A DESCRIPTION OF THE SCENES CUSTOMARY IN SOUTH CHINA PREPARATORY TO THE CELEBRATION OF THE NEW YEAR. THE DIFFERENCES IN OBSERVANCE BY CHRISTIANS AND PAGANS.
The Chinese reckon their dates by the moon, and the first day of the first moon is the most important, and in this land of firecrackers, the noisiest day of the year. For weeks before, the bustle of preparation was in the air. The sign writers were working overtime in their shops and on improvised tables outside them, writing inscriptions on long strips of red paper that would be pasted around the three sides of every doorway. Stalls appeared in every street for the sale of these scrolls and of the vivid pictures of gods and heroes that would decorate the side walls and the smaller doors of the houses.
There was heavy traffic on river highway, for all who could leave their work were returning home for the New Year, and an abundance of firewood had to be brought in to tide the families over the two weeks when the boat people and the shops would make holiday. The sampans were three deep on the already crowded waterfront, many of them laden with wicker crates of geese, t h e favourite New Year dish, but some bearing pigs, also in wicker tube-like crates, for pork is welcome to the Chinese at all seasons.
The Shopping Parties.
Hawkers with new cries added to the babel of the streets, and the streets themselves were thronged with people from the villages coming to do their shopping. Every evening the family groups were streaming from the town laden with purchases. If there was a goose or a fowl, the man was there to carry it, alive, for the Chinese like their meat freshly killed; in the mother's basket could be seen the vegetables and the fruit and the vermicelli that the season demanded; and on top of them the inevitable joss sticks and firecrackers; the children had pieces of sugar-cane to chew, and the baby strapped on its mother's back had a bright new knitted cap.
In the streets the smell of the New Year's cooking came from all the houses, very small houses for the most part, for there are very few that have more than one room. Through the door could be seen a group of children around the brick fireplace watching the rice dumplings being cooked, while the eldest girl stood by with a large green leaf ready to wrap up each one as it came from the pan.
Beside this pan was another of steaming lard in which the "fried pockets" would be floated until th$y were a lustrous brown. These last are appropriately named. They are of rice flour, thin and hollow and as large as small footballs. Balloons might be even a more appropriate name, for the substance of which they are made looks, and to the unaccustomed palate tastes, like oiled silk.
The Final Preparation.
When the cooking is all done, the best vase that the family can boast of, often an old Chinese vase that comes out of its wrappings only on great occasions, is set in the centre of the table, and in it is placed a branch of the lovely "Hanging Bell Flower" a shrub something like our flowering-currant but with a larger flower. On either side is put a bowl of growing "Water-Nymph Flowers " a highly-performed double narcissus, and nearby the eight-compartment box of sweetmeats, with melon seeds in the centre-—and then the stage is set for the family celebration of the New Year.
In many ways the preparations remind one of the Christmas in Ireland, but it is Christmas without Christ, Who is the centre of our rejoicing.
In the shops there is anxiety as well as bustle, for the last day of the year is reckoning day. Business methods are not the same in the East as in the West. Here the average shop has not a banking account, it has limited capital and gives large credit, but all the money must be collected by t h e end of the year, otherwise it can be counted as lost.
So, in spite of the extra business of the time, and of the cheap sales to get rid of surplus stock and to swell the year's takings, some of the staff have to go around collecting debts, and the owners spend feverish nights at their accounts, for many will not know until the last hours of New Year's Eve whether they have succeeded in the last year's trading or whether they must close their shops and declare bankruptcy.
That Mysterious Epidemic.
And the assistants do not know what is going to happen after that dinner on the day following the New Year, for it is only then that they will have their contracts renewed for another year or be told that times are bad and that their honourable services can no longer be retained.
But the government of the republic wants none of these old-time customs and none of these celebrations. It has decreed that the calendar is to be brought into line with that of the rest of the world and that the Chinese New Year is to be abolished. There are no protests from the people—that is not the Chinese way—but everything goes on just as before. Though all the shops are shut, government offices must remain open, but it is reported that an epidemic breaks out each year about this time among the grandmothers of the higher officials and they have to absent themselves. The same thing has happened in the schools. School had to go on though the family feast was being observed at home, but sometimes the urgent applications for leave of absence on the part of the teachers made it impossible to continue school.
And Still Passive Resistance.
This year an earnest appeal was sent by government to the teachers, asking them to set a good example by keeping their grandmothers in good health until after the New Year festival. The teachers promised compliance, but here and there the pupils threatened a strike and the authorities capitulated. The government also announced that if New Year greeting cards—easily recognisable by their red envelopes—were sent through the post they would be burned. But the sale of cards went on in the shops as before. However, even though red is the lucky colour, some of the envelopes were white this year.
I had watched all the preparations going on for weeks and could feel the growing excitement as the New Year approached. When the Eve came there was none of the rush of last moment preparations that mark our Christians Eve. From mid-day the shops began to close and the fusillade of firecrackers began in real earnest.
In the afternoon I went down to the river's edge, where thousands of people live in boats, and live even more in public than the rest of the people of a country where privacy is never regarded as a thing to be desired. There almost all activity had ceased, and the New Year rites had begun. In the stern of each boat the semblance of an altar had been set up. It was nothing else than a two-dimensional tree standing in a wide bowl of sand. The tree had a few large leaves of gold tinsel and coloured paper, and the earthenware bowl was covered with red paper. When it was in position at the back of the boat, some joss sticks were lit and stuck into the sand in front of the tree, then a bundle of fire-crackers were lit from the glowing joss sticks.
Boys and the Fire Crackers.
In boat after boat this little ceremoney was performed, until all along the river the boats had their little shrines erected and over them all hung a cloud of smoke from the fire-crackers.
As I was standing at the edge of the quay watching what was going on at the end of the sloping shore, two children ran up from one of the boats with a few lighting joss sticks and put them in the ground in front of a projecting stone on the road beside me. Someone had probably called it a lucky stone, and they hoped that it might bring them luck in the coming year. All through the town the same altars were being erected in each house, and its setting up, or the simple closing of a shop for the holidays, was the signal for a burst of firecrackers outside the front door. After they had exploded in the street, there was a rush of small boys to see if any had escaped burning and held out hopes of further bangs. I thought of some of my young newsboy friends in Dublin who would be good at that game, and I could picture Joe O'Brien or "Mousie" Kavanagh coming off best in such a scramble.
Midnight on the Roof.
For the Christian New Year I happened to be in Hong Kong, and heard the pandemonium of firecrackers that broke loose at midnight. Next day one of the papers asked "What is the difference between a Christmas cracker and a New Year one?" and it went on: "If you do not know the answer to that this morning, you must be a very sound sleeper." I asked someone how the din compared with the Chinese New Year and he answered: The only difference is that at the Chirstian New Year the noise lasts for an hour, but at the Chinese New Year it goes on for a fortnight." He was right, but even in the continuous demonstrating of a fortnight there must be a climax, and that came at midnight on New Year's Eve." Sleep was unthinkable, so I went up to the roof—there is a flat portion on the roof of every tall house in Southern China.
It was a beautifully mild night, for the thermometer had reached 73 that day, having risen 36 degrees in three days. It seemed as if a mighty bombardment was going on. Though the streets were too narrow for me to see anything but the roofs. I could see the flashes of the crackers in every part of the town. One variety of crackers has magnesium mixed with the powder, and when these exploded in a narrow street, a widening beam of light as from a searchlight shot into the sky, and the effect as they flashed all around was wonderful. One of them burst behind the little Catholic church on the outskirts of the town, and for an instant the cross on the belfry stood out against a background of light. I was thankful for that flash and its message of hope.
Urbanity in the Home.
In the early part of New Year's Day the streets were almost empty; the family feast was being observed behind closed doors. In those homes where the age-old traditions of China are observed the children prostrate themselves before their parents, first before their father, then before the mother kneeling and then bowing till the forehead touched the ground. Then the father offered to each one a small red envelope containing a few coins, the gift that is given by each man of dignity to all the young people who wish him a "Happy New Year."
Politeness is very formal in China, as I had occasion to observe many times during the day, when I met some of the Catholic community who came to offer greetings. Each one brings a small box of cards bearing a simple expression of good wishes. He takes a card from it, stands in front of the person to whom he is presenting it, holds it in both hands, and bows from the hips, repeating the good wishes as he does so. I saw the simplest working people doing this with perfect grace, and felt rather ashamed of the unceremonious way in which I had to acknowledge the greeting.
But the first good wish of the day was offered by the beggars. In the early hours of the morning, before dawn, the "King" of the beggars, an important personage who is invited to every important marriage and funeral dinner and controls the very rigid organisation of beggars in each town, goes through the streets and pastes on each door a small piece of paper bearing a message of good wishes for all who pass through the doors. Next day he calls to receive a practical return of the good wish. It is a happy day for the beggars, for, in addition to what each one receives as his share of this collection and from the houses in his district —for, as I said, the beggars are organised, and each one has a special district—they receive generously from passers-by on New Year's Day. I was much struck by the way in which the poor coolies, both men and women, carrying heavy loads on each end of their bamboo poles, stopped to put something in the beggar's bowl as they passed.
In the afternoon as I went through the streets some doors were closed, and the rattle of Mah Jong pieces came from behind them. But in passing some of the business houses it was the rattle of the abacus that I heard. All Chinese counting is done on the abacus and the business men were apparently still at their accounts.
Children in their best clothes were walking through the streets with cleverly constructed fishes made of paper on a bamboo frame on the top of long sticks, and the rickshaw coolies had a busy day bringing people to pay formal visits to their friends. Some houses had hung out large white parchment lanterns with red letters on them and many had waited until the last night to paste up the inscriptions round their doors or to hang over the door the five gold-spotted stripes of red paper in honour of the god of the door.
"The Five Blessings."
But all the houses were now decorated. A common inscription above the door wishes to all comers "the five blessings" (which are: health, riches, virtue a long life, and a happy end), but Catholics have made a happy alteration and the change of one Chinese character makes the inscription offer "the blessings of God" to all who enter.
I had seen very few of these on my way through the town, for the number of Catholic families is small. Instead, I saw through the open doors of the houses the food piled up in the ricebowls, with joss sticks burning beside them—a sign that it was an offering to one of the gods.
New Year's Day is not a day of feasting, the big dinner comes on the following day; it is, in fact, a day of abstinence, as the first and fifteenth days of every moon are supposed to be. No living thing, flesh or fish, may be eaten on this day, and only vegetables can be taken with the rice. Much lettuce is eaten, because its name is "the growing vegetable" (so called because it can be eaten without cooking), and its lucky name is supposed to help one to grow strong during the year. Similarly, tiny hard oranges, which are seasonable at this time, are given to the children because of their name, whicfr is the same as "lucky" though it is written differently.
One cannot be brought face to face with rampant paganism without a feeling of depression, for all these superstitious emblems and practices are so many barriers to Christianity, and looking at all these decorated houses I was blind to a lot that was quaint and picturesque, for my memory wass bringing me back to Dublin, and I was thinking of Railway-street during Congress week. Then a ray of consolation came. I had stopped to take a photograph of some brightly ornamented houses when I heard a rush of running feet up the street behind me. I wondered if I had broken any spell and was going to be stopped before I did further harm, but I determined to hold my ground and get the photograph taken.
The running footsteps came nearer, and just as I had pressed the button a cry of "San Foo! (Father!), San Foo!" came from the direction of them. I looked around. They were two poor boys, servant lads that I knew—one a convert of a few years, the other preparing for baptism—and they were racing down with glowing faces to give me New Year greetings. The fellowship of the Faith! It is one of the most consolling things that the missionary meets.
In my short experience I have been hailed in all kinds of unlikely places—on the streets, the midst of crowds, on boats big and small, when passing by men digging in a rice field—by Chinese Catholics whom I did not know. They did not know me either, but they saw that I was a foreigner in Chinese dress and, therefore, they reasoned rightly, I must be a Catholic priest. And if I was a long-lost brother, instead of a stranger who could only lisp in reply a few halting words in broken Chinese, I could not have been greeted more heartily when they found that their guess was correct. There, must surely be good soil for the Faith in the Chinese heart, when it bridges so easily their racial prejudices and makes them realise that all Catholics are friends and brothers.
Next morning, before daybreak, I was going through the streets again, on my way to say, Mass. Some of the provision shops were being opened, with the same ritual of joss sticks and fire-crackers. A red paper with an inscription in honour of the "god of the floor" was pasted on one of t h e door-posts just above the ground, and joss sticks and a red candle were burning before it at every shop door that was open. This tribute would be repeated every morning, and it would be the duty of the junior member of the staff to see that it was not forgotten.
"Dragon' s Work"
The crackers and slab-bangs seemed to increase as the morning were on. On the previous day, New Year's Day, there had been an eclipse of the sun in the morning, and as this was an evil omen (an eclipse is called "eating the sun"—it is a dragon's work) it had to be counteracted by many firecrackers, so a lot of the day's supply was exhausted early in the morning. But on this day the noise was loud during the whole day, for it was necessary not merely to show rejoicing but also to put the gods in good humour for the year that was beginning, and to frighten the devils.
This was the day, too, for visiting, the temples, and I went to see the people making their offerings. There were many gifts, mostly of eatables, before the shrines of the Buddhas, and t h e bonzes were kept busy, acting for those who left the gifts, and spilling the little cups of water before each altar. Round mats were dotted over the floors for the use of those who were casting lots to read the important omens of the year.
I watched one man as he knelt and tossed the bamboo divining blocks. Each of the two pieces has a flat and a convex side. If one of each side turned up, it would be splendid; if both convex sides were up, it would be fair—but the two plain sides came uppermost, and the look of utter misery on his face was piteous. He did not wait to admire the gifts or light more joss sticks, or go to the side and drink tea, as t h e more satisfied ones did, but walked slowly away with hanging head, a picture of abject despair.
The Fortorn Hope.
Huge spiral joss sticks, that would take days to burn, hung in front of some of the altars, but others were almost neglected. Every year some statues get the name of being lucky, and it is to these that the people crowd, but some people who found bad luck everywhere try the deserted shrines as a forlorn hope. Many of the temples have attached to them rooms fitted with tables for Mah Jong players, and sometimes also couches for the opium smokers, but these were all deserted on this day.
Whether it was because it was felt that the temples were given o\er to their real purpose on this day, or simply because there were too many people about, I cannot say. At any rate, it did not mean that gambling' was suspended during the festive season, for the hum of voices and the rattle of counters could still be heard when I passed the gambling-houses on my way to Mass that morning.
The memories of my first Chinese New Year are, then, mainly of fire crackers and joss sticks. The gaiety and good humour of the people of this land are a delight at all times, but at this time all that they do seems to be shrouded in a veil of superstition. They appear which to build, but they have many to have little religious belief on prejudices which are very hard to overcome. Once they are overcome, however, all the fears and inhibitions which come from their superstitions are removed, and the real joyousness of the simple Chinese soul is displayed.
My companion on my round of temple visits was a young Chinese catechumen, who is soon to be baptised, a good simple lad, who thought the scowling and grinning faces of the gilded Buddhas highly amusing. On our way back we passed through the district to which he belonged. He was recognised and hailed to many, and everyone had a cheery word for him, because he is one of those happy ones whom everybody likes.
There was only one exception, for one boy, seeing him in the company of a foreigner, and knowing, as all the people did, that he as the religion of the foreigner, called him a "running dog," the term of contempt that is used for those who are thought false to Chinese traditions.
But he did not get a chance to use the expression a second time, for another boy promptly wheeled him round and hit him on the nose —a thing that I had never seen happen in China before. Then he locked up to see what we thought of his action, and there was gasping amazement on his face as I took off my hat to him. Probably it confirmed his belief that all foreigners were queer people, and I am afraid that he did not understand my gesture of respect for the champion of my friend A—L
BY THE REV. T. F. RYAN,
- Malaya Catholic Leader, Saturday, February 9nd, 1935 (pdf pp51)