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By Yaxue Cao, published: June 29, 2012
The Shengs were a prominent family in Ningpo. There were the old Shengs and the new Shengs; Mr. Sheng’s family was the old Shengs, landowners for generations. The family residence consisted of ten adjoining quadrangles, the innermost being the ancestor hall where memorial tablets and portraits of ancestors were displayed. I loved to play there the best, said Mr. Sheng, on my family’s visits when I was a little boy, because it was as big as a basketball court and I could run amok there, whereas my older sisters were scared and wouldn’t dare to go. Mr. Sheng’s mother was also from Ningpo, the daughter of a brewery owner. Mr. Sheng’s eldest sister and Sheng Shuren, his only older brother, were both born in Ningpo.
In the early 1920s when Shanghai was experiencing an unprecedented industrial boom, their father moved his family there. For some years, he was the sales executive of the legendary Tian Chu MSG manufacturer, travelling frequently in Southeast Asian countries and all the way to San Francisco across the Pacific. He did very well and the Shengs lives comfortably in their house inside the French settlement, where Mr. Sheng’s older sisters and brother grew up and Mr. Sheng himself was born. In the mid 1930s, Mr. Sheng’s father founded a kerosene refinery and owned a barge that transported goods between the plant and the Wusong Mouth where the Huangpo River meets the Yangtzi. Just as the father’s career was peaking, the Japanese bombed the plant, destroying everything, and took away the barge. Mr. Sheng’s father was instantly bankrupted, had to sell the house, and the family lived on savings. After the Japanese surrendered, the Nationalist government took over the barge. Mr. Sheng’s father used whatever connections he could and paid “activity fees” to a lot of people hoping to retrieve the only property he had left. The bribes added up but did not bring back his barge. By the time the communists took over Shanghai, there was no trace of the boat anymore. In Ningpo, over the years, Mr. Sheng’s grandmother had accumulated more land using the money her son had been sending her, and when the communist land reform took place, her land and the family home were seized and distributed to the poor. In the 1950s, Mr. Sheng’s father worked in Hong Kong for a few years and returned to Shanghai at the end of the decade because of declining health.
In February 1961, Mr. Sheng, already teaching at Anhui University, saw his older brother when he visited home for the Chinese New Year. He looked pretty well, said Mr. Sheng. Did he? I was surprised to hear that. But on second thought it made perfect sense: After a year and half in the forced labor camp, he could only be glad to return home and in the company of the family. True that he had just suffered the most egregious injustice, but the full meaning of it could take some time to manifest itself, and, in any case, it is not hard for a capable man in his prime, like himself, to keep hope alive. After the Chinese New Year, Sheng Shuren returned to Beijing—as was required of him—to “take care of the paperwork.” That included cancelling his resident registration from municipal Beijing and signing the “Conclusions” about his case in the Organization Department of the Xinhua News Agency that stated “Sheng Shuren has admitted to the aforementioned wrongdoing without reservations” and announced his expulsion from the Agency. It didn’t matter that he had never admitted to the charges against him, nor had anyone asked for, or allowed him to express, his opinions about his own case. He signed the paper, prepared beforehand and dated, placed in front of him as he was supposed to.
On his way back to Shanghai, he stopped in Hefei to see what Anhui University was like. His younger brother was trying to find him a teaching job at the university. In bad need of talent, the university responded eagerly. But many days passed without a follow-up, and when Mr. Sheng inquired, he was simply told no without an explanation. Back in Shanghai, Sheng Shuren found he was denied a Shanghai resident registration by the Municipal Public Security Bureau. He became what the Shanghaiese called a “pocket registration,” or a shadow resident. Luckily for him, he was issued a Food Ration Certificate, except that the ration for a regular adult was 14 kilos a month but for him it was 12.5 kilos. Soon after he returned, his wife divorce him, each having the custody of two children, although, Mr. Sheng said, his wife still helped take care of the other two children and she also gave all the jewelry the Shengs had given her years ago for her wedding back to her husband to help him out. My brother’s subsequent attempts to find a job had all come to nothing, said Mr. Sheng, and he began to teach English stealthily—if caught, he would be in more trouble—to scrape a few yuan here and a few yuan there. His eldest daughter was a brilliant student, did very well on her national college entrance exams, but was denied a college admission because of her father. She came to me, said Mr. Sheng, asking what she should do; I coached her to make a high-minded gesture in school by saying “I love the Party with all my heart and I am prepared to go anywhere the Party assigns me.” My hope was, said Mr. Sheng, that, by looking righteous, perhaps she would arouse someone’s sympathy. But nobody took pity on her. Later on, Mr. Sheng found a job for her in Yunnan, the southwestern province, through his connections.
In mid-1960s, Shanghai Foreign Language College established a training program for studying-aboard candidates, and, with the help from his friend Qian Weifan, Sheng Shuren taught English there. The hope was, if he continued to teach and make himself essential, perhaps the college would offer him a permanent job down the road. But before long, the Cultural Revolution came, the training program was scrapped. During the Cultural Revolution, Sheng Shuren was largely spared the fresh assault on the educated class that reached a new, vicious peak, thanks to the fact that he had already been ostracized from society, without registration, jobless, and reporting to no particular work unit. One summer though when I was on vacation at home, said Mr. Sheng, my brother disappeared all of a sudden one day. His eldest son and I looked for him for three or four days and couldn’t find him. Finally, we found him in a little hostel occupied by a faction of Shanghai’s “revolutionary rebels” who had detained him at the black market and kept him for twenty or thirty days before letting him go. An old woman with bound feet told on him, he later told me. In Shanghai at the time, said Mr. Sheng, everybody knew the black market and used it, but only people like him, if not cautious, would be picked on. That was how he spent those years, said Mr. Sheng, earning a few yuan stealthily teaching English, getting some help from his two older children after they had grown and had jobs, and, now and then, my mother would tuck a few yuan into his hand. It was a hard time for the rest of us too, said Mr. Sheng, my monthly salary was fifty yuan, my sisters struggled too, all of us had to support our parents, and we had not been able to help him. When he was hit by a car and died, said Mr. Sheng, on his way to or from a hospital visit, no one in my family was in Shanghai. The neighborhood committee sold his furniture—the furniture my parents had left behind—on the spot to whoever took it and for whatever offer and paid for his hospital bills and his cremation before one of his sons made it back to Shanghai.
Have you read Rabindranath Tagore? Mr. Sheng asked me. I said I know the name, I might have read a few pages of Stray Birds in college, but I have forgotten it all. My brother became the untouchable, said Mr. Sheng, when he came back from Beijing. Do you see?
In the same sentence Uncle Erning mentioned Sheng Shuren’s name, he also named the charge against him: Obscenity against women. It was the first question I asked Erjia when he said he knew Sheng Shuren. “Ah!” Erjia’s voice leaped out of tune to a shrill. “In Xushui, it was a mayhem of people working day and night those days, and Erning said Sheng Shuren had to pee badly, so he ran to the edge of the field to relieve himself. When he did so, a woman saw him and made a scene of it. That was that! That was how he committed ‘obscenity against women!’” Erjia recoiled in pain and protest. “Erning said when they charged him with obscenity against women, the very woman who saw him laughed out loud! How did that bear out the charge? Erning said ‘An insult to common sense! Impossible to reason with them! Yet they can arrest you anytime they want, and you can do nothing but swallow it!'”
Uncle Erning, of course, was raging about not just Sheng Shuren’s case, but also his own.
I thought about the word “shameful”. Shame, it seems, has its own life regardless of its cause and whether there is justice to it. It lived with him like a shadow and lives on long after he was gone. Even Erjia would unconsciously use a word like that.
By Yaxue Cao, published: June 28, 2012
I almost forgot; I had been to Shanghai before. It was the Chinese New Year of 1990, I decided spontaneously to go to a friend’s home to spend the holidays. On New Year’s Eve, I boarded an airplane in Guangzhou, and landed, several hours later, at Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai. From the airport, I took a taxi to the Shanghai Train Station. I remember it was dusk, the sky overcast, the air chilling beyond a northerner’s assumption of Shanghai. There was not a soul on the streets. I don’t know why, but right at this moment, I am thinking about six o’clock. Two clicks away now, I know the trip is sixteen kilometers long, and passes a zoo, at least one movie theater, the Sun Yat-sen Park that every major Chinese city has, and streets that once had names like Jernigan Road and Edinburgh Road. But I was either dozing off or lost in wandering thoughts in the taxi, for all I can recall of Shanghai are a section of a gray wall and a few buildings whose shapes are as illusory as objects in a dream. At the train station, I boarded the train, according to my friend’s instructions, to go to my destination, Hefei.
My friend lived on a university campus where all the students were gone for the holidays and, blanked under a new snow, silence reigned. After the lunar New Year’s Day, I walked on the streets of Hefei. Even though I had never been to that city before, or anywhere near it for that matter, everything seemed familiar to me, the streets, the buildings, the shops, and the people; the wintry bareness and the muddy slush underfoot. It was just like my hometown, or thousands of other Chinese towns. It was China. To my ears, the first winter after the summer of ’89 was as silent as death, the roar of bulldozers and dump trucks were yet to arrive, and I was preparing to leave the country. I had always known the path I could take would be narrow, but I didn’t know I would be up against the wall in only a few short years after college. About the place I was planning to go I had not the faintest idea and, therefore, no fantasy of it to speak of; the only thing I knew for certain was I had to go, anywhere I could. The year after, I left China and came to the United States.
In the following days, I talked to Mr. Sheng via telephone and email. I learned that, when his brother was arrested the second time in the north, he was a student of astronomy in Nanjing University with a focus on celestial mechanics. I asked how he would describe celestial mechanics to a layman like me, he said, “It is the mathematics dealing with the motion of the three bodies—the Sun, the Earth and the Moon.” I said I still couldn’t imagine what mathematics that would be, but I liked the words the sun, the earth and the moon. He said, the broader question was the “n-body problem,” or, to predict the motion of celestial objects under mutual gravitation. It was a problem unsolved for the past three hundred years, said Mr. Sheng, and probably wouldn’t be in another three hundred years, but I was determined to do just that! He chuckled in self-mockery, but I was very much affected by the young mathematician’s ardor. Mr. Sheng escaped the cataclysm that had befallen millions of China’s educated class, university students included, during the Anti-rightist Campaign in 1957, but it stoked fear in him as he came to the realization that everything about him, his family background, his disgraced brother and his own education, could be a liability. He said he woke up every morning not knowing what the day would bring and went to bed every night worrying about what awaited him tomorrow. He was one of the top students but not selected to join the faculty of Nanjing University, nor for graduate study. He was assigned to a teaching job at Anhui University in Hefei and has stayed ever since.
I told Mr. Sheng about my trip in early 1990 that took me to Shanghai and Hefei, two places I have come to associate with through writing this story. I learned from Mr. Sheng, not without a small sense of wonder, that the Shengs’ in Shanghai was only a short walk from the train station except that, at that time, their home at No. 426 Lane, N. Jiangxi Road, had long been empty. At the Mathematics Department of Anhui University, Mr. Sheng found a certain solace and security in pure mathematics. After the ten-year Cultural Revolution, in the early 1980s, he passed the selection exams for faculty studying abroad. He studied and researched in the Université de Strasbourg in France and the Universitat de Barcelona in Spain for three years. I asked Mr. Sheng when he had learned French, and he told me he started in his boyhood when attending the affiliated secondary school of the Université l’Aurore, a French Jesuit institution in Shanghai before the communist liberation, and later in the famed Li Da Institute. In college and later on, he read mathematical literature in French that he could get a hold of. For the first seven years of the 1970s, when he and some of his colleagues, including his department chair, were sent away to the countryside on the bank of Yangtzi River, he worked in the fields, coached a basketball team on loan to the county’s Sport Committee, and took part in the Peasants’ Propaganda Team.
And he also kept up with his mathematics. For entertainment, he tried his hand at translating French literary classics that he had bought from the Foreign Language Book Store in Shanghai published by the Russians for language learning purposes. Carmen, Colomba and Ninety-three were some of the titles he ventured into. With The Lady of the Camellias, he did the novel as well as the play. He enjoyed it a lot, sharing his translations with his old school mates in secret. When I asked about his life in retirement, he said reading, writing and playing basketball. Since retirement, he has published a dozen or so papers and written two books, one was Mathematics in the Social Disciplines that had been printed twice and sold out twice; the other is Geometry of Election that he hopes would be published soon. I said jokingly, from the titles of your books, it seemed that you had turned from the celestial to the earthly.
When Sheng Shuren returned to the Xinhua News Agency in 1956, he went alone. He was thirty-six years old, father of four, the youngest a newborn. His wife, a head nurse at a children’s hospital, had not wanted to move to Beijing the first time and, with the two years in Beijing ending the way they did, she wouldn’t go this time. At Xinhua, Sheng Shuren resumed his old job of translating foreign media. There is no way to retrieve the products of his work except for three articles in his name in Journalistic Practices, a monthly published by the Xinhua News Agency, in 1957. Two of them are translations, one is his own writing. Both translations are from Russian, one describing “the Central Home for Journalists” in Moscow, how it was “a place for all journalists to engage in creative activities.” Another relates how, during what it calls “the Hungarian Incident” broken out on October 23, 1956, “political adventurists” (they become “gangsters” and then “an anti-revolutionary group” as the article progresses) occupied media apparatuses and controlled newspapers and journals, and how, after the invasion of the Soviet Union, to which the article avoids making direct reference, Hungarian newspapers were printed more beautifully and, more importantly, how freedom of the press was better serving the interest of the people and socialism without falling into the hands of the enemies of the people and freedom. His translation is smooth, unfolding with clarity when there are multiple modifiers. But what is more telling is probably the unhurried tone with which he writes. When I mentioned his translation from Russian to Mr. Sheng, he was very surprised because he had no idea his brother knew Russian, but he obviously did.
Sheng Shuren’s own piece appeared in the September issue, and the title, when I first saw it, almost made me jump: The Headquarters of American Fabrications and Intelligence—the U.S. Information Agency. In the few hundred words that followed, he presented USIA from its budget, setup to its operations, using the same composed language and with the same clarity, except here and there, words like “flagrant”, “fabrication” would stick out like thorns from an otherwise smooth surface. Then, in the very last sentence, also the concluding paragraph, the tone rises sharply and the language turns into the kind of abusive language that I saw everyday in newspapers when I grew up and still is the standard language of China’s state media to threat, to vent and to express displeasure. “It is therefore clear that the USIA is a spy agency that robs over a hundred million dollars from the American people each year to engage in fabricating lies and collecting intelligence.” He might have written this himself, or the editor did. In any case, he had to learn to talk like this in the Xinhua News Agency. For a man with a liberal arts education like he had, it had to be a steep remaking of himself even just linguistically. If this article tells anything at all, it shows he still had a long way to go to adjust.
In March 1958, Sheng Shuren and Uncle Erning, part of a large group of Xinhua personnel, were sent to Xushui, a county some 200 kilometers away from Beijing in Hebei Province, to help the Great Leap Forward campaign there. Xushui at the time was a national model of the Great Leap Forward promoted by the Central Committee of the Party, and universities and cultural institutions in Beijing, Xinhua included, had been sending their people to participate in this great leap forward to a communist society. In the previous winter, the impoverished county with a population of 300,000 had built more than two hundred reservoirs in response to the call for water management from the Center in Beijing, declaring that, for the first time in history, the county had once and for all eliminated both flood and draught. Literature about the Great Leap Forward in Xushui abounds, and from it I learned people in Xushui lived the life of the People’s Commune, eating together in the Communes’ canteens and marching with their hoes and baskets in military formation to the fields. They worked twenty-four hours a day in three shifts. The earth was dug as deep as three feet in order to use more fertilizer for higher yield; and grain was planted in improbable density to create agricultural miracles. I also learned that factories sprung up like bamboo shoots, and, overnight, each commune and each village claimed to have dozens of them. By the time the Steel and Iron Production Campaign peaked, “every household built a furnace and everyone was participating.” Xushui dared itself to open up universities, and lo and behold, it announced the establishment of 101 universities one day in July. Xushui also had a “Committee for the Movement of Writing” that covered the streets and walls with poems singing the praises of life in the People’s Communes and pictures in which farmers picked cotton on ladders, tall silos pierced through clouds, and pigs, as big as cows, were bursting their sties.
If all this does not sound busy and tiring enough, study sessions and debates were held frequently. For study, there was the People’s Daily that sent the Center’s directives everyday. But what was to debate? People—whoever expressed any doubt about the Great Leap Forward and whoever was perceived as being halfhearted or lazy were the objects of the debate. According to documentation, the debatees were encircled, “shoved and pushed…until they were bruised and dizzy, kowtouing to admit they were wrong.” The debates were indeed effective, and, according to a piece in the People’s Daily on April 17, 1958, that promoted Xushui’s practices, “before the debates, 1,400 workers only dug 300 meters of irrigation channel in 14 days; after the debates, 1,000 workers dug 500 meters in 3 days.” In July that year, the Party mounted a nationwide campaign called “Bare Your Heart to the Party” and everyone in the Xinhua group was required to describe his or her thoughts and actions during the recent Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Rectification Campaign. During the Purge of Anti-revolutionary Within Campaign in 1955, Uncle Erning, a young man in his twenties, had been reviewed for the uncompleted drafts of poems and stories that he had scribbled during the post-Korean war days when he was still stationed in North Korea as a war correspondent for the Xinhua News Agency, and conclusions had been made that “the ideas behind his works are reactionary and his own thoughts backward.” Now, asked to speak his mind to the Party, he hesitated. He was scared, “knowing that …the consequences will be serious.” Yet he didn’t want to hide it from the Party, “feeling that it would constitute unloyalty and dishonesty to the Party and therefore a crime.” So he bared himself: “I am still unable to accept the conclusions made about me by the Agency, but I am willing to be tested by the Party for as long as needed, reform myself and prove myself through my actions.” Days after that, Uncle Erning was arrested without warning during an often-held mass gathering of ten thousand people. He was dumbfounded, for he had no idea why they were arresting him (he had committed no crime) and how, in a matter of days, he had been incriminated a step higher to “a reactionary” and expelled from his job at Xinhua. Three hundred people were arrested on the same occasion, including Sheng Shuren. Now I know that, Xushui had newly built three labor camps that year and a local leader had ordered, “Each camp needs 1,000 workers, hurry up to arrest people and send them to the camps.” Within a few months, more than four thousand people had been arrested in the same manner in Xushui.
Uncle Erning and Sheng Shuren were sent to the August First Camp to receive their “education through hard labor.” Behind the barbed wire enclosing the Camp, they were organized, just as people outside, to create “Satellite Fields”—fields that would have such unheard-of high yield that it would be like launching a satellite. They dug, composted, moved rocks, and made cotton-padded shoes in the winter for perhaps the army. Outside the barbed wire, Xushui was becoming the center of attention in all China. Waves of visitors, from leaders of the country to the leaders of the provinces to the generals of the Republic, from the Congress of People’s Representatives to members of the People’s Consultation Committee, from scientist to literary figures, from foreign diplomats to friendly foreign news reporters, swarmed the place to witness the spectacular new look of a communist county. The People’s Daily touted that “the People’s Communes in Xushui will bring their members, in the near future, to the most wonderful arcadia in human history, that is, the free kingdom where ‘everyone does his best and takes whatever he needs.’” The frenzy peaked in August 4, 1958, when Mao Zedong visited a village in Xushui, only a few miles from the Camp where Sheng Shuren and Uncle Erning were confined. Local officials answered the Great Leader’s questions and briefed him about their goals: 10,000 kilos of millet and 500,000 kilos of potato per mu (about 0.16 acre), so on and so forth. “How are you going to eat that much food? What are you going to do with it?” Mao asked. When the officials conceded that they had not thought about that, Mao laughed and continued, “It’s certainly good to have a lot of food. The state doesn’t want it, others don’t need it, and the farmers can eat five meals a day!” We all know what followed was not the question of eating three meals or five meals a day, but a famine that lasted for a few years, resulted in the death of millions, and was labeled “the three-year natural disaster” by the official history book. In Xushui, the famine started as early as in 1959, people left en mass to search for food, and the government set up barriers and checkpoints on roads to stop them from leaving. At the end of 1960, the August First Camp was disbanded, and Uncle Erning and Sheng Shuren, greenish and edematous, were dismissed and told to go back to their respective hometown.
I must add now that, while Uncle Erning was in the camp, in Beijing, meetings were held to criticize and “educate” his young wife, my aunt, who was given the choice of being associated with a reactionary or “drawing a line” between him and her. She had been expelled from the Youth League for dragging her feet. Finally she wrote a letter to Erning in the Camp, telling him she had signed the divorce certificate which was brought to her by two men, all filled out and dated already, bearing the name and the seal of the People’s Court. The couple then had only been married for eleven months.
Just letting you all know that I am taking off with my wife for a few weeks to enjoy Spring Festival somewhere a little warmer (Malaysia). As I travel I’ll make sure to take copious notes, and will seek out conversations that broaden my vista.
But don’t worry, I have done my best to make sure that there will be fresh content waiting for you while I’m away, although there will be fewer posts than normal. We have some great guest posts lined up for you, as well as posts from the whole Seeing Red in China team.
I hope all of you have a very 热闹 (renao-hot noisy/lively) Spring Festival and do your best to bring in the Year of the Dragon with your family.
- China’s tomb raiders laying waste to thousands of years of history, by Tania Branigan. Soaring prices offered by collectors and lax monitoring of China’s thousands of historical sites have led to grave robbing on a massive scale. One researcher estimates that 95% of Chinese tombs have been plundered, and that without sufficient protection it could all be lost in the next 10 years.
- Chinese authorities and villagers clash over mosque – From around mid-December there have been a number of crackdowns on religious groups in China, with Buddhist, Muslisms and Christians all being effected. This time the clash happened in a Hui region, which is unusual, since Hui have traditionally been tolerated.
- The children left behind by China’s migrant workers – great photos and an important angle to keep in mind during the Spring Festival migration.
- The writing on the wall, by Evan Osnos, is a great take on China’s growing demographic problem, a huge number of soon to be retirees who will only have one child to take their place.
- Beijing’s ‘culture war’ isn’t about the US, by Damien Ma. Counters the coverage of Hu’s speech earlier this week (my take on it). While I agree with his point that Hu’s speech is targeted at Party members instead of foreigners, the wider trend has been to try to limit western culture in China.
- Garbage recyclers make way for real estate – Beijing’s largest recycling dump which employs nearly 30,000 workers will be shuttered in favor of urban development. While the move isn’t surprising, it’s sure to be a sore spot for the migrant workers who have made a living making Beijing a little greener.
- Anger over online railway ticket sales – It looks as if the online system that was supposed to relieve the yearly travel headache has made things worse for China’s migrant workers who rely on the trains. The new system seems to favor urban travelers who are able to navigate the web and have a bank card (which many foreigners have been unable to manage).
- Digging up China’s bones, from People’s Daily, is a fascinating account of one archaeologist’s life in the Middle Kingdom. It includes brief mentions of the state of historical protection during the Cultural Revolution that I found shocking.
- Dissident says China will review fine for tax evasion – Ai Weiwei’s case is now under review. I am not very hopeful, but it seems like Beijing would be better off on the international stage if they let him go. He is currently detained AND vocal, which makes him more of a headache for Beijing than when he was free.
- Celebrating the cold in China at Harbin ice and snow festival – Great photos of one of China’s most beloved seasonal attractions.
Last Train Home claims to be a documentary about migrant workers heading home for Spring Festival, but it is so much more than that.
The director opted to focus on a single family, whose parents work in Guangdong province, while their children are looked after by their grandmother in rural Sichuan. In happens to cover the one Spring Festival that almost didn’t happen because of the massive winter storms that swept China in 2008, and depicts the anxiety that many felt. As one the father says, “If you can’t spend Spring Festival with your family, than what is the point of living”.
The daughter in the film was the most interesting character I thought. After failing to achieve academic success in high school, she drops out before graduation and begins working in a factory near where her parents work. It is a decision that seems to drive a spike through her parents’ hearts, which seems to be part of her motive.
They left the countryside when she was only 1 year-old in an attempt to provide a better life for her. They see it as a completely selfless act. After 16 years of seeing them but once a year, she decides that it was their selfishness that led them to seek better wages far away.
It is a topic that thousands of families are trying to address now in China, as the post-90’s generation comes of age, grappling with their past and their future.
For me it was difficult at times to watch the scenes of factory work because I know dozens of my students, and their families, are currently working in identical situations. It was very moving to see the actual conditions.
The filmmakers approach is the exact opposite of directors like Michael Moore, instead of telling you how to feel about a complex topic, they stay completely silent and let those being documented guide the plot. It’s a very smart approach that let’s the audience ask their own questions, and try to find their own answers. This seems to be common in Chinese documentaries, and I hope at some point we’ll enjoy this in the US too.
The questions I found myself asking, ran parallel with many of the topics we’ve covered in past posts, things like the Chinese idea of family, child abuse, factory work, and the crazy migration that is Spring Festival (200+million people heading home).
I would highly recommend this film for anyone interested in family life in modern China, or the effects of our consumption of cheap goods on the Chinese people. It is incredibly thought-provoking, and beautifully shot.
Available on Netflix and online from Amazon.com (links to movie page)
February 3rd marks the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit, and for many of you that might be the extent of your knowledge of Chinese New Year (or as we call it in China, Spring Festival). So today we’ll look at how Spring Festival is celebrated.
For most Chinese, it means returning to their hometown. Almost half of China’s population no longer lives in the same town as they were born, which leads to the largest annual human migration. The whole country is moving the few weeks before and after the holiday.
The typical family will celebrate by coming together for the biggest meal they can afford, and will watch the special Spring Festival tv program, or play mahjong; many will light off a few fireworks. Within a family all of the children will receive 红包 (hongbao), which are red envelopes with some money inside.
Let’s look at each of those parts a little closer.
Heading home means bringing back their earnings from the year, and showering their family with gifts. Many of my friends complain about how expensive Spring Festival is, it’s kind of like Christmas if you had to give gifts to your parents and children, but didn’t receive anything yourself. The pressure is so great that theft always peaks just before Spring Festival.
The huge meal is probably the most important part of Spring Festival. Each food has a special meaning. For example: Fish (鱼,Yu) sounds like abundance (余, yu). So the expression “Every year is abundant” also sounds like “Have fish every year”. The meal will have as many dishes as the family can afford, and pretty much every dish has a double meaning (Wikipedia has a good list of these). This part is usually compared to Thanksgiving.
Every year CCTV (the official state media), puts on a massive set of performances. Often it lasts 6 or more hours, and is rerun for weeks. It includes “funny” skits, famous singers, ethnic minority dances, and a touch of traditional opera. I was so surprised the first time I asked the students what they did for Spring Festival because practically everybody said “watch TV.”
At midnight, every day for 2 weeks, fireworks light up the sky. On my first Spring Festival in Beijing we had been told that fireworks were banned in the city center. Apparently nobody else was told, the fireworks lasted for hours. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed.
Hongbao is what children’s minds leap to when they hear “Spring Festival.” Hongbaos are given to them by all of their elder relatives, often adding up to more than a hundred dollars, which is a massive haul for a Chinese child. Toy sales explode like Black Friday.
When I was learning Chinese, we were taught a phrase 热闹 (renao), which literally means hot and noisy. The usage though means something like a crazy, wild celebration. The professor said that until we spent Spring Festival in China, we couldn’t fully understand the meaning. They were right.