The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival (Chūn jié) as it’s called in China, is the biggest national holiday on the Chinese calendar. Celebrating the new year on the lunar calendar, Spring Festival is a time for family, food and fireworks. Simple as.
This Spring Festival, we were lucky enough to bring in the year of the Rooster at a Chinese home, where we were stuffed to the gills with all kinds of delicious delights.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day each brought two sizeable feasts, lunch and dinner, both cooked by the same people. Lads imagine after pouring all that sweat into the juices of Christmas dinner, cleaning up, and doing it all again later on? The expectation alone would have me frazzled.
But that’s one thing we can say for the Chinese at any time of the year-they can eat. While in English we’d ask “how are you?” to open a conversation, the Chinese ask about what’s really important “Nĭ chī le ma?”…”have you eaten?” Lunch is usually between 11.30 and 12.30. Not eating by lunch by 1pm is usually cause for concern.
During and between these two New Year’s feasts, there was plenty of drinking and of course, májiàng (also spelled mahjong for the English speaking eyes) .
Májiàng is a serious game in China, played by both men and women, it is the most common form of gambling. Some folks play májiàng a few nights a week. We have a friend who regular mentions his wife’s májiàng addiction, or “love affair” as he calls it. This woman has even darted out of group cinema outings prematurely and come the end of the movie when we enquired as to her whereabouts , her husband sighed weightily, “májiàng”.
Unlike taking polite sips of your wine at a Western meal, alcohol during a meal in China is consumed fast and often. Often báijiŭ is the drink of choice- China’s national drink made from glutinous rice; the name literally means “white (or clear) alcohol”. Báijiŭ is served steadily throughout a meal, and regular calls of “Lái lái lái!”,”Come come come!”, orders the drinkers at the table to cheers their cups (or bowls) of spirit and drink. A sure way to get speedily hammered, as it’s usually between 40 and 60%, báijiŭ is not for the faint hearted, or the weak stomached.
Despite one of us being suitably merry after the second meal, the same one of us was still insistent on going outside to “play with fireworks”. Growing up with a very protective Mammy in a country where fireworks are illegal, this notion of “playing with fireworks” did not bode well. Our Chinese buddy had several boxes of fireworks, including explosive roosters (year of the Rooster), army tanks (hello Communism) and other unidentifiables. As we ventured outside, where the rest of the community was also “playing”, I became more uneasy.Not only is setting off fireworks legal in China, but anyone at all can set them off, anywhere they fancy. They spark it up, run for cover, and if you happen to be in the way…well tough luck. Children in their pyjamas milled about in the mess of bangers, poking at things they saw on the ground whilst wielding a sparkler or two themselves.
They may look pretty soaring off into the New Year sky, but most explosives leave a trail of mayhem that cleaners spend most of the New Year week sweeping up.
The morning after the night before, while bashing our way through the debris, I regaled a story or two to the one of us whose memory was a little hazy.
While certain memories were more loosely threaded than others, fortunately he had remembered the encounter he’d had buying cigarettes, as he wished the elderly folk around him a happy new year.
One of the chaps, so delighted with this foreigner’s effort, embraced him at the cigarette counter, with a hearty pat on the back and joyous.
“Xīnnián kuàilè!”， “Happy New Year!”