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Wilfred Bereswill on “China’s Spring Festival—Guo Nian—(Chinese New Year)”

Wilfred Bereswill is an environmental engineer and author whose international travels take him regularly to China. His first novel, A REASON FOR DYING, a biological thriller, is due to be released by Hilliard & Harris on April 1st, 2008. Learn more about Wilfred Bereswill's writing on his website and blog by clicking here.
Wilfred wrote this piece right after his return from his most recent business trip to China, February 2nd, when "the entire country was gearing up to shut down". Here's his story.
---JGR

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China’s Spring Festival - Guo Nian (Chinese New Year)
by Wilfred Bereswill, copyright 2008

I found out the hard way that the Chinese New Year, otherwise known as the Spring Festival, is a good time strong>not to be traveling in China for business.

The Chinese are wonderful people deeply rooted in family, tradition and superstition. They use the week-long Spring Festival to travel to the their family homes and celebrate the coming of the New Lunar Year. On February 6, 2008, out goes the year of the Pig and in comes the year of the Rat. They eat Jiaozi (steamed dumplings), set off fireworks, and give money wrapped in red paper. Although the business world recognizes seven days for the National Holiday, the entire process takes weeks to prepare for and to celebrate.

Beer Festival Guo Nian
Beer Festival Guo Nian (Photo by Wilfred Bereswill)

There are six major activities undertaken by the Chinese during the Spring Festival:

Dusting - This refers to year-end cleaning, which also carries the meaning of sweeping all "bad lucks" or "evil spirits" out of one's house.

Pasting - To paste New Year pictures and the character of "Fu" (bliss) on gateposts, door panels and windows.

Inviting - To invite the gods of kitchen and fortune.

Staying up - In the past, for the old, staying up all night on the New Year's Eve meant to cherish fleeting time, and for the young, it meant to pray for a longer life for parents.

Greeting - Greetings must be given to older generations and exchanged among the same generation.

Playing - By playing the dragon dance people pray to the god of the dragon for good weather and rich harvests.

On this holiday, 180,000,000 people will travel to their homes, about fifteen percent of the total population. With this many Chinese taking to the highways, rails and skies, travel during this time of year is a bit of a chore and takes the patience of Job.

To complicate matters further, the week before the Festival was fraught with horrible weather throughout the midsection of the country. In GuangZhou, 600,000 rail travelers were stranded at the train station. They huddled under the highway overpasses to seek shelter from the 40 degree temperature and cold rain.

I know because my route that day took me by car right through the sea of humanity. It took us two hours to go 1 kilometer, with the driver using the bumper of the car to nudge people out of the way. Yes, I was thankful to have transportation at all.

Wilfred’s New Friends
Wilfred's New Friends (photo by Wilfred Bereswill)

Outside of Wuhan and Shanghai, 100,000 travelers were stuck on trains in-route; going 20 hours without food or water as the electrical lines powering the trains shut down because of the heavy ice and snow.

Ice Festival
Ice Festival (Photo by Wilfred Bereswill)

All over China airlines delayed and cancelled flights stranding even more passengers at the airports. Again, I have firsthand experience here. I traveled from GuangZhou in the far south of China to Qingdao in the northeast, to Harbin in the extreme northeast to Beijing. Normally quiet airports were bustling with crowds. And when I mean crowds, I mean there is not one square foot of floor space unoccupied. The noise level is deafening and the uninitiated would definitely freak out.

Harbin Shopping Street
Harbin Shopping Street (Photo by Wilfred Bereswill)

A little about lines in China. There are none. With the exception of immigration at the airport, lines just don’t exist in China. The rest of the world would consider it rude, but in a country of people that has had to scrounge and fight for sustenance, like puppies fighting for mother’s last nipple, the culture accepts the chaos. Normally calm people turn aggressive. I’ve seen a few arguments, one or two shoving matches, but for the most part, peaceful aggression. Even so, this is no place for the timid laowei (foreigner).

On my last day in China, I arrived at the Beijing airport. My travel was supposed to take me to Shanghai, then on to Chicago and finally St. Louis. So I set out for the domestic side of the Beijing airport, a big, but necessary mistake. I should have realized that I was in for a long day when at 7:00 AM it took twenty-five minutes to get through the toll gates at the entrance of the airport to the drop-off point.

That long day never got me to Shanghai, which was closed again due to weather. After realizing I would have to fly out of the country from Beijing, I managed to fight the crowd once again and retrieve my checked bags. After rearranging my travel, I made it home on time. The paradox of arriving in Chicago before I left Beijing always confuses me; a thirteen hour flight with a fourteen hour time change.

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