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The Chinese New Year And The Effects Of Changing Cultures

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Multidimensionality: Chinese New Year and the Effects of Changing Cultures

The ringing of children’s voices, high and clear, happy to catch up with cousins; massive tables that display myriad foods; strong, dignified corporate men whispering business in closed quarters, hoping not to get caught by their wives. Chinese New Year’s is no place for business. Family- that is the quintessential bond that has kept such an age old tradition alive for centuries.

The intricate traditions of Chinese New Year’s (CNY) have flourished and changed over time in the People’s Republic of China, yet the disparity between what it used to be and what it has become was never as different as it is today; not only between different regions of China but also between the aforementioned and the city of Hong Kong. Today, the influence of a city such as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (HK) is far reaching and serves as a beacon of diversity and influence. But what is lost when innovation and westernization overtake a region that was and now, again, is part of the proud and traditional People’s Republic of China? What macro and micro issues cause a rooted culture such as that of China to dissipate and/or develop new traditions and how does it affect its people in the scope of national identification not only on the mainland but in Hong Kong and throughout the world?

When first venturing to learn more about Chinese New Year’s I thought of the various outlets through which I had already been exposed to this tradition. I found myself lacking in any substantial experiences. My only remote encounter with this celebration has been through movies, sadly. At first I thought it would be a good thing, not having had an initial bias, yet the more I thought of it the more I came to the realization that I was extremely biased. What I had seen in movies always played off of the negative aspects of diversity and, frankly, overt racism. From a young age I remember that I associated CNY with spindly dragons and fire poppers- certainly not a wrong association, but thoroughly out of context and layered with social misconstructions. Being able to immerse myself in CNY with my friend’s family was like nothing I could have imagined. Leon So, a fellow student as UCSD, offered to let me participate in the various Skype video chats that his family paid him throughout the week of CNY. Through the use of various technology, ranging from phones to tablets to laptops, I was able to participate in a traditional (for Hong Kong) CNY.

The celebration commenced with Leon’s parents, Donna Siu and King So, showing me their newly cleaned home along with the various red decorations they hung up. Duilians, red and cream parchments with Chinese poetry inscribed in black, are hung from the walls; Donna’s red dress makes a stunning contrast to her black hair; fake fireworks are strung up; all this to imbibe the color red into every corner of the city, the color of life presented throughout all aspects of life. Jokingly, King mentioned the pollution problem in HK, and how back in the countryside in China they used to have fireworks to scare off the evil spirits but it wasn’t very effective in the city since the spirits wouldn’t be able to reach through the smog anyways. Shortly after we switched to the versatile mobile phone and embarked on a journey to a temple, where people were going to light candles and pray to the gods, a custom that is more religious in HK than tradition, and as such is not unanimously participated in. The most interesting facet of the trip was not the temple though, our journey there was much more fascinating. It being close to the celebration there were many people out on the streets, a large number Caucasian in ethnicity, dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. Leon explained how white people, or how they are referred to in HK “gwai lo” (ghost people), always dress ornately and hand out red packets to strangers. The red packets being small candy filled envelopes or boxes, usually reserved to be handed out between family members only, yet the people of non-Chinese nationality fully embrace the tradition and hand them out to the community. An interesting revelation, to find that Chinese nationals didn’t mind their traditions being changed, they openly welcomed it. Leon even commented that in HK most red packets were now filled with the likes of Skittles or MnMs, not the traditional Chinese candy that had long been the tradition. Such small changes, have a large impact on the overall ritual of how a certain holiday is to be celebrated. The holiday itself is made up of all the little things that individuals to commemorate the occasion, changing the details is changing the ritual itself. In a second Skype video chat, I was made privy to the information that families don’t always gather at the zho uk (the root house where the main branch of the family grew up). Although CNY is a highly family based and oriented celebration, modernity had caught up with it. Some families, out of convenience, gather at a restaurant to commence their CNY family gathering over dinner. Traditional CNY dinner foods are served but in a more modern setting than the traditional root house of the family. This practice is highly distinguishing as part of the immersion of non-Chinese nationals into Chinese traditions in a city that so vigorously embraces modernity.

Due to the large amounts of foreigners in HK, the city has developed a very forward, inclusive society that celebrates diversity and focuses on immersing outsiders in Chinese culture. This can be seen clearly through the way that Caucasians take part in the CNY festivities, and, as Leon mentioned, “A lot of Chinese people go up to the white people that are so religiously embracing CNY and hug them. It’s fun- to see that people don’t avoid what they don’t understand and want to learn more. Why would we make them outcasts when they’re honoring us by learning about our culture?” This way of thinking pervades throughout Hong Kong and facilitates a diluted cultural immersion, as traditional celebrations are changed and adapted to fit the ideals of the newcomers. Very similarly, a parallel can be drawn between what’s happening in HK and the creation of Christmas as the “birthdate” of Jesus, when in fact it was the old Pagan holiday of Saturnalia. This of course is beyond the scope of this ethnography, but it provides insight on how many cultures adapt age old traditions and rituals in order to facilitate an easy transition from one culture to another- the westernized candy being an overt example. In spite of all this, the change in traditions doesn’t benefit non-Chinese nationals. The Chinese nationals in Hong Kong, who have been known to generally hate mainland Chinese peoples (an ideal that was reinforced by the So family) get to celebrate a traditional, revered tradition in their own way. Thus distancing themselves from a community with which they do not want to be affiliated with. In a humorous turn of events, the celebration of CNY in Hong Kong became the same as in the rest of the world- not so much an innate, traditional experience but a festivity of foreign descent, recreated with joy and love, yet still a recreation.

Although Chinese nationals on the mainland generally reciprocate the dislike the people of Hong Kong display towards them, their own geographical conflicts are far worse. Not only in culture but in business as well, southern and northern China are in conflict. Culturally speaking, southern China is more similar to HK, although far from reaching the same level of diversity, while northern China remains entrenched in old customs and traditions. As to not get too ambiguous with the subject topic I will stay on the path of discussing Chinese New Year and the differences between these two geographical regions, although many political and especially financial arguments can be made about the stark difference between Shanghai and Beijing. When interviewing Kimi Wang, a student from a small town in the countryside near Shanghai, he described CNY as being very similar to what he has seen and experienced in the US on New Year’s Eve. Shockingly, in southern China, a lot of families do not even return home for the holiday. “In China we get a week off for CNY. At first it was meant as that people could travel to their families and zho uk, but now people sometimes even go on vacation. It’s a time to relax” explained Kimi. Although he stressed how all the rituals of wearing red, setting off fireworks, and watching the special CNY television program (filled with dancers and performing artists) is still important, the overall theme was that everything is downplayed a lot. There is no particular responsibility to absolutely participate in every aspect of the tradition. CNY doesn’t come first if there is more important work to be done. Kimi remarked that, “There’s a lot of western influence here and people don’t want to celebrate sometimes.” In opposition, northern China is steeped in tradition. When interviewing Yuhan Lau, he remarked in the contrary to Kimi’s commentary. The people are much more focused on doing everything right- from fireworks to watching the televised program to praying to the gods (sans religion, merely for traditional purposes). Even the famed red packets contain traditional Chinese candies, something which can rarely be found in HK or southern China. How come there is such a schism between these locations? Hong Kong, southern China, and northern China all share a deep, rich history for thousands of years, yet recently there has been a dramatic change in the way these peoples celebrate Chinese New Year (a small representation of the larger, more detailed sociopolitical factors).

Although the differences between Hong Kong and both regions of China have their individualized causes the overarching reason seems to be due to the massive industrialization of the southern regions. Mr. So made a mocking comment that “There is a saying that I’ve heard said in Hong Kong before ‘Shanghai is where the West seduces China. Beijing is where China seduces the West.’” It seems sound to say that the gate to southern innovation starts with Hong Kong, opening up ideas and foreigners to an otherwise closed off, traditional country. The cultural center of Beijing has not been reached by these trends, preferring to stick to more traditional customs, reflected by the traditional celebration of CNY. For centuries there has been no working class to speak of in China, yet the flow of ideas in the form of a more Westernized culture seems to be rapidly changing Chinese culture; not only through the Chinese New Year celebrations but through the way society thinks as well. The new idea of guanxi, “…loosely translated as ‘connections’” (Gold et al. 3), has become more and more prominent in China, more specifically in southern China and in the prominent financial city of Shanghai. Overtime, by the incessant pushing of modernity’s globalization, the idea of guanxi has become invaluable to the Chinese people’s that concern themselves with matters of business, specifically within the world of international trade. In Social Connections in China the editors point out that:

…the conditions that have produced guanxi have been extreme enough and enduring enough that the phenomenon has over time become inextricably linked to Chinese society, but it is the institutional conditions that have driven the emergence of the phenomenon. Thus…perception of the particular Chineseness of guanxi is an artifact of historical and institutional conditions. (Gold et al. 9)

Starting from the bottom these ideas of change are in constant flux, morphing the society and changing an age old tradition by implementing small changes to the details of a meaningful and timeless celebration such as the Chinese New Year. Social, political, economic, familial, and scholastic connections are what drives any society. People of a similar background congregate and share stories, what happens when people of all walks of life gather and divulge their tales? It is easy to believe that in the mecca of multiculturalism that Hong Kong has become the merging of many different peoples will result in brand new, fascinating rituals and traditions that won’t stay the same for even a year. The globalization and acceptance of different peoples, no matter the race, ethnicity, or nationality is the forward thinking for which we find Skittles in CNY red packets. In spite of this, the question I posed in the second paragraph has yet to be answered: what is lost when innovation and westernization overtakes?

The answer can be seen in the traditional form of celebrating Chinese New Year that is practiced in northern China. For centuries China has been celebrating the Spring Festival (CNY) to honor the deities and ancestors of the families. It used to be a religious festival, honored not only as a celebration but as a sacred holiday. The loss of the real meaning behind the festival to whimsical frivolities, some would say. Just as many Christians are in disagreement over the non-religious celebration of Christmas and Easter. My family celebrates both aforementioned holidays, yet we are agnostic and use it merely as a chance to gather the family and spend time together. We have had people of faith comment on how inappropriate such actions are. No doubt that a similar way of thinking can be found amongst Chinese peoples that celebrate CNY in a traditional manner. John Bodley even comments on such issues in The Price of Progress:

Tribal peoples feel deprivation not only when the economic goals they have been encouraged to seek mail materialize, but also when they discover that they are powerless, second class citizens who are discriminated against and exploited by the dominant society. At the same time, they are denied the satisfactions of their traditional cultures, because these have been sacrificed in the process of modernization. (Bodley 212)

The very last sentenced reflects the feeling of many societies that have been infringed upon by globalization. The human mind and heart do not differ from tribal society to developed country. The same principles and ideas that are found within such quote are easily recognizable within the scope of what I have discussed. Even in the deeps of El Barrio, in The Game Room, one can find the yearning for the satisfaction of traditional cultures. People like Primo and even Ray have tried time and time again to attain the “traditional culture”- the working class man in their case. Although this provides a whole new take on the meaning of traditional culture, it is clear that to them the aspired social norm is for an opportunity of legal employment. But by the harsh rules that Bodley speaks of, the dominant society exploit them and systematically keep them away from their desired traditional culture due to the rough reality of modernization (education and a corporate labyrinth Primo and Ray are not prone to understand). The reality of these circumstances brings back the overarching idea that it is social connections and the globalization that modernity has facilitated that is responsible for the changing and shaping of cultures.

Throughout China, El Barrio, and even tribal communities one can find the same driving forces behind change. Change is driven by people’s need to accommodate to new circumstances, be they immigrants or a demand for a better life style. The two opposing sides, tradition versus the proliferation of change, will always sway from one side to the other as it is human nature to strive for change yet become nostalgic for what was. I wrote my ethnography on the Chinese New Year to study and better understand the culture, but what I found along the way managed to instigate a deep look within why these changes happened, that ultimately led to an overarching ideal of human connectivity in situations vastly different from one another. The changes in practices of Chinese New Year throughout China and Hong Kong differ due to the changing populations in these locations. People making connections, discussing, and not assimilating but instead creating new cultures around themselves can be attributed to the multidimensionality of Chinese New Year celebrations. What will a Chinese New Year celebration be like 100 years from now?

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