, red lanterns, even red pajamas! Red is the color of happiness and good fortune in China. It is the color of fire, and of vitality. It is the color couples wear when they get married. Red is also a color which is meant to scare off evil spirits.
Nian (年兽 – nián shòu) is the lion-dog monster that comes around once a year to eat people and animals. It’s scared of loud noises, fire and the color red. Red envelopes, red banners, red lanterns… these are all meant to protect us from evil creatures like Nian. And of course…
Fireworks! Since I moved to Beijing after they banned fireworks over Spring Festival, I hadn’t had the chance to enjoy the chaotic euphoria that fireworks comes with Chinese New Year’s Eve until I stayed with Melissa’s family in Qihe.
That night fireworks were going off constantly in all directions, disregarding anyone’s safety or eardrums. I’ve always loved fireworks, so this was a real treat for me. A few days later, we purchased a pile of fireworks to set off, including personal, 100-shot “wizard wands,” as I like to call them. Our assortment also included a “peacock,” a whizzing car, spaceships, sparklers and tiny poppers.
Yeah, okay, I have a lot of pictures of fireworks. But I really, really, love fireworks!
What’s that you say? More fireworks pictures? Well if you insist…
And that’s the last of them…
I hadn’t intended this to be a trilogy of posts, but since I’ve still got more to share, and I’ve exhausted your patience with photos of fireworks, we’ll have to carry on in Part 3. In the next post, I’ll review some activities that aren’t exclusive to Spring Festival (like the calligraphy lesson I promised I would write about in this part, alas!) and maybe some musings about art. If you like learning about China and Chinese things, stay tuned!