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Following on from her recent post on how to see Shanghai for free, Asia expert and travel writer Caroline Eden returns with a guide to Chinese New Year 2012, which begins exactly two weeks from today...
The Year of the Dragon
On January 23rd China will begin its longest annual holiday to celebrate Chinese New Year. Marking the end of the winter season, this 15-day event - also commonly referred to as ‘Spring Festival’ or ‘Lunar New Year’ - is mainly a family affair. To bring good fortune and to fend off bad luck, Chinese families exchange gifts and red envelopes of ‘lucky money’ as well as eating fortuitous foods such as rice balls, dumplings and lotus seeds.
For travellers, a visit to Shanghai in time for Chinese New Year promises to be extra special as China will enter its most auspicious lunar year – the year of the dragon. The celebrations will be grander than ever, so visitors can expect streets of dragon dances, decorations, lanterns, impressive firework shows and brightly decorated places of worship.
Here, we offer some insider tips on how to make the most of a trip to Shanghai during China’s most festive period.
Strike the bell at the Longhua Temple
A visit to the Longhua Temple - which was first built in 242 AD and is the largest, most complete ancient temple complex in the city - is a must-do. Worshippers head to the temple for the traditional bell-striking ceremony on the eve of Spring Festival.
The ceremony begins at the stroke of midnight to welcome the New Year, and then the 3.3 ton bronze bell will be struck exactly 108 times, a number believed to dispel all evils that bother mankind. The strikes of the bell, which was cast in 1894, are performed by wealthy individuals who pay hundreds of dollars for each providential strike. After the bell has been struck 108 times, the ceremony will then be opened to the public who will have a chance to strike the bell at a lower price.
Watch a firework display
Every year locals spend thousands of yuan on fireworks, making for spectacular pyrotechnic displays at around midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Legend has it that a bloodcurdling monster appears on New Year's Eve, but it is frightened of loud noises and flashing lights - therefore fireworks were traditionally set off to scare the monster away. Nowadays however, this legend has been replaced by a ritual of high spending and competition. Whilst the authorities constantly threaten to put a stop to firecrackers and fireworks, the displays only seem to get bigger and more impressive as the years go by. Note - they are best viewed high up from a balcony as locals set off fireworks on almost every street corner of the city making ground level viewing a tad hazardous.
Pay a visit to the City God Temple
Head to the City God Temple, which is well attended around Chinese New Year. Chinese residents and worshippers come here to enjoy the colourful, kitsch decorations and to light incense and pray for a profitable and successful new year - a typical greeting for Chinese New Year is ‘Yiban wanli’ which means ‘May a small investment bring ten-thousandfold profits'.
Located next to Yu Yuan Garden, the temple was first built in 1403, and while it was used for other purposes during the Cultural Revolution, in 1994 it was re-established as a temple with resident Taoist priests. The temple's surrounding area is a large commercial district that hosts an array of shops, restaurants and teahouses making it a good place to spend a festive afternoon.
Before the new year celebrations begin, Chinese families often clean their houses from top to bottom in order to start the year afresh. With this chore done, it’s customary to hit the shops and purchase new household items, clothes and gifts. In particular, ladies often invest in red underwear as in Chinese culture, red is one of the luckiest colours, representing loyalty, success and happiness. Red also represents fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck.
As ever, the Shanghai mega-malls stand ready to provide shoppers with a wealth of retail choices. The black-belt retail area of Nanjing Road - one of the world's busiest shopping streets, attracting over one million visitors daily– is the place to head for a full-on shopping extravaganza. Many tourists, ex-pats and locals congregate here during festival time, so prepare for some overcrowding, Chinese New Year promotions, cheerful decorations and lots of festive spirit.
Eat traditional Jiaozi and Tangyuan
Jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year and are said to resemble ancient coins – silver ingots - from the Ming dynasty. Diners believe that by eating these during New Year, wealth and prosperity is encouraged into their lives. Try Jiaozi at one of the many branches of Manchurian Special Flavor Jiaozi Restaurant in Shanghai. During the cold winter months, locals tuck into Chinese Sour Soup Jiaozi, made with vinegar, chilli oil, chives, parsley and dried small shrimps.
Shanghainese also like to chow-down on tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) during festival time. It’s not difficult to find old Chinese shophouses sellingtangyuan, but try the Wang Jia She Confectionery Store located on West Nangjing Road, which remains one of the most famous and popular.
Watch a lantern parade
Long celebrated, it is believed that the Chinese Lantern Festival – a vibrant and colorful parade marking the end of Chinese New Year - was first celebrated during the ancient Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Nowadays, it can be a little tricky to find a traditional lantern parade as many residents in China’s cities - including Shanghai - have adopted electric and neon lanterns in the shape of animals or dragons, to replace the paper and wooden ones once used. For your best chances of witnessing a traditional display, head to the Yu Yuan Old Town Bazaar, where there has been a conventional lantern revival of sorts in recent years. Interestingly, this festival is also regarded as the Chinese version of St. Valentine's Day.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily, direct flight to China from London Heathrow.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.