Thursday, January 17, 2008

happy belated gregorian christian new year!

OK, when I started writing this post, this was already quite a "belated" greeting, but I just never got past the title, and now it's become even MORE belated! But, since we're off to Tokyo on Friday (that is, TOMORROW), I won't unglue myself from the keyboard until I'm done.

So, New Year's Eve then. We couldn't leave Beijing, as I was going to have to work a bit on January 1st (yes, January FIRST), and just managed to get the day off at the very last moment, so arranging a trip anywhere was a bit rushed. We decided that, since we were in China, we might as well not surround us with expats and party at one of many night-clubs, and try a Chinese celebration instead. Most enlightening, I should say.

We chose to visit the Big Bell Temple (大钟寺), which is a rather "new" temple (1733) from the Qing Dynasty, and housing what people say is the biggest bell in all of China (over 5 metres tall and some 45 tons in weight) and which, we were told, would be rung a number of times to welcome the new year. It sounded interesting, spent the day doing this and that, and at about 11:15 we set off.

We arrived at the temple, to discover that there was an entrance fee for the "event". Well, we were already there, we were going nowhere else, and so bought the tickets. Inside the complex there was a hall, where we managed to catch the last couple of minutes of a special traditional Chinese concert:

And then, we headed for the Bell Tower. Not many people had gathered there, there were some people dressed as ethnic minorities and were playing around and singing and dancing a bit and, looking up to the entrance to the tower, you could get a glimpse of the bell. And so, with camera in hand, we wound our way into the tower (it was being cordoned off for cameras and VIP's) and came face to face with it. Beautiful. You see, it's not just a huge bell, which is quite impressive, of course, but the old metal had this greenish tinge (artificially and completely unintended manner enhanced by my camera!) and was covered, all over, with Chinese characters! Some 230'000 characters from Buddhist scriptures, as I later found . That, plus the pillars surrounding the bell, the freezing cold that kept you brightly awake, the temple, they all made for a special moment...

...which was to be the highlight of the night: Some 20 minutes before midnight, some officials made short speeches while the rest of us stood in front of the temple, the young people dressed as minorities standing to the sides of the entrance, and, finally, the countdown... 十,九,八,七,六,五,四,三,二,一!

You see? the bell rang, with a few pauses for the next VIP's to take their place to ring it... there was some clapping, some people saying "happy new year!", and a little over a minute later it was over. Let me re-picture this for you: crowd, countdown, new year starts, and...? AND??? and, it started, with the bell ringing, for sure, but, well, there was no excitement, no EXHILARATION, no people congratulating loudly, no hugging of anybody at all, we could have been celebrating Valentine's Day, or whichever day! I'm not sure the video captured what I'm saying (probably not), but it was totally anticlimactic. To me, it felt like the new year had flown out the big bell temple and passed us by to go somewhere else where it could cause more commotion. And that's when it really hit us how Western, how Gregorian, how christian our new year can be, as millions of people in this country might have had some fun (or even lots of fun) counting from 10 to 1, but not much more, yet they'll be straining this country's transport, food and fireworks systems to celebrate CHINESE new year this February, while the rest of us look on with eyes big and wide, in typical occidental wonder, asking ourselves how such a date can mean so little to us when it means so much to them.

I still got to ring a much smaller bell outside the temple, and then we went for dinner to our usual after-hours restaurant, which was working exactly as usual, with people having their usual wee-hours meals, like they would on any other Saturday night.

So, happy new year, friends, said quietly, solemnly, and sincerely. The loud, noisy, cataclysmic greeting will have to wait until February!

Drum and Bell Towers (where we went shortly after our celebration at Big Bell Temple, just before going for dinner).