Tea Leaf Nation

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

China's Lunar New Year used to be special -- until people there got richer and more connected.

If Norman Rockwell had painted a picture of idyllic life in China, he might have depicted something like this: A Chinese family squeezed around a big wooden chopping board on the eve of the Lunar New Year (which fell this year on Jan. 31), making dumplings from scratch. Family members would be chatting and getting their hands dirty as they mixed the mince, pressed dumpling skins under a rolling pin, and then wrapped the dumplings up. But this year, at least in my Chinese family, situated just outside of Beijing, things were a bit different: My grandmother bought pre-made dumplings from the Wal-Mart up the road.

As the Spring Festival celebrations surrounding New Year wrap up and Chinese begin to head home -- celebrations officially cease Feb. 14, but the seven-day vacation period ended Feb. 6 -- the country's citizens have been asking each other where the holiday's spirit has gone. On Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, Internet users expressed disappointment at this dampened atmosphere, noting that with increasing prosperity, much of what used to be so exciting about the holiday, like indulgent food consumption and new clothes, has become commonplace throughout the year. A post on Weibo describes how as a child, outfits bought for New Year's were only worn on special occasions, but "today people are purchasing similar items every day."

Family gatherings over a sumptuous meal -- traditionally a wide array of dishes including fish, dumplings, and any other family favorites -- still lie at the heart of New Year celebrations, but they too are changing. These days, more families are opting for store-bought convenience over authenticity. The New Year's dinner, once prepared by family members and enjoyed in the intimacy of the home, has for many become a restaurant meal or even a home delivery. The age-old ritual of making dumplings on New Year's Eve is in danger of being displaced by frozen equivalents from the supermarket. (For the past three years, my grandmother has praised the ready-made varieties of dumplings from Wal-Mart, which she says taste better than her own.) With a similar appetite for expediency, online shopping giant Taobao now features a service that sells half-cooked New Year meals, some of which advertise themselves as requiring only a quick heat-up on the stove but tastes fresher than takeaway.

It's not just the flavors of New Year's that look likely to slip into nostalgia. So is the deafening blitz of firecrackers, once so ubiquitous that cities would sound like war zones as New Year's closed in. Families used to buy their own and light them throughout the evening on New Year's Eve, leaving behind the distinct smell of gunpowder for days. But with concerns about rocketing pollution levels, government campaigns to limit the purchase of fireworks mean this practice has declined in many large cities.

Even the once can't-miss Spring Festival Gala show, which still draws 700 million (often ambivalent) viewers, has lost its luster. When the show debuted on China Central Television in 1983, young and old viewers considered the gala, with its clutch of comedy sketches, singing, dancing, and special performances, the best entertainment China had to offer. Today, however, with young viewers enjoying an abundance of entertainment options on television and online, the gala's cultural influence has dwindled, as the state-produced (and state-censored) program increasingly fails to bridge the growing generation gap that has resulted from China's rapid development over the last decade.

The social aspect of New Year's has also diminished. Many of the close-knit communities from the old days of state-supplied housing have long disbanded, with their members moving to newer neighborhoods. With this, the tradition of chuanmen, or "paying a visit to neighbors" on New Year's Day, has withered too. Memories of being dragged out of bed to get ready for visiting neighbors have given way to quiet mornings of sleeping in. Over the past two celebrations, in-person chats among old family friends have been reduced to a series of quick phone calls -- or among the trendy, an emoticon message delivered via the superpopular messenger app WeChat.

On Weibo, users bemoaned that reunions with friends have become superficial openings to compare wealth and status and boast about their child's achievements. Money has become the primary social currency, with one Weibo user writing, "New Year is a time to spend money, and to get fat." While simple exchanges of gifts were once sufficient when no one was much better off than anyone else, nowadays people are more concerned with how their gifts -- with the price tag left on -- will reflect the giver's status. One report from news portal Sina quoted a 30-year-old woman saying, "People nowadays turn their noses up at anything priced under $33" -- she estimates that $50 is the minimum threshold for a gift, at least among her family and friends. (China's per capita gross national income was $6,091 in 2012, according to the World Bank.)

This year has also seen 4.7 million Chinese flee their homeland to spend the Chinese New Year abroad. Although that's still a tiny proportion of China's approximately 1.3 billion people, it's more than ever before. At least among some Chinese, international travel has become the latest buzz -- a quick scroll through my news feed on WeChat shows pictures of families celebrating New Year's Eve abroad. One family posted pictures of toddlers and grandparents swimming in the Club Med resort in Bali, while another posted pictures of food from London.

As much of the celebrations draw to an end this week and China's citizens return to work, many will remember the just-passed New Year as a quiet affair. There was a time when Lunar New Year offered something special to Chinese people -- new clothes, meals with lots of meat, carefully prepared entertainment, and contact with otherwise far-off friends. Now, thanks to rising incomes and a fast-spreading Internet, that's all available to many Chinese whenever they want. Such are the perils of becoming middle class.

Photo: Getty Images

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