A Take on Chinese New Year

We have recently passed into the Lunar New Year, an event which is marked and celebrated very widely in Asian cultures, and not least in Hong Kong, where I’ve been living and working for the past 6 months or so. Western festivals such as Christmas, the calender new year, and Easter are all sanctioned by the government, but it’s the new year that really gets special treatment, with all employers allowing their workers three days off work, and many allowing a full five days. (The sounds of construction, more or less ubiquitous in Hong Kong, were gladly silenced for the full period).

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How do you explain the significance of this festival to an outsider? Climbing the stairs with a neighbour, I was asked how I had spent my new year (often people wonder if I travelled back to Europe), to which I replied that I had remained where I was, using the time to gratefully catch up on some writing work. She then told me, that Chinese new year was like Thanksgiving or Christmas in the USA; by that time we were at her door, so I said goodbye and carried on up to my own.

Although her comparison might have mistook me for an American, it seems apt as far as Christmas is concerned. They are both times when you are more likely to make the effort to gather together with other people, eat food, and generally have a good time. Also, it is probably one of the longest governmental holidays in the year for both. And, the shared experiences means that the events are marked in public.

But on closer inspection there’s subtle but important dissimilarities. New Year is very clearly for family: if you aren’t a part of a Chinese family (and I’m not), there’s no part of new year reserved for friends, or the wider community. The gifts exchanged in the UK are more or less universally replaced by one thing – the ‘red packet’, given to unmarried visitors, filled with a cash offering. As for the hiatus from work, all Chinese get three days off, but Christmas in the UK is a different matter – the festival proper may only be a couple of days, but combine it with New Year, and there’s a full week of festivities and idleness to be enjoyed. In 2012, judicious use of annual leave could have easily left you with a full 12 days away from work. (If you’re a university student, you can easily fit this into a month or six weeks of holiday, often before taking exams.)

But the most striking difference is the lack of a ‘buzz’ about the occasion. In my work in UK universities, you can virtually forget about doing anything the week or so before people start going off on leave; students seldom pay attention in week 12, by which time they will often have eloped to their home towns. Staff will be gratefuly using this time to have drinks with each other and relax a bit.

Anyone will be happy to talk about their pleasant experiences at the end of the year.

By contrast, I have found it very difficult to stimulate discussion of Chinese new year, either with my staff or with my students. Questions like ‘what are you doing for new year?’ are met with blank, unexcited answers, as if this were a strange thing to ask.

My feeling is that the Chinese demonstrate a truth that applies for all cultures: that ideology, often manifest in common customs and beliefs, offers itself in a way that is best comparable to law.

People have little or no emotional response about whether they should be driving on the left or right hand side of the road, and indeed, emotions would be irrelevant in deciding whether to obey this law or not. Likewise, whether or not Chinese participate in New Year celebrations has nothing to do with whether they like it or not – it is just something you will do, regardless.

One of the most fundamental laws in the western world is the law of pleasure, the injunction to enjoy, (the basis of Zizek’s career!), which gives every other practice or procedure an inseparable appearance of internality. But the Chinese teach us how a culture can survive and proceed quite contentedly without resorting to a justifying gesture of pleasure.

To think of a ‘law of custom’ is probably unappealing. Surely, swimming in the Serpentine and the queen’s speech, like clog dancing and well dressing, are organic responses to fundamental human desires – surely, they lack the contingent, arbitrary, and external character of jurisdiction? 

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