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February 11, 2010

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'Golden week is so exhausting. I might as well be at work'

CHEN Lianqin has finally persuaded her parents to forgo the elaborate rituals of eating and protocol family visiting during Spring Festival - and visit Taiwan instead.

Changing habits wasn't easy. Chen, 27, had planned a similar trip last Spring Festival, but the elderly couple preferred the demanding traditional pattern of spending the golden week eating and visiting - to the point of exhaustion.

In recent years, many young people like Chen have gotten tired of the drawn-out ritual - visiting one set of relatives for a certain meal, then another, then others, then receiving visits and feeding relatives, and so on, giving gifts and red envelopes stuffed with cash, making phone calls. Paying respects in proper order.

Some people have turned to more casual options, such as dining out (at least some of the time) and travel to escape hectic holidays.

The fact that Valentine's Day falls on the Chinese Lunar New Year, Sunday, is another reason to modify ancient patterns a bit. Many young people want to be with their sweetheart on that day, alone, at least for a while. If they're serious, they may take boyfriend/girlfriend home to dinner, or slip out for a while for private time.

"I always get so exhausted after the whole golden week," says Chen. "For me, Spring Festival is busier than work and I don't get to rest. So it's great we have more options now and our parents are not as stubborn about the old traditions."

It takes a great deal of effort to prepare meals for the Lunar New Year's Eve, the day itself and other banquets. A restaurant is easier by far, but reservations must be made well in advance.

Some young people are also sending out SMS greetings rather than paying a visit in person, but that's not widely accepted.

Loss of tradition

On the other hand, many people worry about loss of tradition and togetherness in increasingly simplified New Year's celebrations. On New Year's Eve they used to make jiaozi (dumplings) together, round ones symbolizing unity, then watch the CCTV New Year's Gala, maybe set off firecrackers to frighten evil spirts, or watch fireworks displays.

There's a lot of nostalgia.

"I miss it when everyone in the family looked so excited about the New Year. Now, they just look tired and we don't do anything together as a big family except for the eating," says 29-year-old Wang Shen.

Wang started having the New Year's Eve dinner at restaurants with her husband John Zhang and his family since they got married three years ago. It was his family tradition to eat out.

"There's no right or wrong pattern for celebrating. It's not about respecting tradition either," says sociology professor Yang Xuefen from China Three Gorges University in Yichang, Hubei Province.

"It's simply a result of people's ideas and lifestyles changing along with the development of the country," she says, noting there were limited entertainment options in the past so people gathered together for the company and warmth.

As life has become more fast-paced, people want easier celebrations.

"The pattern is changing but the content is the same - to spend the New Year happily," she says.


The essence of the tradition is reunion, paying respects and showing love to family and friends. Reunion is always linked to a big meal, starting with New Year's Eve dinner.

Wang used to spend it at her paternal grandparents' home, but now dines out with her husband's family.

"Restaurants are very different from home," says Wang. "It's neither private nor warm. You have to put up with a crowded, noisy environment and bad service because waiters are overwhelmed that night."

The food may not be so great either, she points out, because chefs are overwhelmed and must prepare a lot of food well in advance.

"Then you just want to finish the meal early and go home, but you have to endure the New Year's Eve traffic."

She misses the old days before she got married when she made dumplings with the whole family at her grandparents' home. It was one of the few times she got to see everyone in the family and got updated on what was happening with everyone.

Wang's big family, including all her uncles, aunties and cousins, gather at her grandparents' home every year. Young people make dumplings in the dining room while all the older women prepare the big meal in the kitchen.

It must include chicken, duck, fish and pork to symbolize abundance.
Her husband's family is entirely different. They started going to restaurants for the New Year's Eve dinner almost 10 years ago because "it's just too much trouble to cook and clean up afterwards," according to Zhang, Wang's husband.

"We don't want our grandparents or our parents to be occupied with cooking, even on New Year's Eve. We want them to enjoy the meal and the reunion with us all together," says Zhang.

"Nobody has the time and energy to make preparations in advance and clean up afterwards as in the past."

Zhang agrees the restaurants are especially crowded and slow and says the family may consider ordering prepared meals from restaurants and dining in.


In the past, people, especially young people, were considered unfilial if they willingly missed out on Spring Festival meals and visits at the beginning of the year. Absence implied that he or she didn't wish to be with family for the whole year. Even those working far from home rushed back to see their parents and other relatives for the New Year.

Many parents and grandparents, especially those in the busy cities, have become more understanding of changing patterns and young people's desire to do other things - such as taking a family trip.

It is less expensive for Chinese to travel abroad because of the favorable exchange rates and the increased income.

Last year, 39,377 locals left the city for a break during the Spring Festival week, a 5.26 percent increase from the year before despite the economic downturn.

Many travel agencies have increased the number of tours for this year's golden week, and most are fully booked.

The most popular destinations include Hainan Province and Taiwan. The government just announced that Hainan would be built into an international tourist destination by 2020 and a construction boom is underway - maybe not a boon for those who want a quiet getaway.

Taiwan was recently opened to tourists from the Chinese mainland.

"It's such a hassle to squeeze all these visits into the week. And I always have to pay attention to whom I shall visit and the order of visiting. I'd rather go to work," says Chen.

"So it's great to go traveling, a fantastic excuse and we can enjoy a great time in other cities." Exhausting rituals

Traditionally Chen Lianqin and others spend New Year's Eve with her paternal grandparents, Then she gets up early on New Year's Day to meet her parents for a New Year's visit to her paternal and maternal grandparents.

After that, she has to pay visits to all her uncles and aunties by herself, paying strict attention to the order of family hierarchy, based on age. Meanwhile her cousins visit her parents.

Finally she joins the big family of her maternal grandparents for dinner on New Year's Day.

For the following days, every one of her uncles and aunties and her parents take turns hosting dinner for the others every day. Chen is always busy visiting her other relatives and family friends or helping her parents receiving guests at home.

On the second day of the New Year, she always accompanies her parents to visit two of her professor father's former teachers and a former boss of her manager mother. They typically prepare fruit baskets and health care products. The third day is reserved for receive guests, mostly former and current students of her father, at home. Chen also helps her parents prepare the typical New Year's snacks including fruits, nuts, candies and melon seeds.

The visits and meals continue to the last day of her vacation.
"Maybe it sounds selfish, but I'd rather spend the money buying the trip for my parents and myself than just exchanging presents with other relatives and family friends for the sake of custom," concludes Chen.


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