The skies of Beijing and other cities were lit up by explosions of colour as fireworks were let off to frighten away the evil spirits. The celebrations come as the country slowly recovers from its worst cold spell in over fifty years.
Drumming in the New Year under a bright blue sky
All over Shanghai, rats are grinning down from advertising boards -- cute mice with overgrown ears and red caps. It is now the Year of the Rat. Chen Yanjun and Zou Ziqing are excited: “Rats are very clever,” one of them says. The other says she thinks, they’re “cute and clever.”
“Rat, buffalo, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog, pig” -- the nine-year-olds already know the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac by heart.
They also know why the rat is the first of 12 animals. The legend says that a clever rat impressed the Jade Emperor by playing the flute so charmingly and was then given first place. For the children, this is the best day of the year.
Red envelopes full of yuan
“When I visit my grandmother for the New Year meal I watch the adults,” explains Peng Winhui. “They come to me and give me red envelopes. If I didn’t get an envelope, I would be sad. Usually, there are 300 yuan in each envelope.”
300 yuan is about 40 US dollars. And the children get lots of envelopes. They have different ways of spending the money -- one pays his school fees, one buys books and another gives it to “poor people in the mountains.”
“Every year, I give them 500 yuan, about 70 dollars. I like the mountain people. The children don’t have any money to go to school.”
Long journey home
Peng Winhui doesn’t have to go far to visit her grandmother. Her family is from Shanghai.
But her friends are not -- some of them are quite new in town and they are itching to go home and see their families.
Like millions of others, they’ve have been waiting for days to leave the city but roads and transport links have been blocked by snow. The journey to Shaoxing could last longer than usual says 10-year-old Hu Zhenyu.
“We’re going to see my grandmother,” he says. “We’ll pray for the dead members of our family before eating. Newborn babies and women aren’t allowed to pray. First we pray to heaven, then to the dead, then for our parents. That’s what it’s like in the countryside.”
Eating till dawn
“After the ceremony, the New Year meal begins. There are always lots of relatives -- over 80. We have six tables with at least 20 dishes on each table. Crabs, New Year rice cakes, delicious fish too. We usually eat until midnight and then we have fireworks,” Hu Zhenyu says.
The fireworks can go on for hours -- even until morning. The next morning, the roads all over China are thick with the red “leftovers” from firecrackers.
Hu Zhenyu explains this also has to do with legend: “There was once a monster called Nian who would eat people in villages. But it was scared of the colour red and loud noises. One old man knew this."
"So when Nian the monster came to him, he made him flee by dressing himself in red and lighting firecrackers. When I was very little I was scared of the noise and would hold my ears but now I’m not scared anymore.”