Year of the Monkey keeps Chinese upbeat despite troubles

Beijing Letter: Hundreds of millions have made their way home to celebrate lunar new year

Chinese children in Beijing wait for their train to set off  to their home town for the spring festival, or lunar new year. The auspicious Year of the Monkey begins on February 8th. Photograph: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese children in Beijing wait for their train to set off to their home town for the spring festival, or lunar new year. The auspicious Year of the Monkey begins on February 8th. Photograph: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

 

It’s spring festival in China, and the country resounds with firecrackers as people noisily celebrate the start of the Year of the Monkey, always an auspicious time in the lunar calendar.

Chinese new year is a happy time of homecoming. Across the country, returned migrant workers crack open bottles of baijiu liquor and chomp down billions of dumplings at noisy family banquets in villages which, for the rest of the year, are sleepy homes to the children of those toiling in the big cities and the grandparents who look after them.

Reunited at last, families will throng the temples to mark what is a Red Fire Monkey year, no less, one of the luckiest possible years in the zodiac, and for a few hours people can forget about the slowing economy and the pressures of life.

Hundreds of millions of people have travelled to their ancestral homes by road, rail and air to mark China’s most important public holiday.

By the time the 40-day Chinese new year travel rush ends on March 3rd, Chinese people will have taken 2.1 billion journeys on what for many is their only trip home of the year.

This monkey year is characterised by more uncertainty than before.

After decades of double-digit economic growth, the country is seeing slower expansion, which has translated into less optimism, although it would be wrong to say people are overly anxious.

“Everything is fine for people at my age because everybody has a stable job and shopping for gifts is not a big pressure during Chinese new year,” says Amy Feng (33), who works in the medical equipment industry.

“I think in the monkey year the economy is going to stay slow or at least the same. I don’t expect much of an improvement. So we will be careful in terms of spending money or consumption. Because of this, we will have to work harder in the new year to make sure we don’t lose our jobs.

“We talk a lot about the slowing economy, but it doesn’t really affect me much, since I don’t have my own business. For people who have jobs, the impact is very limited.”

Lucky and smart

Perhaps the lack of pessimism is down to the fact that the monkey is a lucky and smart sign. Of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, the monkey epitomises wisdom.

One of the most popular epic figures is the Monkey King from the classic text Journey to the West. Every few months there is a new Monkey King movie and it shoots straight to the top of the box-office ratings.

Among the celebrities born in those most auspicious of years are Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Dickens, Oskar Schindler, Elizabeth Taylor and the military leader He Long, as well as basketball hero Yao Ming and Celine Dion, who is big in China.

He Fu (27), a sales assistant in the wine industry, says he has felt anxious during every spring festival since he started working. “I know that it takes time to make enough money for the family, but I can’t stop feeling pressured. During the festival, relatives always ask how much money I make and whether I have married and got an apartment. It is not really great around them. So I always try to avoid visiting them.”

The Year of the Sheep (or goat – both are the same in Chinese), which ends today, February 8th, is seen as not particularly lucky, so much so that it was blamed for a nearly 2 per cent drop in the number of babies born in China in 2015. In all, 16.55 million children were born last year, about 320,000 fewer than in the previous year, even though the country had relaxed its one-child family planning policy in 2013.

Migrant workers

There are more than 274 million migrant workers in China and their working conditions are always a good way of telling how China is doing.

There are reports that because of sluggish growth in the cities and factory towns, some migrants are considering staying home after the new year. Bad working conditions will not make them more likely to return, so it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

Unpaid wages can have a major impact on social stability and, in the year just ended, a total of 4,815 complaints relating to the wages of migrant workers were referred to public bodies for investigation, according to the ministry of human resources and social security.

The problem is getting worse. Reported cases of salary cuts and wage defaults involving migrant workers increased by 34 per cent in the first three-quarters of 2015, and the government has pledged a tougher system of control by 2020.

One of the highlights, or perhaps landmarks is a better word, of lunar new year is the spring festival gala, a five-hour marathon that has been shown on the state broadcaster, China Central Television, since 1983. This year the venue for the show, aired on February 7th, was Xi’an, home to the army of terracotta warriors and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) ancient city wall.

It is probably the most watched TV show on the planet, with nearly 700 million viewers last year, although it is traditional to complain that it is losing its relevance, even as hundreds of millions people tune in.

This year, in the run-up to the show, there were complaints about the monkey mascot, called Kangkang, or “healthy” in Chinese, which is multicoloured and has prompted snarky web commentators to compare it to a “monster of traffic lights”.

Xi’an is central to President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to revive the ancient Silk Road route as a way of boosting flagging economic growth.

This year the airports and train stations were not just filled with returning migrant workers. A record number of Chinese will spend the lunar new year holiday overseas. The big destinations are Japan, Thailand and South Korea – last year, more than 450,000 Chinese went to Japan.

Even as dark clouds gather over China’s economy, there is enough confidence around for many to celebrate the Year of the Monkey in a foreign land. And for those at home, to enjoy the homecoming.

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