Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, or Chunjié, is the most important holiday among all of the traditional Chinese holidays. It represents the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Although it is a time to reflect on the past year, most of all, the Chinese New Year is viewed as a time to look toward the future in a positive light — a red light preferably, as red is thought to bring good luck and fortune. The celebrations sweep away the old with some tough cleaning, debt payments, and even noisy firecrackers — although in many urban areas in China, firecrackers have been banned due to too many accidents.

This is a very important new year for the Chinese residents and students of Pittsburgh for a variety of reasons. For those who call this city a home, whether permanently or temporarily, 2008 is also Pittsburgh’s 250th birthday. Also, across the Pacific, China will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of its reform, which brought historic changes to mainland China and caused the country to open up. It is these reforms that make the Chinese all the more proud to be hosting the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. With so many things to celebrate and a clear sight of a promising future, this year is one to be especially cherished and embraced by the Pittsburgh Chinese population and its neighbors.

This year, the Chinese New Year falls on Thursday, Feb. 7, and will welcome the Year of the Rat. Every year, the Chinese New Year falls on a different date because the Chinese calendar is based on a mix of lunar and solar movements. The lunar cycle lasts for about 29.5 days, and just as the Western calendar adds an extra day in a leap year to “catch up,” the Chinese insert an extra month once every few years to “catch up” to the solar calendar.

The Chinese New Year begins with the first new moon and ends 15 days later, on a bright, full moon. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are celebrated with family; traditionally, people even invoke the spirits of their ancestors to leave no member out. The 15th day of the new year, known as the Lantern Festival, or Shang Yuan Festival, is celebrated at night when children carry lanterns in parades, and streets, homes, and shops also display lanterns.

For many Carnegie Mellon students and Pittsburgh residents alike, the New Year can be a difficult time, full of homesickness.

“Chinese New Year is definitely a very important holiday. It’s really the one time during the year that everyone in the family gathers around for dinner,” said Bo Gui, a junior in biomedical and chemical engineering. “Being overseas, my immediate family is smaller than the extended one back in China ... [and it’s] difficult being away from home because it’s nice to see the family during this time of year [and] I can’t receive my red envelope which normally would be full of money.”

It is for this reason that the Chinese community comes together in different events across campuses and the city. Every year, Carnegie Mellon’s group, Awareness of Roots in Chinese Culture (ARCC), hosts a Chinese New Year dinner. This year’s dinner was on Friday, Feb. 1, and included a show full of Chinese dances and music.

“We wanted to provide a good home-cooked meal and fun entertainment for everybody that came,” said ARCC president and ECE senior Randy Ma. “Some of our board members acted out a skit telling the story of [the] Chinese New Year for those who are not familiar with it. The event was a great success overall.”

ARCC members cooked traditional Chinese foods for their guests, as they have done in previous years. This year, the members put together a delicious menu. They served appetizers of dumplings and radish cakes, and had an impressive list of main courses: Chinese sausage with cabbage, pork ribs with black bean sauce, three-cup chicken, beef with oyster sauce, and fried rice noodles. Their vegetable menu included tofu with vegetables, oriental vegetables, and Chinese baby greens with oyster sauce. Dessert included orange slices and Chinese New Year cake, or nian gao, which literally translates into “year cake.” Although it can be eaten throughout the year, it is most popular to eat during the new year especially because, verbally, nian gao can be heard to mean “year high,” which is interpreted as “every year, higher and higher.”

“The most difficult thing, as it has been in the previous years we’ve done it, was to cook enough food for more than 100 people,” Ma said. “With only 20 people on our board, we had to spread ourselves pretty thin between the kitchens, transportation, setting up the room, and performances.”

The ARCC also put on a show with various traditional dances. Members even performed a fusion dance, which combined modern and traditional techniques. This proved to be a popular show.

“I would have to say my favorite performance was the fusion fan dance by the girls of ARCC,” Gui said. “They are just so graceful on stage, and it was very well rehearsed.”

This dance was choreographed by Judith Sun, a business administration alumna from Carnegie Mellon. Elegantly posing their fans while moving swiftly, the girls of ARCC put on a great performance of this dance both at the dinner and at the 2008 Chinese New Year celebration at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial last Saturday, Feb. 2. This celebration united various individuals and groups from the city, and even overseas, to celebrate the new year together in one event.

“I think that the idea is to bring the Chinese population together, those who want to stay in touch with their culture and each other,” said Alice Wang, a senior in chemical engineering and an ARCC fusion fan dance performer. “I grew up in America, so it is nice to become immersed in Chinese culture once in a while, especially [at] times like the Chinese New Year.”

The event was sponsored by the Chinese Association of Science and Technology Pittsburgh Chapter and the Pittsburgh Chinese School. The show included a three-hour repertoire with performers from the Oriental Star Dance School (both the young and adult groups), the Anhui Zhige Wushu Academy, the Organization of Chinese Americans, the University of Pittsburgh’s Chinese Students & Scholars Association, the Pittsburgh Chinese School, Chatham College students, and the North Allegheny High School Orchestra and Golden Strolling String group.

This event showcased talent from every age group, whether through dancing, singing, modeling for a fashion show, or the playing of various string instruments. The most shocking shows were the three martial arts demonstrations by Zhonglai Zhu, Cheng Liu, and Jing Wu from the Anhui Zhige Wushu Academy. The performers, two young men and one younger boy, put every audience member’s physical abilities to shame. Their performance was similar to gymnastics, as it was geared to apply both bare-handed and weapon forms of kung fu to meet aesthetic criteria alongside some blood-pumping Chinese martial arts music. From front flips to smooth, curving spin kicks in the air, these performers put up relentless sequences of acrobatic moves and jumps to exhibit beautiful acrobatic forms.

The most beautiful musical performance was the erhu solo. The erhu is a traditional Chinese instrument, known in the west as the “Chinese violin,” or the “Chinese two-string fiddle,” played sitting down, with the instrument mounted on the top of the left leg. When many people think of traditional Chinese music, it is the sound of the erhu they play in their heads. It sounds similar to a Western violin, but its sound stretches farther and creates a more strained voice. Played by Shuo Zhang, the solo touched many audience members. From the seats one could see grandfathers smiling as they watched their little grandchildren listen and feel the general nostalgia hovering above the seats, which was further intensified when Miao Ge sang “I Love You, China.”

“The show was very successful and everyone is so happy. We had so many groups come to participate. Everyone worked very hard,” said a proud and enthusiastic Wanda Wang, chief producer of the Chinese New Year 2008 celebration. “Our first performance had women from ages around 40 to 50, but even though they are older, they still participated.... The martial artists just arrived this morning, around 10 a.m., from China.... The North Allegheny High School students, even though they are so busy with school, all we had to do was just ask them, and they just came. They all had a lot of fun, too!”

The Chinese revere the rat for its wit and its ability to collect and keep items of value, and are excited to welcome back the rat and all that it symbolizes. The Chinese New Year has yet to come, but it seems the Pittsburgh community can’t wait until Thursday.