Spring Festival: Times change, but some things don’t

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People wear masks while looking at the riddles written on lanterns during the first day of the Spring Festival at the Yellow Crane Tower Park in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, February 12, 2021. /Getty

People wear masks while looking at the riddles written on lanterns during the first day of the Spring Festival at the Yellow Crane Tower Park in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, February 12, 2021. /Getty

Editor’s note: Dr. Ding Leilei is a graduate of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

As the most important traditional festival in China, people celebrate the Spring Festival in the most solemn way. However, in recent years, some people have been claiming that the spirit of the Spring Festival has faded.

Twenty years ago, my main impression of the Spring Festival was made of four things: the reunion dinner, new clothes, fireworks, and the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. Half a month before the Lunar New Year, my parents were already purchasing New Year goods, including candies, wine, and meat. In particular, every family member got a new outfit. On New Year’s Eve, relatives around the world would come back home. Table was piled up with pork, lamb, beef and fish, which were rare in everyday life. Dishes could be more than a dozen. After dinner, people all over the country would watch the same TV program, the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. At midnight, when the clock’s hand hit 12, a high paced firework would resound across the sky.

Changes are obvious. In the past few years, food, clothes and entertainment during the Spring Festival are no longer special. It is because the world has undergone rapid changes in the past two decades, even faster than the past few centuries. The economy is booming. We are no longer worrying about food and clothes. People have begun to pursue healthier eating habits. For clothes, warmth is no longer the most important criteria. We are more inclined to buy clothes at the beginning of the season. We’d like to follow the trend of fashion. The fireworks are indeed gorgeous and wonderful. But for sustainable development of the global environment, we also stop setting off fireworks in most urban areas.

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What hasn’t changed is the strong desire to go home. The large-scale movement of people during this period has been described as an annual human migration. This year, for the sake of controlling COVID-19, some will have to experience up to four nucleic acid tests to be able to travel. But most people would still choose to go back home for the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Why do Chinese have such strong feelings about their hometown? I think the answer may be hidden in our cultural genes. Before the economic reform and opening up, China was an agricultural society.

A store is seen with full of ox decorations in Chinatown of New York City, the United States, February 12, 2021. /Getty

A store is seen with full of ox decorations in Chinatown of New York City, the United States, February 12, 2021. /Getty

The basic nature of agriculture is relying on climate. That means if the climate is good, the grains will be abundant; if the climate is bad, there may be no gains. Agriculture is very dependent on natural resources. The relatively limited land and water resources have led to competition between regions. In the old days, there were alliances with fellow villagers to obtain larger amounts of external resources. Alliances based on blood and geography gave groups an advantage in competition. The nature of the agricultural production and the reality of regional competition forced traditional Chinese to form two alliances: blood-based alliance and region-based alliance. People in the alliances have common interests and have the right to take care of each other. Even in today’s society, people from the same village, the same township, the same county, and the same province, have a strong natural trust. This is the origin of our homesickness: the blood family and the region we grew up has become the bond of our lifelong love of our life.

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Today, modern society has defeated the agricultural social structure with higher production efficiency. Why do we still have such strong desire to go home?

Under the background of market economy and refined division of labor, capital and resources have caused a large-scale talent flow. People leave their hometown to work and live in big cities. In modern China, people could not find any alliances to rely on. There is no alliance with natural relationships and common interests. For me, I have been in Beijing for ten years. I can feel that when people from the same town meet in a big city, they have a natural sense of trust. Therefore, modern Chinese people living in the cities are still looking for blood and geographical connections as they did in the agricultural era. This is the main reason there are a large number of fellow villagers, local chambers of commerce, and clan associations in the cities. In the Spring Festival, for tired city people, the idea of a hometown connected by blood gives them a harbor to rely on and regain courage. The slow pace also makes them less nervous. Although some people cannot go home this year, this tradition will continue in the long run.

From its beginning in the agricultural era to the industrial era, the way we celebrate the Spring Festival is changing all the time. Nevertheless, the core of the Spring Festival, family values and best wishes for the coming year, have been passed on. 

At last, I wish you all a good Year of the Ox.

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(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com.)



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