How the Grinch stole Chinese New Year.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Feb. 6 2008 11:45 AM

How the Grinch Stole Chinese New Year

The government has banned many of the traditions associated with Chinese New Year—but the holiday may be staging a comeback.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in San Francisco 
Click image to expand.
Celebrating Chinese New Year in San Francisco

Over the past week, news agencies have reported on the massive storms interrupting China's celebrations of the New Year. The heaviest snowfall in 50 years has left millions stuck at train stations, bus depots, and on the road. But blizzards aren't the only thing to interrupt festivities in the People's Republic. The government has been doing the same thing for decades.

While Chinatowns in America host flashy parades this month, city folk inside the People's Republic rang in the New Year Wednesday night in front of the tube. Over the past century, the long-held traditions associated with Chinese New Year have been stripped away, right down to the holiday's name: By government decree, Chinese New Year was rechristened "Spring Festival." For most urban families, celebrating is limited to eating dumplings, setting off fireworks, and watching the national TV program (this year's theme, "Thriving China, Harmonious Society"), which will feature a blind singer and a comedy routine called "Olympic Torch Bearers."

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Gone from cities are rituals like kowtowing to elders and burning the Kitchen God. (As is also the case with the fortune cookie, large Chinese New Year parades like San Francisco's are an American invention.) Almost every one of the Chinese New Year traditions has been banned at some point in recent decades. It's as if the U.S. government outlawed and vilified Santa Claus costumes, nativity scenes, and Christmas lights.

What happened to the Chinese New Year? The story starts in 1912, when the new nationalist government renamed it "Spring Festival" to encourage people to transition to celebrating the Gregorian New Year instead. Then, in 1928, the government officially moved the holiday to coincide with the Western world's New Year celebrations. Japan had done so a half century earlier and still celebrates the New Year on Jan. 1. The Chinese government banned fireworks and holiday paraphernalia, and moved official vacation days to force the change, but it didn't work—and a year later, the Spring Festival was back to its normal time of year.

After the 1949 Revolution, the Communist Party enacted the philosophy Karl Marx had written a century before: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. Religion is the opiate of the people." Just as Chairman Mao Zedong eradicated opium by executing dealers without clemency, he rooted out religion by arresting high monks, busting up temple gatherings, censoring icons, and generally heaping scorn upon such "superstitions." During the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, there was no celebration for the New Year at all. Red banners, which for 1,000 years had featured couplets about springtime and prosperity, now had to have revolutionary slogans lauding Chairman Mao. Temple fairs vanished. Lion and dragon dances were scorned, bunched in with the detested Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Teachers told students to reject traditional gifts of money in red packets from their parents, because money had to be earned through the sweat of the brow.

Perhaps the most significant blow to Chinese New Year was the government's decision to forbid the annual burning of the Kitchen God, whose paper effigy hung above the stove. From this post, he could see whether a family was naughty or nice, and once a year, he passed along that information to the Jade Emperor, the top god in Daoism. A week before the first day of the lunar New Year, the family would feed him homemade candy and sticky cake to sweeten his words (or glue his mouth shut) during his annual report in heaven, and set out grass and water to nourish his horse for the journey. The family would then torch him and kowtow as he went up in flames, touching the forehead to the floor three times. Without burning the Kitchen God and replacing him with fresh paper, it was as if the year hadn't passed.

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