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Chinese New Year - What Is It? Have We Been Misled?

Chinese New Year is much more important to Chinese people than simply the start of a New Year. Indeed, CNY in China extends far beyond the street celebrations and stage performances that we are exposed to in the UK.

As a British-born Chinese myself, Chinese New Year has always felt somewhat foreign to me. Growing up in the UK, I usually found myself caught up in the whirlwind of red lanterns, red packets, lion dances and traditional Chinese performances that permeate throughout Chinatown towards the CNY period, without truly understanding or appreciating its significance.

During my younger years I simply embraced the festive spirit with convivial bonhomie, which was annually distilled as the CNY celebrations passed and we all went on with our lives. Nevertheless, this transient annual celebration always left me curious about its significance; the diaspora of the British born Chinese faces a distance from China and a barrier to truly appreciating the culture.

Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to celebrate CNY in China. To me, the most striking element of it in traditional Chinese culture is how differently it is celebrated amongst traditional Chinese households.

On CNY day itself in the UK, there is an abundance of celebratory events that hopes to immerse us into Chinese culture. The day is jam-packed, alluring crowds into the city to participate in the festivities. I had always presumed that CNY was simply a Chinese version of our traditional New Year and that in Britain it was a reflection of how it was celebrated in China; after all, it is mainly organized and influenced by Chinese people.

However, this is actually quite a distorted view of how things are celebrated in China. Unlike our traditional New Year or even our British version, CNY in China is celebrated with just the family in their homes. People rush back to their hometowns during the days leading up to the celebration, clogging up the transport systems like tar to an artery, to ensure that they are with their loved ones on this special day; traveling around China during this period is a confounded struggle in which local people have inured for years on end.

Whilst in the UK our streets are manically busy on CNY day itself, in China, the streets are empty. This reverse imagery draws a parallel to our Xmas celebrations and Chinese Xmas celebrations. Whilst we spend Xmas day with our loved ones, the Chinese often celebrate it with their friends in the city.

To this extent, CNY is much more important to Chinese people than simply the start of a New Year. Indeed, CNY in China extends far beyond the street celebrations and stage performances that we are exposed to in the UK.

It represents family, love, happiness, good fortune and a great deal of eating; much like our Xmas. In fact, it can be argued that CNY for Chinese people is even dearer to their society than our Xmas - whilst we traditionally only have Christmas Day holiday and a few surrounding days off including New Years, the Chinese traditionally have 10 days off. For an economy that prospers at the rate that China does, 10 consecutive days off could be seen as extremely inefficient, but the importance of CNY clearly justifies this decision.

This inconsistency between CNY celebrations in China and the UK stems from the Chinese society in the UK wanting to exhibit their culture to British society.

At the British Chinese Project, we thoroughly support this. Our initiative is to immerse the Chinese in to British society by engaging them in British politics and as a result we are actively involved in Chinese culture events throughout the year. Each year we are thereby heavily involved in CNY celebrations.

However, due to the structure and tradition of how CNY is celebrated in the UK, those who

wish to participate in the festivities must conform to the accepted framework of the celebrations i.e. parade and performances.

Last year, we participated in the parade and hauled our 30ft duck mascot through the surrounding streets of London Chinatown with the support of a strong team of our volunteers.

The duck was dressed with our 'Get Active' banner, encouraging people to engage with politics and the policies that affect their lives. This year, we have events run by our organization in both London and Birmingham, including a play written by Chinese students that reflect their everyday struggles in the UK.

As a British-born Chinese who has been brought up in the UK but has had the privilege of experiencing events in China, I feel that the British society has been given a slightly distorted perspective of how CNY is celebrated in China and that most British people underestimate its importance.

The British Chinese Project's efforts in bridging the Chinese society and the British society aim to provide transparency between the cultures so that both are experienced in the originally desired manner. Whilst CNY would seem to be the most obvious opportunity to do so, it has proven to be the most difficult. This is not to belittle the current British CNY celebrations, as I do personally sincerely enjoy them every year, but it would certainly be nice to reinforce just how dear and significant it is to the British society.

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