Focus: Do We Still Know How To Celebrate?

Focus: Do We Still Know How To Celebrate?

Chinese New Year has become an international festival. Anchored into the calendar of ancient and rural China, it takes new significance in different times and places. What do we celebrate exactly at the time of Chinese New Year? How does it affect family life? What does it teach us about the importance of celebrating together in our post-modern societies, from East to West? More generally this Focus takes the opportunity of Chinese New Year to offer insights and reflections on the way we celebrate. Do our rituals and festivals still carry significance and if so, which do they convey?


Thursday, 11 February 2010

New Year as a time for self-reflection

Li-chun highlights some absurdities generated by the conflict between tradition and modernity, between one's duty and one's desires.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Be happy & make a wish

Pinti loves eating and she is apparently a good cook! However traditions are very important and give the opportunity to make and break habits. Here, she explains to us why she recently became a vegetarian...

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Thursday, 11 February 2010

Butterflies and amusement parks

Self, the other and fantasy. Ida contrasts Taipei New Year, an Aboriginal tribe's New Year and her vision of an ideal Chinese New Year.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Gong Xi Fa Cai

Chiara 'sings' her praises for Chinese New Year in Taiwan. From a standpoint of an Italian upbringing...

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

What is still sacred?

Celebration in Crisis? As we approach the first Chinese New Year of the twentytenty's. The Chinese Diaspora is in a prolific period of evolution. Its festivals also appear to be in a process of evolution. Chinese New Year is becoming internationalised on a scale close to that of Christmas. [/dropcap]With these evolutions come new challenges, new identity issues and new soul searching. Indeed the true value of Christmas has long been questioned annually, the commercialisation of the ceremony, its newer function as a stimulant to heat up the economy in the midst of winter, lifting economies out of recession and lifting the mood of the people. Indeed, Christmas and CNY have a lot of similarities:

[dropcap cap="T"]he east is red, the west is red. Is there enough red dye in the world or will our stocks of red Christmas hats, red fireworks, red lights, red Santa’s, red envelopes, red banners ever be depleted? Santa's overworked elves have growing bags under their eyes, reduced holidays; rising fuel costs stops new machinery being installed, running out of resources but the kids keep asking for more, so the parents keep asking for more and Santa has got to provide more, because his constituents no longer embrace the concepts of moderation and austerity, the constituents want more, the constituents always want more, but the elves underground keeping everything going are really, REALLY tired, their joints are red and close to collapse..[inset side="right" title="Beast"]Santa's overworked elves have grown bags under their eyes[/inset] And there are new competitors on the field; billions of pounds of lights, explosions fly over from the central kingdom. The New Year Beast (年獸) is faring no better than Santa in the East And as one gets closer to the New Year you can here his cries from the mountains surrounding Taipei as he looks over the city, over Taipei 101: "This used to be my domain, now they encroach further, now the river runs red all the way up to my mountain abode. I fear the red more than anything, red banners with spring couplets which spread propaganda that deny me, which decry my ending; and the kids, the kids who used to be so delightfully cute, so delightfully edible; I used to eat the kids, now the kids are all armed with their bazookas of light, these fireworks of artificial joy; the streets are getting redder the kids are getting fatter and the fat cats are getting fatter and everyone is taking a bite out of me. They don't even pay me due respect, they eat more food as escapism from their uncomfortable family gatherings, feeling naked, as the computer screen that acts as a shield no longer separates and protects them from reality."[/dropcap]

As broadband and facebook reach all corners of the world it gets more and more difficult to find the last few patches of real human interaction in our virtual world. The annual visit to your grandparents, became your biennial, became your triennial visit home, became your annual telephone call, became your biannual msn conversation and electronic Christmas card. Technology and society evolve faster than the human mind is ready for. Christmas trees, mince pies, Easter eggs hunts, turkey, Yorkshire puddings, present opening, the red arrows became a mere figment of our past memories and we sink into nostalgia. Are we the generation of fast food, fast love?

So what is left of our celebrations? WHAT IS STILL SACRED?! ...What was ever sacred?

There are however a few sacred corners which continue to exist, which will always exist, some last untouched portals, a wonderland for romantics. Openings in the woods, green fields, strawberry fields, meadows, riversides, beaches, abandoned mines and openings in the rainforest, and other mysterious natural places...and with the decline in everyday interaction have come new fields of interaction...the rave party, which in its modern form engulfed the UK, and was an escape from escapism, a place to connect, to celebrate direct human interaction, to promote our visions and our relation to nature, the loud, thumping music acting as the catalyst for social inebriation. In addition to all the places in nature, it overtook the citied extending to car parks, even places of worship such as the 'Rave Masses' from Sheffield all the way to California. And in these rave settings there was liberation from social codes, the philosophy of dance was endorsed as an expression of inner feeling, less focused on the outer aesthetic, allowing a sense of belonging that transcended through language, creed and colour. The act, the will to, the entrancement in dance; from shamanic rituals, to rugby war dances, to students who would spend months feeling, exercising and enjoying the music; the communication, the meditation, the appreciation, the art of living in the moment.

And what of the origins of these raves? The latest manifestation of the rave I attended was a small post New Year car park party in Taipei, named Tiger Hunting and inadvertently a fitting celebration of my 24th year (and other youth born in the year of the tiger). And whilst culturally these raves of neon lights, fluorescent backdrops and marginalised youth seemed a million miles away from the family gatherings at New Year and Christmas, they essentially remain intimately linked to the original spirit. A celebration of lunar phenomenon, family (albeit non-biological) and adrenaline rushing dance. This year on the 21st of June at around 11.28 Greenwich meantime, is the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. And as the religious and pagan festivals since the beginning of recorded history we will see then some of the most vibrant manifestations of the rave. Furthermore it is with these winter and summer solstices and the equinoxes that we see the innate call to festivity, to celebration, that cannot be separated from human essence.

The winter solstice that precedes the belated Christmas and the birth of Christ is a day of celebration even for many pre-Judaic religions. Centuries ago, since the dawn of astronomy and even before, albeit a little less accurately, people would celebrate winter solstices. A rebirth, as the hours of daylight gradually begin to increase, the worst is behind and everything’s better from here on out. Like the Chinese spring couplet 一年復始萬象更新 (with the start of a new year everything commences anew), with a milestone of a new beginning comes new opportunity and allows one to relive everything as a new experience, and if we extend this, every day, and every breath, can be lived as a new beginning, a spiritual renewal. Every moment is different, whilst at the same time everything is continuous. This may be seen as a rapid period of evolution in our festivals but we can never put a stop to the perpetual manifestation of the festival. What is true remains the same. People will continue returning home for Christmas and CNY. And perhaps the most pure form of religion is that of experience; thus the will to dance, sway, shake, slide, twist, spin and jump is evidence that ceremony is still alive.

The soul-searching is in vain because the ceremonies will always remain, because the revelation lies in our very nature and the festivals are merely the formulisation of human experience, the phenomena of the stars, planets and solar systems and that (him/her/it) which operates these phenomena. Homo erectus, prehistoric man, the Incas, the Celts: they all danced in the forests, and then they danced on the grass, on the deserts, around the fire, on the mountains, on the beaches. We dance in the forests, on the grass, in the deserts, on the mountains, around the fire, on the beaches; and generations onwards will also dance and celebrate, because it is sacred.

The wild man is more beautiful than the knowledgeable man. Experience is sacred.


Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Chicago celebrates the Year of the Tiger


It is the sound of firecrackers bursting through a quiet night and the sight of vivid orange and red dragon or lion costumes coming to life at a street parade. It’s also the taste of fresh oranges and pomelos that help to fill the senses of those ready to take in the Lunar New Year celebration known as Chinese New Year. For centuries, the Chinese have viewed their New Year as a time of good luck and fortune in anticipation of a new beginning. While the actual day changes based on the Lunar calendar, the New Year is celebrated on the first day of the first moon in the calendar. This year it falls on February 14, and families celebrate for a total of fifteen days. 2010 also ushers in the year of the Tiger, a sign of bravery.


This two-week break means Chinese and Taiwanese families gather together, eating homemade meals and enjoying each other’s company. For the children, it’s also a time to revel in getting lucky red envelopes filled with money or“hong bao,”in Mandarin.


While a holiday steeped in tradition and centred in the Eastern part of the world, Chinese New Year celebrations take place beyond Asia.


Kim Ow, 76, has lived in Chicago for over 40 years, and says he and his family always celebrate Chinese New Year. Ow came from Hong Kong to the States as a young teen, and continues to keep the Chinese holiday alive for his first generation Chinese American family.


AnnaTesauro_Chinatown2_s“For the Chinese, it’s what you grow up in and believe in. When I was a kid, the most important day was Chinese New Year.


We eat good food, get red envelopes and light off firecrackers,” he said.


As a Chicagoan, Ow watches the annual Chinese New Year Parade held in Chinatown in Chicago. The parade includes a lion and dragon dance, something Ow used to participate in when he was in his thirties.

In addition to Ow’s wife and five grown children, his brother and two sisters come with their families for a big dinner, which he says includes mushroom with pork and most importantly, chicken. “My wife is Buddhist, so we pray, too,” he adds. For dessert, they enjoy homemade pastries. True to tradition, the children receive their lucky red envelopes. As first generation Chinese American children, Ow admits his children are more American than Chinese, but he notes, “they still believe in Chinese holidays.”



Andy Siharath, of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce notes that Chinatown initially began developing in 1920 and has progressed ever since. Every year, the city holds the lunar New Year parade for the entire city to enjoy. This year’s parade will include marching bands, floats, lion teams, a hundred foot mystical dragon, and the Miss Friendship Ambassador for Illinois.


Today, Chinatown is home to an estimated 18,000 Chinese, with about 68,000 Chinese living in the entire city of Chicago.





Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The passing of the New Year Beast

Nick shares his first experience of Chinese New Year and also recalls the origins of one of its main rituals: the throwing of firecrackers.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Celebrating the Monsoon

By late July, stepping out into the pre-monsoonal weather in Bodh Gaya was akin to wrapping oneself in a blanket that had been soaked in warm water. The thick humidity was inescapable, conspiring to prevent you from being cool at all times of the day. Nights were the worst, especially when the power cut out—a not infrequent occurrence in under-developed Bihar—with the sound of thirsty mosquitos buzzing outside the tattered mosquito net only just masking the discomfort being completely covered in sweat. 

As a visitor to Bihar, I was fortunate. The sticky heat was something I only had to tolerate for a short while, and would not have to do anymore once I had moved on. However for Biharis, and those all over northern India, this is their reality, summer after sweaty summer. That is until the monsoon rains begin, sweeping across the Gangetic plains, cooling sweating brows, stimulating farmer’s fields and reviving rivers from dusty plains to surging watercourses.


Last year the rains began in earnest one night at about 10pm. After an hour in an internet café, I stepped outside to discover that not only had it started pouring, but the previously barren road was now awash with water, in some places already well above ankle height. The change in atmosphere was palpable; for the first time in weeks I was outdoors and didn’t feel the need to go somewhere cooler.

The waiter in the café advised me to take care when walking home as the deluge was likely to pick all manner of unhygienic items into the torrent running down the street, and I should take care not to step on something unpleasant. Walking down the street I caught sight of some boys playing in the water.

Paul_Farrelly_Moonson1These boys were demonstrating no such caution. They had stripped down to their underwear and were thrashing around in the deeper pools, playing in the newly abundant water, something that a mere day before had been just a dream. One of the boys in the shadowy pools had the contortedly arachnid limbs of a beggar – his legs most likely broken at an early age as an entrée into a life of pan handling. I had seen this same boy hours earlier, shuffling along the pavement outside the Mahabodhi temple, desperately seeking small change from pilgrims and tourists. The grim determination that had infused his previous expressions had been transfused by the sudden downpour. A luminous smile spread across his face as he rejoiced in the first monsoonal rains of the year, cooling and cleaning himself by the side of the road.

His joy was undoubtedly shared by everyone else across the state who was waiting for rain. Relief was at hand and there was hope for the future: water and food supplies looked that bit more secure. However, everyone would be aware of the power of these rains. In most years floods cause considerable damage to property, livestock and people in Bihar, with human death tolls of more than 100 frightfully common. And in August 2009 the rains ultimately proved to be deadly once again, with more than 50 people dying. [inset side="right" title="Paul Farrelly"]Paul is a graduate (MA/MAPS) of the Australian National University in Canberra. While there, he researched new religious movements in East Asia with an emphasis on those based in Taiwan. Paul is now studying in Taipei.[/inset]

Just as celebrations mark change and transition, so too do they indicate that the new situation is also nothing more than another fleeting moment, an instance that will pass, just as what it has come to replace has already moved on. Being lifted up in the ecstasy of the celebration can be fantastic; the respite and abundance brought by the monsoonal rains of Bihar are fair cause for jubilation. But the monsoon did not just revive the countryside and refresh residents, it ultimately brought about destruction. The tragic inverse is always lurking and should never be discounted as a possibility.



Thursday, 14 January 2010

Forgiveness by ritual

It is easy to forget that the act of forgiveness is inseparable from how it is delivered and what it signifies. Forgiveness is simply not possible without any real, visible changes. Between two people, forgiveness can be expressed through subtle signals such as a smile (or shared crying), a resumption of communication displayed by a slight gestures and more confident conversation. But even at this personal level most forgiveness demanded and received is transmitted through codes and small rituals - a gift offered and accepted, a shared meal or a hug. These rituals are created spontaneously, by a couple or a group friends. The signs exchanged are of great importance: once the ritual is performed, everything can restart again; however, without at least a discreet, subtle gesture, all progress is hindered.Things are even more subtle and complicated in society. Firstly, you never quite know who is forgiving and who is being forgiven. A nation is not the same as an individual, different opinions and experiences are in operation at the same time and there is great disparity in historical interpretations. However, nations and communties suffer similarly traumatic experiences: periods of dictatorship, foreign or civil wars, natural disasters, serious economic crises etc; and when emerging from a crisis, the group feels the need to start afresh, but this is often very difficult to achieve. Your memories are shackles that you drag along, haunting flashbacks to which you constantly return. Its difficult to place and divide responsibility, and those responsable often refuse it . The victims take refuge in their grief, the culprits go unpunished or disappear, amongst many other situations that plague the collective atmosphere.

Ritual as a Road to Reconciliation

What can we do in these post-traumatic cases? Instinctively, groups and nations gradually invent their own rituals. These rituals always signify an end and a new beginning. There is nothing surprising in this; even in ordinary times we need rituals as milestones, to help us forget and start anew. New Year wishes, both in the Chinese world and the West perform this function. Wishing a happy new year, paying back the year’s debts, eating an exceptional meal together, wearing new clothes and cleaning the house, all welcome the new and bid farewell to the old. In many ways, the rituals that mark Chinese New Year can be seen as marking a reconciliation (implicit but very effective) in the household and neighborhood. Likewise, village communities often use rituals to expel demons who bring the plague or other contagious diseases. These rituals are repeated year after year, with all the "bad influences" symbolically burned. These rituals distinguish Wang Ye cult worship in southern Taiwan. By expelling the "evil spirits" the community cleanses itself. This is also the jealousy and infighting being dispersed, thus renewing the community spirit. I have been fortunate enough to observe similar phenomena in the rituals practiced to heal the sick amongst the minorities of southwestern China, where the family and neighbours all gather in a house. For many of us, diseases and conflicts are inherently linked. Fighting for the rejuvenation of the human body is also being committed to the reconciliation and purification of society.

Translation from French by Nicholas Coulson

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