Over the moon for the new year
Xian, Shaanxi province, China -- The Lunar New Year is truly something to behold in China. Starting a week before the holiday, the biggest human migration on earth occurs here, when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel to their home towns and villages to kick off a week-long celebration with friends and family.
It’s the biggest holiday in this country of 1.3 billion and one during which you can really feel just how important family is here. I think it’s much more important here than in the West. People in the West often compare Lunar New Year to Christmas. But Christmas takes place over the course of one day and an evening. The Lunar New Year is a week-long whirlwind of food, family, fireworks and fairs. And it’s just assumed that you will go back to your family home to do so.
The build-up starts about a month ahead, when the ubiquitous lanterns start to appear in the streets, shopping malls and people’s windows.
Then the train stations begin to get busier. You can feel a change in the atmosphere. And the week before it just gets crazy. This year I decided to cover the celebrations outside of Beijing for the first time, so I took a train to Chengdu in the center of the country. It was so packed that dozens of people had to stand the whole way there. That’s 26 hours. And the most incredible thing? It was one of the loveliest and friendliest atmospheres that I’ve encountered. Coming from a country where grumbling is a national pastime, I have to say I was quite impressed.
The people were very polite to each other. To go to the toilet, you had to make your way through a wall of passengers and they all let you pass without so much as a sigh. I can’t imagine ever seeing such goodwill in similar conditions in Europe.
The big bang of the celebrations is usually on the eve of the New Year. In years past, that’s when the entirety of China seemed to set off fireworks to mark the occasion. They would start around 6 or 7 o’clock at night and last until dawn, with everyone in the streets -- adults, children, old people. It was a really nice moment, when everyone seemed to be united in joy.
For a photographer, it’ was a dream assignment as not only were the fireworks very visual, but, because they were not as tightly regulated here as in the West, there were many more of them. So a photographer was like a kid in a candy store.
This year was different, though, as fireworks were banned in most major cities, as authorities seek to lower winter pollution levels. You still had some here and there, but it wasn't anywhere near the scale of years past.
The days following the New Year are spent eating, going to fairs...
... eating, visiting family, eating, going to amusement rides...
... eating, seeing traditional shows....
... eating, catching up on astrology news to see what the new year has in store for you (note to dogs -- it’s not looking good) and then eating some more. And then everyone heads back to their work lives. And the countdown begins for the following year.
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.