Shortly after arriving in Nanyao village, in the hills above Lijiang, our group decided to interview two of the Naxi (the ethnic minority group of people who lives in this village) elders. We asked them questions about the village itself and the Chinese Spring Festival.
According to this old couple, both who lived in this village their entire lives, there are over 300 families that live in Nanyao village. Each family spans around 3 or even 4 generations. Typically, the younger generations leave the village and go to work in the city of Lijiang; thus, around 1/3 of the village’s population is elderly. Often, the grandparents take care of the young children. This has allowed the Naxi language to be passed onto the youngest generation. Naxi is the language spoken within households and thus, is still children’s first language. However, in schools, students are learning to Mandarin and Naxi is not spoken there. The elders consider the Naxi language and culture to still be alive and well.
When we conducted the interview, the Spring Festival was just a day away. We had many questions and curiosities about the traditions and how they were lost or have changed in the village and how they may differ from urban spaces.
The last day of the old year, family members gather together and hang couplets outside and around their homes. Most common are red banners that represent good luck. White is used if someone in the family died that year, yellow is used if someone passed away in the year before, and green if two years ago. After three years, the family goes back to using red banners. Other traditions include slaughtering a chicken and preparing a pig (about a month in advance).
On the night before the New Year, we had a feast! In my own experience, I ate dinner with my host family and then later went to my host uncle’s home for a BBQ. Hong Bao (red envelopes with money in them), are passed around from this night on. Interestingly, these are not only passed physically, but also virtually through Chinese communication apps such as WeChat to friends and family. In the interview that we conducted, the couple told us that in the 80’s they were only able to pass less than 1RMB in red envelopes. Now, it is common to pass 100RMB or more.
On the first day of Spring Festival, grandmothers prepare food such as sticky rice breads. This food is not only prepared for us to eat, but also for offerings to the ancestors. We all hiked up the mountain to worship and give thanks to the ancestors and sacred trees. In Naxi tradition, dead bodies are not cremated as they might be elsewhere in China; instead, they are carried up the mountain and buried. Incense sticks, fake money, alcohol, pine needles, and food was placed on all of the graves. Firecrackers – so many firecrackers – were lit as a way to scare away the bad spirits. It was “Re Nao” as they say in Chinese (hot and noisy).
While some traditions such as using firecrackers and fireworks have continued, some traditions have changed or faded away. The village people here no longer do their traditional dances they way they used to.. Young people don’t know how to dance and the elders have trouble to still dance. Years ago, everyone would gather around a big fire and dance together. Although Spring Festival has changed in certain ways, the village has maintained a special spirit for the new year.