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ENTER THE DOG
January 2006

Firecrackers are for sale on the sidewalks.  Lights are strung over the streets and in the trees. The supermarkets are insanely crowded and have a special emphasis on red underwear and giant stuffed dogs.  People are eating dumplings and seem to be in good spirits.  Windows are decorated with red cut-paper designs.  And although most of China is coming grinding to a halt, there is also “arguably the biggest movement of humanity on earth” as people head home for the holidays.

That’s right folks, it’s time for the Chinese New Year.  Although the world entered 2006 at the beginning of January, the Chinese New Year follows a traditional lunar calendar and doesn’t commence until January 29th.  Saturday marked the beginning of the festive season with the Little New Year.  This is essentially a week-long New Year’s Eve, where people warm-up for the main holiday by cleaning their houses, eating the preliminary courses of dumplings, shopping for new clothes, and of course, sending off copious amounts of fireworks.

We had the good fortune to be riding through Dalian in a friend-of-a-friend’s car on the first night of the little New Year.  The city was spectacular, with white lights and red lanterns decorating the streets and fireworks exploding between the buildings.  All of this was enhanced by the fact that we were actually sitting down while traveling, rather than standing up surfing the city on a crowded bus.

The Chinese New Year, also dubbed “Spring Festival,” is the most important holiday in China.  It is a time for family reunions, dumplings, and a week without work.  The trains and buses are literally packed as people travel back to their hometowns.  Factories will close and migrant workers, many of whom work 6 to 7 days a week, will return to their villages for some much needed R & R, along with droves of college students and anyone else who lives far from home.

Spring Festival is rich with traditions, mostly regarding bringing good luck and warding off bad luck.  The dumplings will harbor the occasional date or coin which will bring good luck to the finder.  People will put up new door decorations emblazoned with the character for fortune, which will prevent evil from entering their house.  The fireworks are to scare away the evil monster/ghost that might bring bad luck in the coming year.  The more fireworks, the more luck. 

Luck takes a more tangible form in the little red envelopes of money that generous relatives give to the children.  In the old days, the children then gave the money to their parents.  But nowadays, with the increase in wealth, most of the kids can keep their money.  Everyone should wear new clothes on New Year’s Day, and some people will not wear any of the new clothes they bought throughout the year until the New Year.

The coming year is the Year of the Dog.  The Chinese calendar has a 12 year cycle, with each year marked by a separate animal.  So for everyone who is 12, 24, 36, 48, etc, years old, this will be a special year since it is “their” animal.  To ward off any evil that might befall them in the coming year, the people born in the Year of the Dog must wear red on New Year’s Day.  This red rule extends all the way down to their underwear, which explains why there has been an abundance of red undergarments in the shops lately.  One of my friends who was born in the Year of the Dog (36 years ago) wrote this to me in an e-mail: “The people who were born in the dog year will be very lucky or unlucky according to the traditional superstition.  Although I don't believe it, I told myself to be care with everything this year because I was born in dog year.”

I’m a monkey and Zac’s a horse, so during our stay in China, spanning the years of the Rooster and the Dog, we’ve been completely free from the red underwear requirements.  Yet we still seem to have an abundance of luck because we were invited to be token foreigners at the mayor’s New Year’s party.  So on Thursday night we went to the convention center along with two other teachers from our school.  Our table was quite prestigious, being diagonal to the Mayor’s VIP table.  After a few speeches that we couldn’t understand, there was a wonderful show consisting of many dancing and musical acts.  There was a little bit of everything: from pop singers to Peking Opera, mermaids to acrobats, fan and umbrella dancers, and even children dressed as dogs doing martial arts.  The Year of the Dog looks promising.

We will continue our tradition of never actually spending a Chinese holiday in Dalian by flying to Hong Kong for the week of Spring Festival.  We decided to do this for two main reasons: Hong Kong is warm and we didn’t want to squeeze on the trains at the same time as the rest of the nation.  Since we wouldn’t be in Dalian for the New Year, we decided to celebrate a little early.  We were unable to resist the allure of the fireworks, so during the Little New Year, we invited our friend Charlie over to light some fireworks.  We went to the train tracks near our apartment and lit up the night with giant sparklers, Roman candles, some spinning sparklers, and other assorted fireworks.  I think it’s safe to say we’ve warded off the evil monsters for the next year.

Happy Chinese New Year!

Click here for more pictures from the Chinese New Year / Spring Festival

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