Posts Tagged With: Spring Festival

Hong Bao party

It is sometimes hard to tell if the Chinese are generous or very selfish. On the one hand, they are obsessed with making money, by any means. Sales people are often pushy, dishonest and even aggressive; Taxi drivers will refuse to accept you, if you only want a short ride and landlords will lie shamelessly to get out of returning your deposit. On the other hand they are very generous hosts and will fight fiercely to be the one who pays for a meal. What I realise now is that it is all about the perception and face. They want to be seen as generous, but the generosity can be quite superficial. At our end of term office party I was reminded of medieval nobles throwing coins into the street and watching as the peasants scrambled for a share of the money.

The winter holiday in China in centered on the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. In China this is a time when everyone is expected to return home, to visit their parents and grandparents. It is one of the longest school holidays, typically between 4-5 weeks long, depending on whether it is a primary or secondary school. If the foreign teachers are not setting or marking exams, then it can be a few weeks longer still for us. For most people working in China, the holiday is only about a week long. It is not a peak holiday season and most of the holiday is a good tile to travel, except for that one week, when China experiences the planets largest mass human migration, when airports and train stations can each have tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people fighting over tickets. If there are delays from smog or ice, like last year in Guangzhou,then even the thousands of extra soldiers and riot police drafted in for crowd control can be insufficient for the task of keeping order.

My last few jobs were at state run institutions. A public school and a university. At the end of the term we would have a couple of thousand as a bonus before the holiday and we might have a meal. At Bao’yi wai the Chinese English teachers and the foreign English teachers went out for a meal, paid for by the school. The head of the English department would attend, but no other school officials. It was just a time to chat, relax and have fun. At Ludong University nothing was provided, but the foreign teachers organised their own dinner. Here I am in the private sector and things were very different.

The first obvious difference was entertainment. Every group of teachers was expected to put on a performance of some sort. My girlfriend, with the grade 2 teachers, was doing a dance routine. The teachers of other grades were singing songs or performing comedy routines. We were lucky that one of our teachers, Andrew, is a semi-professional singer. He often has paid gigs at the weekends at bars around Shenzhen. We had just planned to let him sing for us. Then two of the American teachers also decided that they would also sing. The organizers were clearly taking the entertainment seriously, as the music teacher was trying to get the music that they would use two weeks before the event. Andrew, however, was unwilling to commit and insisted that he needed to get a feel for the crowd and would decide on the night, which, no doubt, made her extremely frustrated.

The dinner venue was a local seafood restaurant, with the typical revolving tables. We did not have a private room, as our group was too big, but we were not enough to occupy the whole restaurant. the teachers took up a little under half the room, with regular customers all around us. The foreign teachers were meant to be spread between two tables, along with the Chinese English teachers, but instead they just took over one table for themselves. As we had not had any real work to do that day, most of them had been at the pub most of the afternoon and were already a bit drunk. Pretty soon they had drunk everything on the table and were three sheets to the wind.

The entertainment was quite amusing. Crystal, Purdy, Mathilda and some other grade 2 teachers started off with a funny dance routine, that went quite well. Andrew has a powerful voice and sang well, despite how much he had drunk. Richard sand a rap song of his own composition and Angela sang along to Valerie. Then there was a “comedy routine” which I couldn’t understand but which reminded me of old stage acts, like Abbot and Costello etc. Then a few Chinese teachers sang very badly.

A major New Year tradition in China is Hong Bao. This translates as red bag, but in this case refers to red envelopes. At New Year relatives give children red envelopes of “lucky money”. In some places employers also give Hong Bao to their employees. For my last two jobs I was not in the private sector. At the end of the year I got a bonus in my paycheck. There was no ceremony. This was different.

Before the party we had been made to attend a very dull meeting, all in Chinese, with no translation. For an hour the principled droned on at us, before giving award to the top performing Chinese teachers in the school. We were then called up one at a time to be given 500 rmb in cash. This was the first part of the Hong Bao. The rest was via Wechat.

We chat, or Weixin, is a very popular social networking app from AliBaba. As well as being used for messaging people, micro-blogging and sharing articles, it is also commonly used for shopping. Many businesses in China offer discounts if you pay online, with Weixin or Alipay etc. It is fast, convenient and not really all that secure. It also has a Hong Bao function.

You can send a Hong Bao on wechat, to transfer money to one person. You can also use it to transfer money to a group of people. You set how much money you will give, how many people can receive cash and whether the amount will be equal or random.  The Chinese prefer to give random amounts and usually set the number of recipients to less than the number in the group. Anyone in the group will get a notification that they have HongBao. When they click the envelope, they get a share of the money (If any is left).

This is what was used at our party. When we arrived, everyone scanned a code to join the party wechat group. During the party the head principle got on stage and announced that he was sending us all 8000 rmb of HongBao. People got poised by their phones, ready to click the envelope for their random share of the cash.


At intervals throughout the rest of the party, other principles and school patrons got up on stage. After being introduced the announced how much money they would be giving away and everyone got poised on their phones. Later on a few teachers send small amounts of money to only about the first 10 people in a group of 150 or so. The teachers would be clicking away, only to get a message saying “better luck next time”. In the scramble for the loose change that had been thrown down virtually, they had been too late.

It was these small packets of Hong Bao, where not everyone would bet anything, which made me think that it was like the gentry casting down a few coins for the beggars to fight over, or Jack Nicholson as the Joker. In total I got nearly 1000 rmb from the whole evening, which was a nice added bonus, but even with the 500 in cash it was less than the bonus that I had been given without any ceremony at my previous jobs.

The principles and patrons of our school were no more generous than my previous employers, but they wanted to make very big deal of showing off their generosity and letting everyone know exactly how much money they were giving away. As Thomas Fuller said “Lavishness is not generosity.”


Categories: Living in China, Teaching in China | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The villages that time forgot

It was recently Chinese New Year, when the Chinese ushered in the year of the monkey. During this time the Chinese are obliged to visit their parents, along with their children. Most of my single Chinese friends were taken by their parents, back to stay with their grandparents for a few days. Seeing the photos of the places were their grandparents lived, I was struck by how thoroughly the Chinese countryside has been left stuck in the past.

When I say “stuck in the past” I don’t mean like the timeless and idyllic old villages of the Cotswolds, where none of the bad things about modern life seem to reach. I mean that they are the poverty sticken regions that nobody wants to live in or visit, were none of the good things about modern life can be afforded. However, this does not mean that they aren’t beautiful. In many ways the countryside of China is still more attractive than the cities.

My friend Hera’s family comes from a remote Hakka village in Guangdong.


The Hakka people originally migrated south from the middle of China. The southern Chinese were initially hostile and so they lived in walled, fortified villages. They maintained their own customs and language and continued to be a distinct ethnic minority group in the south, never fully integrated with the locals.

You can still find Hakka walled villages dotted around China. As it was the winter when she visited, the village did not look quite as picturesque as in the summer, but it still looked lovely.


I said the Hera that it looks like a museum and she told me that parts of the village are a museum, that tourists can pay to visit, but the locals continue to live there.

It is not easy to reach. The trouble with rural china is that money is not spent of infrastructure and facilities. It would require nearly a day of travel and several buses in order to get there, even though it is not that far from Shenzhen. When travelling around the spring festival it takes much longer. For Hera, it took over 14 hours stuck in heavy traffic to get there by car.



The local people still live by farming, but the area has not been developed into the large industrial scale farms, like I saw in Shandong. Instead, it is a scene of rural Chinese life that has probably changed very little in over 100 years.


My girlfriend, Crystal also went to the countryside to visit her grandparents. They live in a less remote village, in Shandong province. Naturally this was a time for all the extended family to get together. As the Chinese rarely have siblings these days, their cousins are often referred to as brothers and sisters.


The village that her grandparents live in is a lot less dramatic looking than Hera’s hometown. The buildings are mostly non-descript single story structures, typical of the early years of communist rule in China.

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These small town and villages have a lot more sense of community than the big cities. There are not many places to go for fun and so the locals tend to make their own entertainment. Festivals and national holidays bring everyone together in the streets to celebrate.


I was struck by the timeless nature of this scene. The buildings, the instruments, the dancing and festivities and in most cases even the clothes could have come from any time in the last forty or fifty years. There is very little to show that this is 2016 and not 1976.

Similarly, inside the houses, the decorations and furniture has probably not been changed in two generations.

For Crystal, the thing about visiting her grandparents’ home that she dislikes most was the toilet. It took me a while to get used to toilets in China, but it would take me a lot longer to get used to something like this.

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The toilet is simple a stone lined pit. Peeing in a pit might be easy enough for men, but squatting on the edge of a pit with nothing to hold for support while you do your business and hoping that you don’t fall backwards is not something I want to even contemplate. Coming out here at night could be pretty hazardous. Heaven forbid that you get cramp. I hate to imagine what would happen to an old person if they had any joint problems in their knee or hip. Surely, this toilet would be impossible to use. It is also very smelly, as the excrement is left there and occasionally collected to use as fertilizer.

In Britain we used to have outhouses which were effectively just pits, but even they had seats that you could sit on and more importantly, they were OUT houses. They would be out in the garden. Having something like this inside the house must be horrible.




Categories: Living in China, Places in China | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m not 43 yet!

Such simple things as age, date and birthday can be very confusing here in China. Even things that should be extremely simple, like knowing your own age, can become a bit complicated. The trouble is partly that they use both the lunar and solar calendars. The lunar calendar followed the cycle of the moon and was therefore easier for an illiterate peasant farmer to follow. Back in the days when 90% of the Chinese were illiterate peasant farmers (only about 100 years ago) it was the only calendar that most people use. Contact with the west brought the Gregorian calendar, which is of course a solar calendar. It is only in the last few decades that the solar calendar has become more commonly used. The Chinese still use the lunar calendar for their festivals and many of them still use the lunar calendar for their birthdays. For those of us used to using a solar calendar, it means that their birthday is on a different date every year. 241 Yet this is only half of the problem. The other is that many of the illiterate Chinese peasant farmers didn’t actually bother recording their birthdays at all. They knew roughly when the baby was born, but infant mortality was high and it was often a long time before any official records were made of the birth of a child. Rather than keeping their birthdays the Chinese were regarded as being one year older each time it was the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year. This meant that they were regarded as being one year old when they were less than one year old. A person born a few days before the Spring Festival would be one when only a few days old. A person born a few days after the spring festival would be one when they were nearly a year old. During the early Communist period this way of measuring your date became more popular again. I think it is because it is more communal. Rather than celebrating your own individual birthday, which Mao probably regarded as being elitist and Bourgeoisie, they all get older on the same date. It is probably popular with children, as many children like to be able to claim that they are older. Someone 17 and a few days could honestly say they were 18 and have any of the benefits of being that age. Recently I have been doing a lot of paperwork, both at the hospital and in preparation for changing jobs, and sometimes I found that I was being listed as 43. I am not yet 43! When I gave my date of birth at the hospital the documents listed my age as 43 because the computer seemed to use this old fashioned peasant way of calculating my age. Yes, the Spring Festival has passed, but I know when my birthday is and it is not here yet. If you ever find yourself confused by how old a Chinese person is claiming to be, it is probably related to these two reasons; either that or they are like my mum and every birthday they are “21 again.”

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