I’ve never really understood Spring Festival. Sure, I know the traditions and the stories, but I must admit, I’ve never really felt it. The first year I was in China, I spent the holiday wracked with fever, hallucinating in my apartment as exuberant Harbiners bounced fireworks off my windows. That’s fairly indicative of my Spring Festival experiences over the ensuing years.
Now that I’m married, though, I have the opportunity – nay, the obligation – to “return home” with my wife and celebrate the holiday in the Chinese way.
The Li family home is in Kedong, a small town that’s more or less halfway between Harbin and the Russian border. It was once a collection of pingfang – traditional Chinese one-storey houses – but those are increasingly being replaced with modern apartment buildings. Nowadays, if you stood in the center of Kedong, you might even feel like you were in a city. But it’s just an illusion; the apartment buildings give way to farmland within a few blocks in any direction.
The Lis take Spring Festival traditions more seriously than most, or so Mr. Li – my father-in-law – tells me. They also are one of the few families who still lives in a pingfang. Their tiny courtyard home lies along a narrow alley of similar homes that are surrounded on all sides by modern apartments, a sort of architectural foreshadowing. The demolition of the Li home is discussed in terms of when it will happen, not if.
Life in a pingfang in the winter – at least one as far north as Kedong, where the winter temperature hovers between -20 and -30 Celcius before windchill – revolves around the kang. Part bed, part couch and part heater, the kang is an elevated platform large enough to seat or sleep a family. Usually, it takes up most of the room it’s in, and it is heated with an electric mat (although historically kangs were heated by stoking a fire or coals underneath them). In the Li household and others like it, the kang is everything in winter because the kang is warm. It is the bed most of the family sleeps on, the couch everyone lounges on while watching TV, and the surface we sit on as we eat meals off of the kangzhuo, a stunted table designed to elevate dishes a foot or so above the kang.
Generally, winter activities this far north consist of eating, drinking, and watching TV. There’s no farm work to be done in the winter, and it’s too cold to do much of anything else anyway. Aside from occasional trips to the bathroom (which is a shack and a bucket outside, by the way; most pingfang don’t have plumbing beyond a tap or two for water) it might be possible to spend an entire winter without leaving the kang.
Spring Festival comes with certain obligations, though. In the Li family, the most important is the tradition of paying respect to the family’s (male) ancestors. On the morning of the day before Spring Festival, as his son glued a red and gold Spring Festival couplet to the door of the house and then the gate of the courtyard, Mr. Li washed his hands carefully and pulled scrolls out of a corner. These scrolls, it turns out, are likely at least 200 years old – they go back ten generations – and have been inscribed with the names of every one of Mr. Li’s male ancestors. After affixing them to the wall, Li taped on a 100 RMB note and then, reflecting on my presence perhaps, added a US $100 note above it.
In front of the scrolls, I helped Mr. Li move a desk, which he cleaned dutifully before beginning the construction of an altar of sorts. He lit candles and incense, and then placed a variety of food offerings: fish, tofu, noodles, mantou, apples, and even a couple cans of Harbin beer. Some of the food was dotted with red ink – purely because red is an auspicious color, I was told. Having finished this tribute the ancestors, we then sat down for a big Spring Festival lunch, which began with Mr. Li adding and a small cup of baijiu to the altar and burning it off. Then we tucked in ourselves at a table near the altar, consuming a variety of dishes including fish (auspicious because the word for “fish” sounds like “surplus” and suggests prosperity in the new year) and pig trotters (auspicious because they’re used for digging and suggest that the family will ‘dig up’ wealth in the new year).
Because Kedong is a small town, the Lis are a big family, and almost all of them live here, family members drop in and out of the house constantly and seemingly at random. Depending on the time they arrive, they are immediately urged by my mother-in-law to eat something (if it’s mealtime) or get on the kang (if it’s not). Generally, there is no purpose to these visits beyond just being together, and throughout the day people drop in to say hello, share a smoke, and see what’s going on.
On Sunday night, though, it was just my wife’s parents, her brother, and I sitting on the kang, wrapping dumplings and watching CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. This variety show, now in its thirtieth year, has become a ubiquitous feature of Spring Festival celebrations in the PRC. I’m told that it was once something to look forward to, but these days it seems to be more of an obligation than a form of entertainment, like a drunk uncle everyone must put up with for the sake of the holidays. So we sat around grumbling about the boring skits and lame songs, filling dumplings with meat and vegetables. Two of the dumplings were also packed with hidden coins: whoever finds a coin when eating the dumplings will be blessed with good luck in the new year.
When the dumplings were ready, we headed into the courtyard to burn paper money for the ancestors and light firecrackers and fireworks. My brother-in-law held the long cardboard tubes and fired small explosives into the night sky; all I could think about was how little we had paid for the fireworks and how close the nearest hospital was. Luckily for everyone, there were no accidents. In fact, it turns out serious accidents are surprisingly rare given the sheer number of explosives available on evert street corner in China during the Spring Festival period. So we stood in the freezing night air, safely admiring the show for a couple minutes before running inside to eat dumplings. But not before giving a bowl to the ancestors first, of course.
My brother-in-law and father-in-law bit into the dumplings with the two coins early in the proceedings, but we spent the next hour or so drinking and eating dumplings on the kang, watching the CCTV Gala. It proved to be as boring as ever – they get worse and worse every year, my mother-in-law remarked the next day – and before long nearly everyone had fallen asleep. Shortly before midnight, my wife and I repaired to the house’s other bed to sleep ourselves. I figured this to be a futile gesture; cities like Beijing erupt in a blaze of noisy explosions at midnight to mark the new year, making sleep impossible. But here in Kedong, staying up until midnight isn’t considered important, and the first moments of the new Dragon were year met only with the chilly silence of the winter night.
The new year comes with more traditions, but it’s clear that here, chuxi – New Year’s Eve – is the real holiday. On the second day of the new year, the whole extended family will gather for a meal in this small home to “see off” the ancestors as the altar is dismantled and the scrolls are packed away until next year. After that, people will begin to trickle back to their lives in the cities, my wife and I included. In the meantime, though, the elder men pass the time playing Mahjong and drinking baijiu.
The rest of us do whatever we want, more or less. My wife and I went out to meet up with friends and climb a hill just outside the town. Calling this experience brisk would be an understatement – it was around -20 C and windy – but it was a clear day, the air was clean, and the countryside covered with a crisp layer of fresh snow. Spring Festival doesn’t really herald the coming of spring this far north, but I couldn’t help but feel that it really was a new year.