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Lanterns, gongs and fireworks: A Chinese philosopher recalls his boyhood


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My memory goes back to those exciting, indelible childhood years. I lived in an inland village near the south-east coast of China. It was about the turn of the century, the Manchu Empress Dowager was still on her throne, and customs had not yet changed.

by Lin Yutang

As far back as I can remember, when I was four or five, I felt New Year coming weeks ahead, the way a western child would feel the portentous arrival of the Christmas season. Not shopping and packages; but my mother would grind rice fjour on a home mill, to make nienkao, or New Year pudding, made of rice flour, turnip and dried shrimps. It was no small excitement since this was done only once a year.

My sisters would assist my mother at the small mill, consisting of two horizontal millstones about a foot and half across, the upper stone turned by a wooden crank suspended from the ceiling. It was a very tricky job, and full of fun. There was a small hole in the upper stone, and while one person turned the stone around, another had to drop rice and water with a porcelain spoon expertly, at the exact moment when the hole came around. Naturally I demanded to aim the rice at the hole, too. I may or may not have broken a few spoons.

The next thing I remember was falling asleep trying to sit the Old Year out. For it was the custom that the whole family should sit up after a sumptuous dinner, in which besides fried clams, a special roll made by mother, also only once- in a year, invariably figured. It consisted of finely chopped ingredients made into a paste and wrapped around with a layer of peritoneal fat from a pig. Red candles burned brightly on the centre table against the wall. We would sing hymns and we would pray, for we were Christians. My father, who was a jolly man, would crack jokes and everybody would be so happy, for we were a family of many brothers and sisters.

Then my eyes would feel drowsy, and the next thing I knew when I woke up was the expectation of something akin to the Christmas stocking. It was not a stocking, but a cheap black (Cont'd satin gown with a deep rose on ne*t vest on top, which the younger children were allowed to wear only once a year on the occasion of the New Year.

My father and my mother would be already up at dawn, dressed, but sitting in bed, waiting to receive the respects of their children. Hurriedly my second sister would assist me into my new gown, telling me that all the others were ready, so that we could all go in together and make our bow to our parents. Then while the adults would exchange New Year calls, we children would go out to set off firecrackers. Once my eyes were hurt by a spark, and a small white spot remained in one of them, but disappeared in time.

The Old Chinese New Year, of the lunar calendar, was the greatest festival of the year for the Chinese people, compared with which every other festival seemed to have something less of the holiday spirit. For five days, the entire nation dressed in its best clothes, shut up shop, loafed, gambled, beat gongs, let off firecrackers, paid calls and went to the theatre. It was the great day of good luck, when everybody looked forward to a better and more prosperous new year, when everybody had the pleasure of adding one year to his age and was ready with an auspicious, luck-bringing word for his neighbours.

Stubborn Old New Year

The humblest maid had the right not to be scolded on New Year's Day and strangest of all, the hard-working women of China loafed and cracked melon seeds and refused to wash or cook a regular meal or even handle a kitchen knife. The justification for this idleness was that to sweep the floor on New Year's Day was to sweep away good luck, and to wash was to wash away good luck. Red scrolls were pasted on every door containing words like Luck, Happiness, Peace, Prosperity, Spring. For red was the colour of happiness.

And all around, in the home courtyards and in the streets, there was the sound of firecrackers, and the air was filled with the smell of sulphur and narcissus sulphur outdoors and the incredible subtle fragrance of narcissus indoors. Fathers lost their dignity, grandfathers were more amiable than ever, and children blew cheap bamboo whistles, wore masks and played with clay dolls. Country women, dressed in their holiday best, would go three or four miles on foot to watch a theatre, where the village dandies indulged in what flirtations they dared. It was the day of emancipation for women, emancipation from the daily drudgery of washing and cooking; if the men felt hungry, they could fry nienkao, or make a bowl of noodles with prepared sauce, or stuff themselves with cold cuts of chicken.

Then the Republic came. The Republican Government of China officially abolished the lunar New Year, but the lunar New Year was still with us, very much so and refused to be abolished. It lodged too deeply in the people's consciousness.

It was then about 1930, and I was in Shanghai.

I am ultra-modern. No-one can accuse me of being conservative. I am not only for the Gregorian calendar, but am even for the thirteen-month calendar, in which all months have exactly four weeks or twenty-eight days. In other words, I am very scientific in my viewpoint and very logical in my reasoning. It was this scientific pride which was badly wounded when I found my celebration of the official New Year a great failure, as anyone who pretended to celebrate it with any real feeling must have found out for himself. ...I didn't want Old New Year. But the Old New Year came. It came on February the fourth.

My big Scientific Mind told me not to keep the Old New Year, and I promised him. -I'm not going to let you down," I said, with more good will than self-confidence. For I heard rumblings of the Old New Year's coming as far back as the beginning of January, when one morning I was given for breakfast a bowl of lapacho, or congee with lotus-seeds and dragoneyes, which sharply reminded me it was the eighth day of the twelfth moon.

February 3 came. Still I said to myself, "I'm not going to keep the Old New Year." That morning, my wife told me to change my underwear. I asked, "What for ?" "Chouma is going to wash your underwear today. She is not going to wash tomorrow, nor the day after tomorrow, nor the day after the day after tomorrow." Being human, I could not refuse.

That was the beginning of my downfall. After breakfast, my family was going to the bank, for there was a mild sort of bank panic, which came in spite of the fact that by ministerial orders the Old New Year didn't exist. "Y.T." my wife said, "we are going to hire a car. You might come along and have a hair-cut." I didn't care for the hair-cut, but the car was a great temptation. I never liked monkeying about in a bank, but I liked a car. I thought I could profitably go to the City Gods'. Temple and see what I could get for the children.

I should not have gone to the City Gods' Temple in the first place. Once there at this time of the year, you know what would happen. I found on my way home that I had not only rotating lanterns and rabbit lanterns and several packages of Chinese toys with me, but some twigs of plum blossom, besides.

What ! No turnip pudding

After coming home, I found that someone from my native place had presented me with a pot of narcissus, the narcissus which made my native place nationally famous and which reminded me of New Year's Day in my childhood. I could not shut my eyes without the entire picture of my childhood coming back to me.

At lunch, the smell of the narcissus made me think of the New Year rice-pudding, made with turnips.

"This year, no one has sent us any turnip pudding," I said sadly.

"It's because no one came from Amoy. Otherwise, they would have sent it," said my wife.

"I remember once I bought exactly the same kind of pudding in a Cantonese shop on Wuchang Road. I think I can still find it."

"No, you can't", challenged my wife.

"Of course I can," I took up the challenge.

By three o'clock in the afternoon I was already in a bus on my way home from North Szechuen Road with a big basket of nienkao weighing two and a half pounds.

At five, we ate the fried nienkao, and with the room filled with the subtle fragrance of narcissus, I felt terribly like a sinner. "I'm not going to celebrate New Year's Eve," I said resolutely; "I'm going to the movies tonight."

"How can you?" asked my wife. "We have invited Mr. Ts... to dinner this evening." It all looked pretty bad. At half-past-five, my youngest child appeared in her new red dress.

"Who put on the new dress for her?" I rebuked, visibly shaken, but still gallant.

"Huangma did," was the reply. Huangma and Chouma were our maids.

By six o'clock, I found red candles burning brightly on the mantelpiece, their lapping flames casting a satirical glow of triumph at my Scientific Consciousness. My Scientific Consciousness was, by the way, already very vague and low and unreal.

"Who lighted the candles?" again I challenged.

"Chouma did," was the reply.

"Who bought the candles?" I demanded.

"Why, you bought them yourself this morning."

"Oh, did I?" It cannot have been my Scientific Consciousness that did it. It must have been the Other Consciousness.

I thought I must have looked a little ridiculous, the ridiculousness coming less from the recollection of what I did in the morning than from the conflict of my head and my heart at that moment. I was soon startled out of this mental conflict by the "bomb-bah" of fire crackers in my neighbourhood. One by one, those sounds sank into my deep consciousness. They have a way of shaking the Chinese heart that no European knows. The challenge of my neighbour on the east was soon taken up by my neighbour on the west, until it grew into a regular fusillade.

I was not going to be beaten by them. Pulling out some money, I said to my boy:

"Ah-ching, take this and buy me some heaven-and-earth firecrackers and some rattle firecrackers, as loud as possible and as big as possible. Remember, the bigger and the louder the better."

So amidst the "bomb-bah" of firecrackers, I sat down to the New Year's Eve dinner. And I felt very happy in spite of myself.

Lin Yutang

Lin Yutang, Chinese philosopher and writer, Is universally known for his books on Chinese life and customs. Among some of the more famous are : "The Importance of Living", "My Country and ' My People" and the "Wisdom of China and India".