January 29, 2006

China Marks Year of the Dog with a Bang, and a Gulp

By Ben Blanchard and Lucy Hornby

BEIJING/SHANGHAI -- China marked the start of the Year of the Dog on Sunday with fireworks and dumplings, as the biggest holiday in the Chinese world reached a crescendo.

In Beijing, residents were allowed to set off fireworks and firecrackers in the city for the first time in 12 years, and used the opportunity with gusto, filling the sky into the early hours with brightly colored explosions.

At midnight on Lunar New Year's Eve in Shanghai, China's richest and most cosmopolitan city, clouds of smoke and a rain of red wrappings obscured even the nearest buildings, while echoing explosions shook the windows.

"This will bring me luck in the new year," said Liu Jian, as he set off a bombardment of fireworks in a Shanghai street that narrowly missed a passing car and forced pedestrians to scatter.

Firecrackers are believed to scare off evil spirits and attract the god of wealth to people's doorsteps.

Chinese will set off 1 billion yuan's ($124 million) worth of fireworks and firecrackers over this year's spring festival period, according to state media, as more than 200 cities lift restrictions on pyrotechnics.

Elsewhere in China, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao spent the Lunar New Year in the countryside, chatting with peasants about rural poverty and healthcare issues.

Hu visited the old revolutionary base of Yan'an in dusty, central Shaanxi province and joined villagers in a folk dance.


State television showed Hu frying rice cakes in a peasant's house and promising that the government was working hard to raise living standards in the countryside.

Wen went to the eastern province of Shandong and gave money to a farmer with a sick wife. He visited a local clinic, Xinhua news agency said, and talked about improving the rural health care system.

China is planning to expand pilot programs that provide subsidized medical care to farmers with a goal of covering all rural residents in a new collective medical system by 2010.

In previous years, Chinese leaders have spent new year with everyone from AIDS victims to coal miners, usually as a way of promoting a particular policy theme.

Lunar New Year -- or Spring Festival as it is now widely known -- is a time for family reunions across China. An estimated 144 million people -- equivalent to the population of Bangladesh -- have crammed on to trains in recent days to return from the cities to spend time with their relatives.


Many Chinese saw in the New Year eating dumplings that symbolize wealth, because the pastry-wrapped parcels of meat and vegetables take the shape of the gold and silver ingots of China's imperial past.

There are many traditional taboos for Spring Festival. Crying on New Year's Day means you will cry for the rest of the year, and washing your hair signifies washing away good luck.

Likewise, the number "four" is banned, because it sounds like the word for "death," and using knives or scissors may cut off good fortune.

But for some, no amount of festivities and commotion can dispel the nostalgia.

"New Year isn't as much fun as it used to be," said Lao Xu, whose childhood home was razed to make way for the glamorous skyscrapers of Shanghai's Pudong business district.

"Back then, we all lived in smaller houses and everyone knew everyone else," he said. "Now people live in apartments and stay out of each other's business, and it isn't as much fun any more."

Indeed, some worry that New Year traditions are being lost in the country's headlong rush to develop economically.

"It is being attacked by Western culture," Henan University Professor Gao Youpeng wrote in the official Guangming Daily, in what he called a "declaration to protect Spring Festival."

"More and more people, especially the young, have no time to consider the true meaning of the festival and prefer to celebrate the game-like revelry of Western holidays like Christmas and Valentine's Day," he wrote.