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22: Celebration Of The New Year

China New Year!--What a suggestive ring have those three words for "the foreigner in far Cathay."[*] What visions do they conjure up of ill-served tiffins, of wages forestalled, of petty thefts and perhaps a burglary; what thoughts of horrid tom-toms and ruthless fire-crackers, making day hideous as well as night; what apparitions of gaudily-dressed butlers and smug-faced coolies, their rear brought up by man's natural enemy in China--the cook, for once in his life clean, and holding in approved Confucian style[+] some poisonous indigestible present he calls a cake!

[*] The title of Mr Medhurst's work.
[+] "In presenting gifts, his countenance wore a placid appearance."-- Analects: ch. x.

New Year's Day is the one great annual event in Chinese social and political life. An Imperial birthday, even an Imperial marriage, pales before the important hour at which all sublunary affairs are supposed to start afresh, every account balanced and every debt paid. About ten days previously the administration of public business is nominally suspended; offices are closed, official seals carefully wrapped up and given into the safe keeping of His Honour's or His Excellency's wife.[*] The holidays last one month, and during that time inaction is the order of the day, it being forbidden to punish criminals, or even to stamp, and consequently to write, a despatch on any subject whatever. The dangerous results, however, that might ensue from a too liberal observance of the latter prohibition are nearly anticipated by stamping beforehand a number of blank sheets of paper, so that, if occasion requires, a communication may be forwarded without delay and without committing an actual breach of law or custom.

[*] A universal custom which may be quoted with countless others against the degradation-of-women-in-China doctrine.

The New Year is the season of presents. Closely-packed boxes of Chinese cake, biscuits, and crystallised fruit, are presented as tributes of respect to the patriarchs of the family; grapes from Shansi or Shan-tung, hams from Foochow, and lichees from Canton, all form fitting vehicles for a declaration of friendship or of love. Now, too, the birthday gifts offered by every official in the Empire to his immediate superior, are supplemented by further propitiatory sacrifices to the powers that be, without which tenure of office would be at once troublesome and insecure. Such are known as _dry_, in contradistinction to the _water_ presents exchanged between relatives and friends. The latter are wholly, or at any rate in part, articles of food prized among the Chinese for their delicacy or rarity, perhaps both; and so to all appearance are the baskets of choice oranges, &c., sent for instance by a District Magistrate with compliments of the season to His Excellency the Provincial Judge. But the Magistrate and the Judge know better, for beneath that smiling fruit lie concealed certain bank-notes or shoes of silver of unimpeachable touch, which form a unit in the sum of that functionary's income, and enable him in his turn to ingratiate himself with the all-powerful Viceroy, while he lays by from year to year a comfortable provision against the time when sickness or old age may compel him to resign both the duties and privileges of government.

To "all between the four seas," patrician and plebeian[*] alike, the New Year is a period of much intensity. On the 23rd or 24th of the preceding moon it is the duty of every family to bid farewell to the Spirit of the Hearth, and to return thanks for the protection vouchsafed during the past year to each member of the household. The Spirit is about to make his annual journey to heaven, and lest aught of the disclosures he might make should entail unpleasant consequences, it is adjudged best that he shall be rendered incapable of making any disclosures at all. With this view, quantities of a very sticky sweetmeat are prepared and presented as it were in sacrifice, on eating which the unwary god finds his lips tightly glued together, and himself unable to utter a single syllable. Beans are also offered as fodder for the horse on which he is supposed to ride. On the last day of the old year he returns and is regaled to his heart's content on brown sugar and vegetables. This is the time _par excellence_ for cracker-firing, though, as everybody knows, these abominations begin some days previously. Every one, however, may not be aware that the object of letting off these crackers is to rid the place of all the evil spirits that may have collected together during the twelve months just over, so that the influences of the young year may be uncontaminated by their presence. New Year's eve is no season for sleep: in fact, Chinamen almost think it obligatory on a respectable son of Han to sit up all night. Indeed, unless his bills are paid, he would have a poor chance of sleeping even if he wished. His persevering creditor would not leave his side, but would sit there threatening and pleading by turns until he got his money or effected a compromise. Even should it be past twelve o'clock, the wretched debtor cannot call it New Year's Day until his unwelcome dun has made it so by blowing out the candle in his lantern. Of course there are exceptions, but as a rule all accounts in China are squared up before the old year has become a matter of history and the new year reigns in its stead. Then, with the first streaks of dawn, begins that incessant round of visits which is such a distinguishing feature of the whole proceedings. Dressed out in his very best, official hat and boots, button and peacock's feather, if lucky enough to possess them,[+] every individual Chinaman in the Empire goes off to call on all his relatives and friends. With a thick wad of cards, he presents himself first at the houses of the elder branches of the family, or visits the friends of his father; when all the seniors have been disposed of, he seeks out his own particular cronies, of his own age and standing. If in the service of his country, he does not omit to call at the yamen and leave some trifling souvenir of his visit for the officer immediately in authority over him. Wherever he goes he is always offered something to eat, a fresh supply of cakes, fruit, and wine, being brought in for each guest as he arrives. While thus engaged his father, or perhaps brother, will be doing the honours at home, ready to take their turn as occasion may serve. "New joy, new joy; get rich, get rich," is the equivalent of our "Happy New Year," and is bandied about from mouth to mouth at this festive season, until petty distinctions of nationality and creed vanish before the conviction that, at least in matters of sentiment, Chinamen and Europeans meet upon common ground. Yet there is one solitary exception to the rule--an unfortunate being whom no one wishes to see prosperous, and whom nobody greets with the pleasant phrase, "Get rich, get rich." It is the coffin-maker.

[*] Chinese society is divided into two classes--officials and non-officials.
[+] No matter whether by merit or by purchase.