Chinese New Year in Rural Changsha

Our celebrations here may be relatively small, but they are just as meaningful.

“Why don’t we just drive straight there? We‘ll be arriving around 3 am but at least there won’t be any traffic,” my dad suggested, as we drove through the empty streets of Changsha. It was two nights before Chinese New Year and my family was gearing up for the holiday celebration. Every year it was a repetition of the same routine: driving down to my Grandma’s rural village and spending a week with extended family. My dad is always hectic around this time, wanting nothing more than to get down to his childhood home, and we followed suit. And, Chinese New Year is the most important traditional holiday of our culture. After a short flight, we have to drive for hours from the city into the countryside, crossing the same bridges and passing the same river every time as an indication that we are almost there. Each year I’ll stare out of the window and see children in their bright jackets and fur slippers, representing the urbanised grandchildren of the village elders who had returned for the new year. I see old men carrying baskets of struggling fish, or local children in tattered trousers, wearing just one shoe. The upcoming holiday keeps them unfazed from the cold. Driving on, there are always many locals relaxing outside their stone brick or concrete homes, and stray dogs wandering through pastures of crops. I’ll see the empty fields of winter grass and the bare mountains in the landscape; adjacent sits the river that had once been clear and rushing. We head down the red dirt path and down a sloping path into my Grandma’s home, where masses of family await.

The road behind my grandmother’s house.

The village lifestyle is straightforward and plain. Each family owns a house, many of whom they designed and built themselves, and reside with many others. Everyone has their own vegetable gardens, wells, and some own goats or cows. Nobody uses heating usually, opting to just wear more layers, and wifi is scarce. The bathroom is cold and can be difficult to use unless you’re used to squats. The shower takes time to heat up. Food is manually laboured and raised. Going to visit somebody else’s home does not require invitation or notification, and on many occasions I’ve found myself stopping by unannounced and being warmly welcomed. We stopped by to see our neighbours and friends this year, just to wish them a happy new year.

The night before the New Year, we enjoy a hearty dinner before sitting to watch the evening show. There are always plates of peanuts, sweets, tangerines and cups of tea on the table. We usually have boxes of fireworks and sparklers waiting to be lit at midnight, and then we sleep into the new year. The next morning, bright and early, we’ll awake to the sound of firecrackers going off in a spiral in the courtyard. The rooster normally sounds about 5:30, but during the New Year it will have already been slaughtered for lunch. During the Chinese New Year, our family spends half of the day cooking for everyone, making sure each meal is sufficient for all the guests. It’s usually a table of vegetables from our own garden, meat, fish and sweet potato. The first day is meant to be spent with your immediate family, so we don’t have too many guests. Then the second day is when most people return to the patriarch or matriarch’s house, and in my case this means my Grandma. I’ll greet all of my aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, many of whom I have not met before. We also take time to visit my grandfathers’ graves — located atop a mountain just half an hour away — bringing paper money, incense and more firecrackers. In my village, there is a group of locals that put on a small lion dance, coming directly to our home before moving onto the next.

The lion dancers in my grandma’s living room.
My unce cleaning out a fish for dinner.

The countryside is traditional and they don’t have the flashy things that the city does. Many values are still the same, but conveyed in different ways. Children still receive red bags, but less on WeChat and more in cash. There are no gifts of cookies, clothing or toys. There are no restaurants to visit, so all the food is cooked and eaten at home. We’ll play with sparklers and put on some fireworks. In essence, many of our actions parallel the city, but the atmosphere is incomparable. Being in a quiet and peaceful village, sleeping early and rising early, surrounded by neighbors that’ll unexpectedly stop by is all quite enticing. Our celebrations here may be relatively small, but they are just as meaningful.