Today, Friday 12th February, marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year. Fr Dan Troy in Wuhan writes about New Year’s Eve gatherings in China on Thursday evening where many recalled those lost in the Covid-19 pandemic and welcomed the Year of the Ox in the hope of a better future.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese people gathered on Thursday evening to welcome the Year of the Ox. Food was shared as the events of an unprecedented year were remembered.
One year ago the celebration of Chinese New Year was abruptly interrupted as a severe lockdown came into effect less than two days before families were due to gather in their homes for the main meal of celebration, a traditional event that is rooted in centuries of Chinese history.
One day prior to the unexpected lockdown I enjoyed a fine evening meal with a Chinese family at a restaurant in Wuhan, that meal being their way to ensure that their wider circle of relations had an opportunity to eat together prior to the smaller family gatherings a couple of days later.
In a country where food is a huge part of the culture, offering endless possibilities for discussion, the restrictions that came into effect one year ago could be seen as similar to the cancellation of Christmas dinner in other countries, a painful and unthinkable development for many people.
Thankfully, positive results emerged from the three months of strict measures that people endured in China at the beginning of 2020. While there is still a level of caution about a possible resurgence of the coronavirus here, life has largely returned to normal for people. Restaurants are open. Students and teachers go to their schools. Public transport is working as it did before.
The evening meal of Thursday February 11th was a moment when all of China breathed a collective sigh of relief as we welcomed the Year of the Ox, saying farewell to a year that has been so challenging. One year ago, as people adjusted to severe restrictions on movement, many began to joke about reducing their plans for the year to just one simple aim, namely, to be alive at the end of the year.
Having reached the end of that unprecedented year, many people celebrated on Thursday evening in the best possible way, allowing their joy to flow in abundance, while also being aware that many people have experienced the loss of loved ones due to the deadly virus.
On Thursday evening the food on the table in Chinese homes all over the country was as varied as possible, the culinary array indicative of the milestone that had been reached, one worthy of collective rejoicing.
In rural areas the sound of firecrackers filled the air as people embraced a tradition associated with banishing bad luck. The deafening sound signifies joy as much as anything else. The practice has only recently been banned in cities over safety concerns.
Among the many kinds of food on the table, there is usually fish and dumplings. The presence of these two dishes is attributed to the similarity of their names with other words in the Chinese language.
Yu, the word for fish, coincides with the sound of the word for surplus, this being the preferred way to reach the end of the year in terms of available resources. Dumplings find their way to the table because the sound jiao matches with the Chinese word for communication, emphasising the hope that members of the family are relating well with each other.
A family in which there are healthy relationships and where there is some surplus of resources at the end of the year is seen as a family experiencing blessings.
While the Christian population of China is quite small, it is deeply meaningful that families all over the country celebrate the new year by gathering at a table for a meal of celebration in which good relationships are understood as being so important.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus often shared food with people at a table, some of those at table being tax collectors and sinners. Sharing a meal at the same table with Jesus allowed people to see that he was filled with compassion for them, and this experience then transformed their lives, whether it was Zacchaeus or the many others who ate with Jesus.
Through the experience of eating with him, they came to know the depths of his mercy and became free of their burdens so that they were transformed to the core of their beings, literally having the opportunity to begin life again.
At the Last Supper Jesus encouraged his followers to continue gathering in prayer at one table for a meal that would recall his presence among them, an experience that remains central to keeping the memory of Jesus alive today, a crucial part of our efforts to live as he lived.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese people gathered on Thursday evening to welcome the Year of the Ox, and so the fish and the dumplings on the table were shared as the events of an unprecedented year were remembered.
This year’s meal will have been seen as special by families, a meal that signifies a new beginning as the difficulties of the past are left behind, a time when the food on the table has the opportunity to transform their hearts and move them to a place where they live in unity once again.
Hopefully the same opportunities for sharing meals with family and friends will soon emerge for people in the rest of the world.