25 Jan 2009

Chinese welcome the Year of the Ox

8:02 pm on 25 January 2009

Hundreds of millions of Chinese geared up to welcome the Year of the Ox on Sunday, packing temple fairs, setting off fireworks and firecrackers and hurrying to train and bus stations to get home for the traditional holiday.

In Beijing and commercial capital Shanghai normally busy streets were deserted, with only the odd firecracker going off, though both cities will sound more like warzones the closer midnight approaches thanks to the Chinese passion for fireworks.

Firecrackers are believed to scare off evil spirits and attract the god of wealth to people's doorsteps once New Year's Day arrives, which falls on Monday this year under the Chinese Lunar calendar.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who in previous years has spent the holiday with everyone from AIDS patients to coal miners, visited survivors of last May's massive earthquake in Sichuan that killed more than 80,000 people.

"It's been eight months since the earthquake, and I'm very happy to see how you've all been rebuilding your homes," Wen was paraphrased as telling survivors in Beichuan, the quake's epicentre, by the China News Service.

At Beijing's Temple of the Earth, people crowded into a fair featuring everything from break-dancing performances to re-enactments of imperial sacrifices.

The Transport Ministry reported that there were more than 63 million trips made on Saturday alone, as people returned home for what, for some, is their only holiday of the year.

Many Chinese see in the New Year eating dumplings, which symbolise wealth because their shape resembles traditional Chinese gold and silver ingots.

There are numerous Spring Festival taboos.

Crying on New Year's Day means you will cry for the rest of the year, while washing your hair signifies washing away good luck.

The word for "four" is avoided, because it sounds like the word for "death", and using knives or scissors may "cut off" good fortune.