Enigma of the latest lunar new year

Dancers perform during a Chinese Lunar New Year celebration in Singapore on Jan. 3, 2023. 	—Xinhua Photo Dancers perform during a Chinese Lunar New Year celebration in Singapore on Jan. 3, 2023. —Xinhua Photo

After three Lunar New Year holidays - from 2020 to 2022 - when travel restrictions kept so many families apart, many appear to have grappled with taking difficult decisions this year-- not only in China but also in many other countries in Asia including Taiwan, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Republic of Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and India.

Reference needs to be made first to mainland China where nearly 60,000 people with Covid died in Chinese hospitals between December 8 and January 12 after China abruptly scrapped its "zero-Covid" policies, according to government data. However, research by the National School of Development at Peking University had suggested more than 900 million people, or 64 per cent of the Chinese population, were "likely" to have been infected with Covid-19 as of January 11.

Nevertheless, as of 21 January, China's transport system had handled over 560 million passenger trips in the first 15 days of the 40-day ongoing Spring Festival travel rush via rail, highway, water, and air, up 47.9 per cent from the same period last year, according to CCTV-- the Chinese state broadcaster. More than 4.1 million people travelled by train and 756,000 people by air for holiday reunions on the day before the start of Lunar New Year. China's Ministry of Transport has also estimated that over 2 billion passenger trips will take place during the 40-day Lunar New Year season as people across the country return to their home towns for family reunions for the first time without domestic travel restrictions since the start of the pandemic over three years ago.

This whole evolving scenario has attracted the attention of the world which has been preparing once again for a possible resurgent Covid pandemic. They have been following observations about China in particular. However, the Chinese government has moved to assuage concerns. Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist of China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has observed that the need for anxiety needs to be less as the present "wave of epidemic has already infected about 80 per cent of the people" in the country of 1.4 billion. His claim came amid concerns; the travel rush that takes place around the Lunar New Year holiday period - sometimes dubbed the 'world's largest human migration' - could spread the virus to the countryside and cause a second wave of infections. But Wu, speaking on his personal social media account, said this scenario was unlikely as so many people had already been caught. "In the next two to three months, the possibility of a large-scale Covid-19 rebound or a second wave of infections across the country is very small," Wu said.

Before proceeding further we need to understand what Lunar New Year is in terms of traditions and celebrations. Sunday, the 22nd of January marked the start of the Year of the Rabbit - the other name for the current Lunar New Year.

The Lunar New Year, as its name suggests, is based on the cycles of the Moon and falls on a different day each year - usually between late January and the middle of February. This year, the celebrations started on January 22. In China, the 15-day celebration is also known as the Spring Festival and is the most important holiday of the year. On this occasion hundreds of millions of people from around the world decorate their houses with red lanterns and banners for the festivities. Those welcoming the Lunar New Year in China, enjoy the festival as it is marked by a week of public holidays.

Vietnam calls the festival "Tet", South Korea, "Seollal" and Indonesia, "Imlek". Vietnam also has its own zodiac, which does not include the rabbit, so it will celebrate the arrival the Year of the Cat. Kumquat trees are popular and auspicious decorations to mark the Lunar New Year. In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, with millions of citizens of Chinese descent had earlier been forced to give up Chinese-style names and their own language, and not celebrate the festival openly. However Lunar New Year only became a nationwide public holiday in 2002, four years after President Suharto left the scene.

The New Year celebration usually ends with the Lantern Festival although some countries have their own traditions as well. In Malaysia, for example, the 15th day is known as Chap Goh Mei (15th night) in the Hokkien dialect -and that is when young, single women throw oranges daubed with their name and contact number into the sea in the hope it will be found by the partner of their dreams.

Many might be interested to know as to why the current Lunar Year is known as the Year of the Rabbit. The explanation is interesting.

The Chinese zodiac is made up of 12 animals, starting with the rat and running through the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The dragon is seen as the most auspicious sign and there is often a spike in births during dragon years. The zodiac is seen as crucial to understanding people, their health, wealth and love lives. Each zodiac animal also has a raft of lucky colours, numbers and directions. But each person's prospects for the year and in life are also apparently influenced by the "five elements" of wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

The Rabbit year started on 22 January, 2023 and will come to an end on February 9, 2024. The rabbit - and anyone born in a rabbit year - is seen as quiet and thoughtful. However there are always two sides to a coin. The last rabbit year, in 2011, is still remembered for the terrible tsunami that rocked northeastern Japan and triggered one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded. More than 22,000 people were killed and the Fukushima nuclear plant destroyed. It was also the start of the Arab Spring protests and the year the United States announced it had killed Al al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

Customs and traditions often differ depending on the country and the Chinese dialect the family speaks, but for everyone everywhere food and family are central to the Lunar New Year. The most important part of the celebration is the "Reunion Dinner" when the family gathers on the eve of the New Year to enjoy a banquet with dishes chosen not only for their taste but for what they symbolize.

Cultural analysts have pointed out some interesting details about cuisine and food during this festival through careful observations.

Apparently, in Malaysia and Singapore 'yee sang' is a popular appetiser to get the celebrations underway. Made up of shredded fruits and vegetables - such as carrot, ginger and pomelo - and topped with raw fish, usually salmon, the salad is placed in the middle of the table. Diners gather around the plate, chopsticks at the ready, tossing the ingredients and the dressing together and sharing New Year wishes with their fellow diners. The aim is to toss the yee sang as high as possible to ensure good luck in the year ahead. A whole steamed fish - symbolising abundance - is also a must, or a whole chicken complete with feet and head. Mandarin oranges are ubiquitous, as are a stock of snacks and cookies. Traditionally, the dinner always took place at home but as incomes have increased, many families have started going to restaurants for their meal.

In South Korea, people spend days preparing food for the festivities. A common and popular dish is 'ddeokguk', a spicy soup of rice cakes, and 'songpyeon'- sweet rice cakes that are shaped like a half moon. The frenzy of all the preparation, long drives to see family and friends, the socializing itself and the clean up afterwards can even lead to exhaustion - what Koreans call 'Myung Cheol Chung Hu Kun'.

It would also be important to note that one significant tradition associated with the festival is cleaning one's residence from top to bottom ahead of the Lunar New Year. This is then followed by cleaning of windows and hanging red lanterns and calligraphy at the front door. These efforts are undertaken as partly symbolic - to get rid of any bad luck from the previous year. Red is also seen as the colour of happiness and good fortune.

At past midnight, when the first day of the Lunar New Year approaches, the streets of cities across the region fill with the sound of exploding firecrackers. The display is supposed to drive away any bad luck that might be lurking. Traditional games, such as mahjong, are also popular during the festivities with some laying bets on the outcome. Some people also head to the temple on the eve - aiming to be the first to plant their joss stick - while others wait until the next day when they will also pay respects to their loved ones. 

Sam Cabral of the BBC, in this context has also reported on an important development. Lunar New Year has been celebrated officially for the first time in California, USA this year. This is significant because it has never happened before in this manner anywhere else in the United States. The Lunar New Year became an official state holiday in California. This has been seen as a great move forward. The lanterns were up in San Francisco's Chinatown as the Year of the Tiger turned to the Year of the Rabbit. A fortnight of festivities was also kicked off on 22 January to mark the Lunar New Year.  It is being seen as a new beginning of one's life where all concerned will show examples of peace, love and restoration.

One cannot conclude about the importance of the new Lunar Year without also drawing attention to another facet of the paradigm. One needs to remember that such a massive observance of a New Year also has an impact on trade, commerce and shopping. This is very similar to what happens when Muslims observe the Eid ul Fitr or the Hindu community observes the Puja or the Christian community the Christmas and the English New Year.

This year, prior to  January 22, the world focused on China to see what happens. They noticed some fundamental changes to the way both Chinese shoppers and labels operated. With the majority of Chinese luxury spending shifting to mainland stores during the pandemic, western brands appear to have been slightly affected. The commercial aspect of observing the Lunar New Year however brought in a lot of spending and helped the business community in Singapore, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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