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February 2, 2011

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Traditions changing with the years

THE pace of modern life and over-commercialization are changing the way the Chinese celebrate the arrival of the Lunar Chinese New Year. Ni Yuanjin and Bai Xu identify the changes and analyze how some New Year's Eve traditions are being lost as a result.

Li Qian has reserved a table at a luxurious restaurant for her five family members to celebrate today's Spring Festival Eve with a meal, which will cost more than 1,500 yuan (US$228).

It is the 10th year that the Li family will mark the occasion away from their home.

But the 61-year-old retired accountant admits that she misses the way the holiday was celebrated decades ago, when her family was not so rich and meat was only available during special occasions.

"It's convenient to have the Eve's dinner outside of the home. However, Spring Festival has hardly aroused my passion during the past 10 years. I cherish the New Year memories from my 20s, when food was rationed," said Li, who lives in north China's port city of Tianjin.

Li was born in 1949, the year the People's Republic of China was founded. She spent 15 years, from 1965 to 1979, in Jiuquan, Gansu Province, which is now home to a satellite launch center.

"It took me three days and three nights to get home by train from Jiuquan, and I could only reunite with my family for Spring Festival every other year. The lunch for New Year's Eve was meatball dumplings normally, and dinner was stewed meat," said Li.

Li's father died in 1965 and her mother brought up all seven of her children by herself. As Li recalled, meat was rationed at that time, a half kilogram for one person per month, but a stewed meat meal needed at least 3kg.

Before the Spring Festival, every family was rationed a small chicken, a very narrow hairtail fish, several eggs and some rice. At other times of the year, even brown rice was rationed.

"The most cherished memory for Spring Festival's Eve was staying up the whole night and eating snacks. I always could hardly wait to put on my new clothes and shoes," Li said.

According to Li, the New Year's snacks, which included peanuts, dried persimmons, dried black dates, hawthorns, sunflower seeds and fruit drops, were also rationed by the government.

For today's Spring Festival Eve, Li will have dinner in a restaurant with her husband, daughter, grandson and son-in-law.

She has spent the past 10 New Year's Eves celebrating this way. In the 1990s, her husband began operating a business and the family's monthly income is more than 30,000 yuan at present.

In Beijing, there are many families like Li's that will be dining out to celebrate. According to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Commerce, more than 10,000 dinners for New Year's Eve have been pre-ordered, and the number of customers is expected to reach 130,000.

"The restaurant's cooks are excellent and more skilled than I," said Li. "However, I have to make a reservation more than three months before the Spring Festival, and we can hardly see the menu or order dishes in advance."

Moreover, in most restaurants the dinners for New Year's Eve have to finish before 10pm. The traditional custom of staying up the entire night while having the Eve's dinner has been changing, which makes some people feel strange.

"I have lost the long-awaited expectation for the Spring Festival. In the past, the most exciting moment was wearing new clothes on the Eve and paying a New Year call to my neighbors when daybreak came," said Li.

Tian Zhaoyuan, a folk-custom expert with East China Normal University said: "The fast rhythm of modern life has changed the Spring Festival into an opportunity to fully relax. And the convenience of eating at a restaurant attracts many customers."

Another modern option for Spring Festival Eve diners is a ready made set meal that can be finished in the home, available online with prices ranging from 400 yuan to 2,000 yuan per set.

Some restaurants even offer "cooks for hire" for those families who still want to eat at home but don't want to spend time and effort preparing the meal themselves.

The online group-buying craze is also having an effect. More than 30 restaurants are advertising a Groupon for diners to reserve meals. However, their menus for the Eve's dinner are no different than normal.

Although the Eve's meal for Spring Festival is a traditional Chinese custom, some Western restaurants have even joined the business battle.

It is the second year that Pizza Hut in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing cities offers reservations for a New Year's Eve dinner. The set meal is 149 yuan for two people or 228 yuan for three, and they are also offering a 50 percent discount on French wines.

As the dining options are increasing, so are the prices.

Wang Fangping, from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, said: "Having New Year's Eve dinner at a restaurant is costing me more than 3,000 yuan this year. However, a 1,000-yuan set meal was the top price five years ago."

An even more extravagant dinner experience is being offered by a five-star hotel in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. The set meal is priced at 388,888 yuan and includes 10 high quality dishes, famous Suzhou embroidery, a performance of Suzhou's pingtan (a combination of storytelling and ballad singing), a one-night stay in the presidential suite, Hummer car service and a blessing.

Liu Delong, vice-chairman of the Chinese Folklore Association, said: "The over-commercialization of festivals and culture is decreasing the charm of traditions. Both sumptuous dinners for Spring Festival's Eve and the "fast-food" dinner reservations are embodiments of this trend."

According to Liu, traditional folklore, which consists of such Chinese virtues as filial piety and courtesy, is essential and must be continued and protected.

In Li Qian's memory, one thing that has never changed during the past decades is the blessings for the coming New Year.

"In my 60s, I wish for a healthy body, a happy mood and a good family income on New Year's Eve," said Li.


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