Current Events, Special Days and Historic Anniversaries Brought to Life by Teddy Bears, Pandas and Other Cuddly Creatures

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

by Elspeth

Today marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year, the most important festival of the year for the Chinese – a time of feasting, fireworks and gift-giving lasting for 15 days, celebrated not only in China itself but also amongst Chinese communities all over the world. 

The Chinese calendar is based on the lunar year which means that the New Year, celebrated on the second new moon of the winter solstice, is not a fixed date and can fall any time from late January to mid-February.  Each year is named after an animal and 2014 is the Year of the Horse.  The other animals honoured by the Chinese in this way are the rat, the ox, the tiger, the dragon, the snake, the snake, the goat, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig.  (You’ll probably have noticed that, although the animal everyone associates with China is the giant panda, rather surprisingly, the enigmatic creature is missing from the list.)  Interestingly, the Chinese believe that people take on the characteristics of the animal in whose year they are born.  I wonder if you would agree with this!  For example, if you were born in the Year of the Rabbit, you will be graceful, polite and cautious, have lovely big ears and love carrots! 

In the days leading up to New Year’s Day, it’s traditional for the Chinese to clean their houses, repay their debts, buy new clothes (particularly red as it’s thought to be a lucky colour), and have their hair cut.  On New Year’s Eve, a celebratory meal with close family takes place in houses decked with coloured paper lanterns and other decorations, groups of lion dancers, accompanied by drums, gongs and cymbals to scare away evil spirits, pass through the streets, bringing good luck to all the households they visit and the old year goes out with a bang as thousands of firecrackers are let off.  Early on New Year’s Day, parents and grandparents give the children lucky red envelopes called ‘Hong Bao’ containing sweets or money and it’s considered rude to open an envelope in front of the person who gave it to you. 

It seems, however, that this old-fashioned tradition, thought to date back more than 2,000 years to the Qin Dynasty, has now entered the digital age.  A wildy popular game, which lets users exchange virtual ‘red envelopes’, is thought to have pushed the value of China’s mobile payment market to almost £100 billion when, in only 48 hours, the game prompted hundreds and thousands of new users to sign up for mobile schemes.

The new game Xin Hong Bao is an add-on for the WeChat app, a cross between a messaging system and social network that encourages users to form small, close circles of friends.  The 600 million WeChat users are offered the chance to give the other members of their chat groups digital red envelopes stuffed with real cash, the maximum gift being 200 yuan.  The biggest winner is of course, WeChat as both the givers and receivers of the virtual envelopes need to have their bank accounts linked to the company and it appears that vast numbers have signed up simply to take part in the game. 

Naturally, as China is home to the giant panda, the cuddly black and white bears always play an important part in the Chinese New Year windows.  This year, two windows are packed with lanterns, drums, dragons, lots of red envelopes, assorted pandas and bears dressed in traditional Chinese costume and, of course, a couple of horses, as The Bears in the Windows prepare to welcome the Year of the Horse with a celebratory family meal when I’d be very surprised if bamboo shoots aren’t on the menu!   


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