Photoessay: The story of Chinese New Year in Beijing


TUESDAY: a Photoessay

a day in Beijing’s Chinese New Year celebrations..

Today is the second day of the New Year of the Dragon and I would like to recall the beautiful Chinese New Year atmosphere I experienced last year in Beijing.

Last year’s Chinese New Year started on the 3rd February 2011 and welcomed the year of the Rabbit. Curious fact is that 兔 is the Chinese character for rabbit and is pronounced “tu”, same as the English “to”, hence many Chinese who speak English liked to wish a happy new year by saying “Happy New Year 兔 you!”.

Chinese New Year starts with the new moon of the first day of the new year and ends on the full mon 15 days later. The 15th day of the new year is called the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated with wonderful lantern displays. Lanterns are the main characteristic of the Chinese New Year and lit up the cities with a bright red color which brings warmth and joy to the heart. Experiencing Chinese New Year in Beijing was definitely one of the most beautiful moments in my life. It was said that the year of the rabbit was going to be a placid and very welcomed year, especially after the fierceful year of the Tiger and anticipating the even more aggressive year of the Dragon, the year we are in now, however the New Year celebrations last year seemed to be all but placid!

Due to the great anticipation, the eve of the New Year is probably the most exciting part of the New Year holiday. Beijing citizens started to light fireworks and firecrackers several hours before the midnight stroke and since it was only few years ago that fireworks around Beijing were legalized again, people were taking advantage of this new freedom and performed their shows for hours and hours. The loud noise from the fireworks and firecrackers is believed to scare away all the evil spirits at the beginning of the New Year. This year’s firework display around the city was definitely peculiar in its vastness and length. From my apartment at the 15th floor of a skyscraper I could view all the north-west of Beijing without anything obstructing my view and witnessed a unique firework show from 8pm till over 2am of the New Year day!

Preparations for the New Year celebrations start even a month before the actual date, just like the Western Christmas celebrations. At this time families start buying presents and foods as well as cleaning-up their homes, ritual which is believed to sweep away all traces of bad luck. On all the Chinese homes, paper cuts and couplets with themes such as happiness, wealth and longevity as well as that year zodiacal sign are often placed as decoration. One of the most common decoration is in fact the Chinese character 福 which means good luck and is read “fu”. Even in the simplest homes it is always present on the front door and can also often be seen upside down, signifying that that family is welcoming the New Year good luck to come in their home.

Different from the Western celebrations for New Year, Chinese New Year must be celebrated at home with all the family members getting together, a bit like our Christmas. Traditions and rituals are often very carefully observed. Usually everyone wears something red in colour as a way to ward off the evil spirits and particular foods are eaten as a sign of good luck. While most families celebrate at home, famous restaurants are also a New Year hotspot. One of those is a famous restaurant south of the Forbidden City, called 都一处,  read “Duyichu” meaning “The Single Place of the Capital”. This restaurant was originally built in 1738, the third year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. The name “Duyichu” was granted by the Emperor after he had tasted the restaurant’s extremely good food during that year’s New Year celebrations. Even today, many people from all around China come here to taste the food that had been previously praised by the emperor himself.

On the New Year day itself, families like to come on the main decorated streets like 前门 (Qianmen), in front of the Forbidden City, to enjoy the festive mode, the food, the games as well as the wonderful atmosphere…

Lanterns cover the sky… And red is the main color for the New Year as it is believed to be the color which scares away the evil spirits. Legend goes though that the Chinese word for year: 年, pronounced “nian”, was originally the name of a beast who started to pray on the people on a New Year’s eve. The beast called Nian, was then persuaded by an old man, who later came to be known as an immortal god, to prey on the beasts harmful to the people instead that on the people themselves. Before leaving, the old man also advised the people to decorate their homes with red paper decorations which would scare away Nian. From then on it is said that the Chinese term 过年, read “guo nian”, which means “Celebrate the New Year” derives from the ancient meaning of “Surviving the Nian” as the Chiense term 过, “guo” both translated into “pass-over” and “observe”.

And people come on the streets and parks in thousands… the multitude of people in China, from someone who comes from tiny Europe like me, is always overwhelming!

One of the biggest attractions for the New Year festivities is the “Temple Fair”, called in Chinese 庙会, pronounced “Miao Hui”. Temple Fairs are usually held in the parks surrounding the various temples of Beijing and are host to performances such as the dragon and lion dances, waist drum dancing, lotus blossom fairy dances and various other folk performances. Here families can play games, win toys for the youngest family members and eat the most traditional foods. One of the biggest Fairs is in Ditan Park, one of the most popular temple fairs since 1985. Temple fairs in Beijing date back to around 1000AD, the tradition began as groups of vendors gathered around temples when many pilgrims came to pay tribute to the gods during the festivities. As the practice grew, and it turned into regular events, it gradually become every New Year’s Temple Fairs.

One of Beijing’s most popular New Year destination is also the Temple of Heaven. Here thousand of people gather to see the Royal heaven-worshipping ceremony which is held inside the park. The Temple of Heaven, in Chinese 天坛, pronounced “Tian Tan”, was first built in 1420 and used to be the imperial sacrificial altar during the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The Heaven-worshipping ceremony at the Temple of Heaven as pictured in the below picture: The ritual was reconstructed according to paintings and literary records from Emperor Qianlong’s grand ceremony in 1748. All performers were wearing costumes from the Qing Dynasty and carrying props. Seeing the performance was truly a magical experience which brought even more good air into my New Year’s life.

By the end of the long celebrations, the streets of Beijing were covered with firecrackers and red was still the main color…

.. but the lanterns, their shadows and their spirit is never going to leave the beautiful city and our hearts.

All photos are © Roberta Cucchiaro


3 thoughts on “Photoessay: The story of Chinese New Year in Beijing

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