Happy Lunar New Year! For those who are unaware ‘Lunar New Year’ is one of the most celebrated occasions in the world. You may also know it as ‘Chinese New Year’ or ‘Spring Festival,’ however, it is celebrated by cultures all throughout Asia and the world.
Depending how committed one is, festivities could stretch up to 16 days! Lunar New Year is an occasion filled with massive family gatherings, feasts, fireworks, parades, and culture. There is such a huge list of practices and traditions packed into this ancient celebration that one could write an article just listing some of them. Estimates predict that over 20% of the world will be celebrating Lunar New Year. This tradition dates back over 4000 years to imperial China and is just one example of the beautiful things that culture brings to our lives. That is why we must talk about an issue that has gotten little publicity but clearly should. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the Chinese government under Mao made concerted efforts to suppress and phase out this practice because it promoted ancient traditions and capitalism. This Lunar New Year let us also celebrate the fact that our festivities are just one more victory of the human spirit against the cold vice of the state.
The Cultural Revolution was one the most violent and darkest time periods in contemporary Chinese history. Even worse, China was just emerging from the failed ‘Great Leap Forward’ (1958-1962) which was a disastrous initiative by the Communist Party to modernize China that killed an estimated 45 million people. However, unlike the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ the Cultural Revolution had more insidious intentions than modernization. The Cultural Revolution was then Chairman Mao’s attempt to purge dissidents and alter Chinese culture to fit a socialist framework. An all-out purge engulfed the country as landowners, nobles, intellectuals, school teachers and anybody else who didn’t fit the proletariat image was targeted. Enthusiastic school children known as the “Red Guard” stormed through the streets targeting people who looked like the “bourgeois.” Establishments that were deemed “imperialist” were singled out for vandalism. Meanwhile the Communist Party went through the ranks purging suspected dissenters and scoured the nation crushing resistance groups. Even holy relics and historical buildings weren’t spared as they too were considered symbols of a feudal or capitalist past. Whether it was the ancient estates of Chinese nobility or the holy Tibetan city of Lhasa, nothing was safe. Furthermore, as the movement spiraled out of control, the Chinese military was called in to restore order, exacerbating the violence. In the end it is estimated that around 2 million people were killed during this period alongside an untold amount of damage done to historic, intellectual, and artistic entities. All because a dictator wanted to solidify his power.
Lunar New Year as celebrated and as sacred as it is, was not safe from this horror by any means. In fact, this tradition was among many of the cultures that had to be suppressed and replaced by the new religion of the state. A report by The Beijinger states “During the Lunar New Year 1967, the first “Spring Festival” of the Cultural Revolution era, workers were encouraged to turn in their train tickets and celebrate with overtime. Village loudspeakers blared messages telling farmers that nothing said “New Year spirit!” like digging irrigation ditches. For the next thirteen years, few dared to openly celebrate the Lunar New Year.”These attempts to phase out the tradition were rooted in attempts to reshape Chinese culture into something compatible with Communism. The superstitions, traditions, and celebrations were clear reminders of the past and promoted capitalistic practices. All around the country, regional practices and culture was suppressed. Things like operas and drum performances began to be phased out in favor of expressing devotion to Socialist China. Ancient practices that showcased the beauty of thousands of years of civilization, replaced by a forced adoration of the State. I recall reading the report of a Chinese soldier from the time period outlining how the festivities would encourage mass consumption and displays of wealth. Furthermore, even under Communism people still found ways to procure extra decorations or manage their resources in a manner that gave them the capacity to have larger celebrations than others. They hated how the festivity brought together the family, which was considered a strong capitalist institution. These presented a threat to the Socialist way of life the Communist Party wanted to force onto the population. Despite, all these efforts, Lunar New Year remained an annual practice, altered in many respects but still very much in the hearts of the Chinese people. In essence the Communist party tried to crush the human spirit and failed.
The chaos and carnage of the Cultural Revolution was so great that it was promptly ended after Mao’s death in 1976. Ironically some of the leaders that were purged included Deng Xiaoping, who would return to lead China to market reforms in 1978. Another notable leader who was tortured and exiled included Xi Zhongxun, the father of the current Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping himself was torn out of school and sent to labor in the countryside when he was a child, he also lost some of his family members to the violence. This is the current president of China who is considered a champion of the Communist Party. Some of my friends and professors are also among the long list of individuals who lost family members to the waves of persecution. The Cultural Revolution was so heinous that it is one of the few atrocities the Chinese government has actually recognized and paid reparations to victims.
This Lunar New Year, as you sit at the table with family, set off firecrackers, observe your traditions, and partake in magnificent festivals, consider this idea. Lunar New Year’s history is one of civilization, of culture, and the human spirit. Bold and vibrant, no government or regime bestowed this holiday amongst us nor can it take it away. It is the product of thousands of years of innovation and organic alteration. It is not the product of one individual or entity but our shared experience as people. It is celebrated and interpreted differently from person to person, but we all come together to rejoice on this annual occasion. This Lunar New Year, as an Asian American born in the Chinese diaspora and as an advocate for liberty, I’d like to pose this thought. I would like to recognize the struggle of those that have been affected by the Chinese government’s attack on our culture and our humanity. Furthermore, as we celebrate let us remember that authoritarian governments around the world from China, to North Korea, to Venezuela are actively working to suppress culture and replace it with the State. History has shown they will fail, that the human spirit and its desire for liberty will triumph. So pop those firecrackers, feast to your hearts delight, hug your family, observe your traditions as you see fit. This year like every year we celebrate the beauty of our culture, our history, our humanity, and our liberty. Not the State.
Happy Lunar New Year.