Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture Corner: Chinese New Year

Do you like the uncontrolled usage of explosives? Do you like the sounds of cannon fire? Do you like colorful fireworks and strings of thousands of firecrakers? If so, the Chinese New Year is the thing for you.

I should probably start by giving you what I can surmise from various opinions I've heard regarding the reasons behind Chinese New Year celebrations.  Apparently, as the old year approaches its end, the ghosts that have accumulated begin to occupy quite a mass, and the only way to get rid of them is to light off incredible quantities of explosives, scaring them to nether regions permanently.  To ensure their dispersal is complete, families gather together and give each other money in special New Year's red envelopes, the ultimate nail in the coffin.  (Nothing gets rid of demons like a little cold, hard cash, eh?)

My Chinese New Year's was spent while on holiday on a mountain. Jiuhuashan (meaning Nine Brilliant Mountains) is located at a fair distance from the 1.3 billion and is one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China.  The ratio of the surrounds is as follows: 70 monasteries scattered on the slopes and peaks to roughly 10,000 people occupying the tiny village located at it base. The scene set, the story goes as follows.

After a night of drinking with five old Chinese men who kept filling my glass at every opportunity and laughing uproariously, I was awakened at 4:30 in the morning on New Year's Eve by the sound an explosion. It was followed by another, and another, upon which I realized that the monks were beginning their celebrations early. I tried to sleep but couldn't, so I threw on my hiking pack and began my ascent of Jiuhuashan.  As I climbed the incredibly steep stone stairwell that zig-zagged its nearly vertically way up the side of mountain, I passed several happy children lighting firecrackers, a few other sojourners, as well as many monks and monasteries, all clinging to the mountain's side.  But I had my eyes set on one thing: at the top of the mountain, perched on a cliff like an eagle's nest, was a beautiful monastery. While you could only occasionally catch a glimpse of its silhouette in the ascent, some things remained constant throughout the hike: the erratic sounds of giant firecrackers booming in the air, rippling along the side of the mountain, and long strings of thousands of tiny firecrackers, ratta-tat-tatting like a bucket of pearls being poured on a glass table.

I arrived at the monastery in the afternoon dog tired, my quads thinking I’d just finished the most grueling Stairmaster session ever. The monks were kind and took care of me by providing hot water after the chilly hike, and after talking with them for a while in my burgeoning Chinese, they invited me to stay the night in their monastery, to which I gladly accepted. They fed me a wonderful vegetarian supper and soon after told me I should go to bed. I thought to myself: "That's strange. The sun hasn't even gone down yet." But, believing them to be the hosts and myself the guest, I obliged. At 11:45 that night I learned why they went to bed early.

In the black of night, loud voices and the scuffling of feet shook me from sleep, begging me to put on my shoes and go outside to see what the reason for the hustle and bustle was.  But even before walking out onto the balcony overlooking the mountain and village below, the reason was apparent: time to get those damned ghosts out of here.

The explosions, which had been random during the daytime, were now ceaseless.  A veritable war of machine gun fire and heavy artillery was being waged, the noise of shrieks and crackling and booming filling the air. Far below in the valley, bright fireworks of red and green, yellow and white burst at a rate too fast for the eyes to follow, the village looking like a pinball machine in a dark room. And even in the anonymous black distance, single bursts of light silently flashed in and out of existence, chasing the ghosts for as far as the eye could see.  And while there was indeed a lot of action below, there was no shortage in my immediate vicinity, either. The monks, shaken from the doldrums of their routine existence, also had a storehouse of fireworks which needed attention.  Wearing the smiles of children the holy men scampered about with huge belts of firecrackers, wholly reveling in the subsequent racket rattling our mountain top lodge. Based on the amount that was lit off, I can only imagine the view from the village was as good as the view from the top of the mountain.

Days later, what continues to impress me is the incredible quantity. It was as though everyone had an arsenal of munitions the equivalent of any third world country. While that midnight certainly saw the greatest rate of fireworks detonated, the days following were no less impressive, and even as I write, I am guaranteed to hear some thudding in the background.

Nothing more than sheer, beautiful, explosive chaos. That is Chinese New Year.

No comments:

Post a Comment