As we’re finally leaving the dark, cold and poor January behind us in Scandinavia, the Chinese are about to enter their big festivity of the New Year. In 2022 the year of the Tiger starts on the 1st of February.
In 1905, the newly baked missionary Olga spent her first Chinese New Year celebrating the year of the Snake. She had yet to get used to everything and would not have ventured out from the missionary station much, but she did get to meet a lot of Chinese villagers, who came to pay the missionaries their New Year´s visits.
It seems it was a lot of work to “enter” the Chinese New Year in a good way. My great grandparents had to follow many social rules so as not to anger anyone. They were a bit concerned about the amount of money they had to spend as they were a mission that relied only on charity to get by. Firstly they had to buy big gift trays for the mandarin in the village. Then, they also had to make New Years’ visits, as well as offer food and drinks and gifts to the many Chinese who came by to pay them a visit in return. They had to attend dinners and host thank you-dinners.
Several “friends” came by the last days of the old year, and expected to receive gifts, kind words and help in different ways. These friends were for instance the guards from every village entrance/city gate – there could be around three guards per gate – and perhaps six gates in total for a medium village. The police force came by – including civil and military police, day police and night police – tax collectors came as well as soldiers, barbers, waterdrivers and so on. They all wanted generosity and well wishes. By the end of it all, the missionaries could only hope the good humour they bought this way would last through spring. It cost a lot to be a foreigner living in a big house on the business street of the village.
One missionary friend of my relatives – Hugo – described the last month of the Chinese year very vividly in a passage in a book I got hold of.
“The 12th month of the Chinese year is here, and life here seems almost like before Christmas in Sweden. There are markets held everywhere in small towns and villages and people hurry about to purchase everything needed for the New Year festivities. This month, all the debts are to be payed, because as soon as the New Year has passed, there is no good trying to get your money back, however big the debt was. Each and everyone is then entitled to enjoy life and be happy. That is why one can see creditors running around trying to get hold of the debtors, who in turn try to hide out until New Year’s day arrives. The hunt for the debtors is on all through the night and it happens that one sees some unhappy creditor late in the morning, walking around with a lantern, pretending it’s still new year’s night, in the hope of finding a lost, sought-after debtor.
This last day of the old year, all the doors are decorated with door gods and wise words on big, red, pieces of paper. Servants run around in the streets, carrying trays of presents for friends and aquaintances. When it becomes dark, a very intense shooting starts, which carries on all through the night. There are thousands of crackers throwed – in order to scare away “the nine-headed bird” which is said to walk around amongst the people looking for prey. Not many can sleep at all that night.
In the morning of the first day of the New Year, the father of the house gather the family members for a formal ceremony where passed relatives’ names are placed on a table in the main room. All kinds of sweets are set on the table, candles and inscense altars are placed on an embroidered cloth. On a carpet in front of the table all male members of the family fall to their knees, light the inscence and pray and bow.
When this is over, one has to go to all one’s relatives, bow to each other and wish “happy new year.” Thereafter, one can begin to eat, drink and be merry. Visits with relatives continue the second and third day as well – they sit together, eat walnuts and melon seeds, talk, have some sweets and drink tea and then hurry on to the next house. Nobody works for five days and many shops do not open until the 16th – the festivities keep on until the 20th. All they think about during this time is to enjoy themselves. Groups of people can be seen on the streets playing with dice or engaging in card games. Lots of money is gambled away.
The young people have a good time in swings that are put up in the streets. It is a joy to see them having fun, as they lack that rawness that is often seen when youngsters play. The young women – who are often married before 14 years of age – can now freely walk about and show off their beautiful clothes. Their dresses are embroiderd, silk from head to toe, with fake flowers in the hair and silver jewellry everywhere. Their small, bound feet put in “lily shoes” are decorated with small silver bells. To me, it does look a bit strange, but when one ponders how they are often ill- treated by their mothers-in-law, hit and pushed to near slavery – often both day and night, kept down by their shrunken feet and traditions they can do nothing about, one understands that they have not experienced much joy in life.”
But what to make of a new year? Yesterday is already last year, and today we’re heading towards our future once again. The abilitiy to stay in the present and enjoy our allotted time, requires us to be patient. We also need to see what is here, right in front of us, not behind us or yet to come.
In my own experience, living in the present is easier when you are away from your home country. When you’re living abroad, you learn something new every day, even when it comes to routine issues. Celebrating New Year in China would have been a different experience altogether, and would have required a lot of work simply understanding everything that needed to be done as well as how to do it in the right way. And when you are busy learning something new, it’s hard to be caught up in the past or plan for the future – all your focus is in the now.
Visiting with a mission to harvest
My great grandmother Dagny also wrote about a New Year’s visit she made to a Mrs Li in1903. Mrs Li was a woman, who had started to open up to the message from the missionaries. She was also one of the first women to pay Dagny a visit in Hancheng when she first arrived in 1893.
“When I first met her, she looked very worried about the problems facing her in this earthly life. So much, that she could not let any light into her darkened soul. Her whole life was full of disappointments. She complained: “I am over 50 years old and all alone. My daughter is married, my son and his wife are angry at me and at each other. Now, my son travelled to Tongcheo and does not want to come back.” (Tongcheng, as it is called today, is a town about 100 kilometres southeast of Hancheng). “He does not send me anything for my keep, he just smokes opium. My daughter-in-law has gone back to her home. She too, smokes opium and doesn´t want to come back to me, because she says I have not enough food for her.”
Dagny continues: “In short, poor Mrs Li´s heart was filled with worry, anger and problems. I tried to talk to her about the light in the world, and about God, who could help her both in spirit and in this earthly life if you pray to him. After a while, this light started to shine also in Mrs Li’s burdened soul. She started to pray for her family. After some time we were able to deliver a letter from her to her son in Tongcheo, and finally, he returned home. One time, around New Year, this young man came to get Ms. Bengtson and me to dinner with him and his mother. Old Mrs Li recieved us, beaming with joy. Her daughter was visiting with her little child. The daughter was a beautiful young woman, who would have wanted to come to our meetings at the missionary station, but was forbidden to go by her husband. Mrs Li´s son and daughter-in-law were now free from the addiction to opium.
After tea and some fruit and bread with vegetables, there was a little meeting with some neighbours. They read from the Bible and sang songs and we are now hoping that Mrs Li will convert fully and be part of our congregation.”
I don’t know if Dagny got her New Year’s wish, but it seems she had a good time, and felt that her work made a difference for people in Hancheng. In any case, the stories about New Year in China, makes me want to experience it myself – it seems to be a lovely time when you put all worries aside, hang out with friends and family and enjoy life.
Happy Chinese New Year!