China and the World

Going global

Chinese New Year is becoming an international event

Britain's Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge leave a Christmas Day morning service at the church on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, eastern England

The Prince of Putonghua

China became a republic on January 1, 1912 and amid the significant changes that followed, a key one was the decision to adopt the West’s Gregorian calendar.

Symbolically, China’s new leadership viewed this as part of their battle against tradition and feudal superstition. In 1928 Chiang Kai-shek’s government even banned the celebration of the Lunar New Year, hoping to focus public attention on the Gregorian new year’s day instead. Fireworks were forbidden and public holidays were moved. It didn’t work. A year later the Spring Festival was back.

Today the Gregorian New Year remains the most celebrated holiday in the world. But the global appeal of Chinese New Year seems to be catching up. For instance, this year marked the first time that students in New York who wished to celebrate the Spring Festival didn’t have to skip school. That is because a new law allowed schools to declare the first day of the Lunar New Year as a holiday. The China Daily estimates that about one in six public school students in the city are Asian. Previously they have needed to take an “excused” absence (which stays on their attendance record).

The holiday’s rising profile is also apparent in the American president’s Chinese New Year message. George Bush started the tradition in 2002 but the greeting was only printed in a few local Chinese newspapers. Barack Obama then started recording his own greetings and putting his “warm wishes” videos on YouTube (he used this year’s Lunar New Year greeting to discuss why comprehensive immigration reform was required in “this great, melting pot nation”).

In Downing Street David Cameron also saw an opportunity – sending China’s state broadcaster a festive greeting which it aired nationwide. The British prime minister said he hoped the Year of the Goat would be a “truly golden one” marked by increasing ties between China and the UK, and even wished the audience a happy new year in Mandarin. That said, he got the pronunciation partially wrong, though social media users were generally forgiving and appreciated his effort. Some, mind you, were less interested in his talk about trade. For example, one netizen wrote on Cameron’s weibo page: “Happy New Year to you too. But when is the next season of Downtown Abbey?”

Prince William’s linguistic skills also received a warm reception after Buckingham Palace issued his own Spring Festival message ahead of a three-day visit to China that starts this Sunday.

The Duke of Cambridge tried out a few sentences in Chinese, which were broadcast just ahead of the Spring Gala (the TV extravaganza watched by 690 million viewers, for more see page 14). “He is cute,” one netizen wrote. Another added: “People always go on about his hairline, but his Chinese is great.”

Acknowledging all the New Year greetings from world leaders (and future kings), the Chinese media seemed pleased that the celebration of the Spring Festival is growing around the world.

“It is no longer an occasion only celebrated by the Chinese. It is slowly becoming a global festive season,” the Beijing Youth Daily said.

The People’s Daily reckoned this was partly due to the fact that more Chinese are working abroad. Also assisting: the hordes of Chinese tourists going abroad. Luxury labels and retailers across the world have rolled out promotions to attract Chinese shoppers during the Lunar New Year vacations (see WiC271).

However, the Beijing Youth Daily warned that China shouldn’t export some of the more adverse practices associated with the New Year – such as setting off firecrackers in public areas, and gambling excessively. In fact, these should be discouraged at home too. “It is the only way for our Spring Festival culture to become a truly international one and be accepted by all countries,” moralised the newspaper.

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