Tuesday, Feb 24, 2015, 4:34 PM CST – China


Spring Festival 1967-1980

The New Year That Wasn’t

As the Cultural Revolution raged across the country in early 1967, the Chinese Spring Festival holiday was cancelled, cutting through very roots of the nation’s culture and traditional values. NewsChina looks at how the most important date in the Chinese calendar became a day like any other

A family poses before a propaganda poster with a quotation from Mao Zedong: “Serve Poor Peasants for Life,” Shanghai, 1970 PHOTO BY FOTOE

A girl poses with her “Little Red Book,” Shanghai, 1970 PHOTO BY FOTOE

“Due to the masses’ desire to follow Chairman Mao in pushing forward the Cultural Revolution, the State Council has decided to forego the Spring Festival holiday.”

To the Chinese, the Lunar New Year, or “Spring Festival,” is as important as Christmas is in the West. It is a time for reunion, with hearty dinners, blessings of goodwill, and firecrackers. While the idea that Christmas could be canceled is occasionally used to keep naughty children in line, celebration of China’s annual holiday was effectively forbidden for 13 years after it was suddenly scrapped in 1967, in the throes of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

This was not the first time the festival had come under threat. In a bid to keep traditional Chinese festivals in pace with the Gregorian calendar, in 1928 the then-ruling Kuomintang government decreed that Lunar New Year would fall on January 1, but this calendarial coup was abandoned due to overwhelming opposition from the populace at large. Critics accused the government of trying to abolish an ancient tradition, arguing that it was inappropriate for the government to interfere in the observance of such treasured customs.

However, the holiday failed to escape the axe a second time in 1967, when the ruling Communist Party government announced plans to cancel the imminent three-day holiday, which fell on February 9, instead calling for the revolutionary masses to celebrate the festival by absorbing themselves in the Cultural Revolution and pushing forward industrial production.

For over a decade, New Year festivals were observed in a “revolutionary” way; in practice, this meant no feasts, no firecrackers, no gifts, and nothing else that might distract the Chinese people from their revolutionary duties. Repetition of propaganda slogans was the prescribed method of celebration, and festive enthusiasm was channeled into rather more prosaic, and sometimes menacing, efforts.

Popular Demand

As Spring Festival 1967 approached, Liu Qishun was a 23-year-old technician at the Shanghai No 1 Woollen Mill. Having seen the Cultural Revolution run quickly out of hand in the preceding months, he had assumed all would be back to normal in time for the yearly celebration, he told NewsChina.

He was wrong. The Cultural Revolution was only just beginning. In January, a notice from the State Council dashed his hopes of enjoying a normal holiday with his parents.

“We have come to a key point in the fight against a handful of capitalist-road powers,” read the notice issued on January 29. “Due to the masses’ desire to follow Chairman Mao in pushing forward the Cultural Revolution, the State Council has decided to forego the Spring Festival holiday.”

Zhang Renxing, at the time an 18-year-old worker at the Shanghai Glass Factory, is recorded as the instigator of the anti-Spring Festival movement. In an open letter to the Liberation Daily newspaper published on January 25, Zhang wrote, “For days, I debated whether or not to go home [for the Spring Festival], and I have made up my mind not to. As a revolutionary worker, I should follow Chairman Mao’s command to continue the revolution.”

“Even now, I am often asked why I made such an unreasonable call. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t write that letter,” Zhang told NewsChina.

An unmarried out-of-towner unlikely to cause a fuss, Zhang Renxing was chosen as the letter’s “author.”

“I was summoned to the leaders’ office and told to sign the letter,” Zhang recalled. “I did it without any hesitation. For me, any order from the leaders was right.”

Revolution Comes First

Inspired by Zhang’s open letter, a glut of similar pieces began to appear in newspapers nationwide. A commentary in the Wenhui Daily, for example, echoed Zhang’s sentiments: “Petty private concerns like returning home to see one’s parents are of little consequence. The only important things are large public affairs, such as following Chairman Mao’s instructions, continuing the revolution and consolidating our power.”

Official State mouthpiece the People’s Daily fueled the propaganda with volleys of powerful rhetoric: “Ancestor worship, New Year’s greetings, visits to relatives, gift giving and feasts can all go to hell! The working classes have never had such stinking customs; what we have is the power to uproot decadent capitalist influences and uphold Mao Zedong thought.”

Meanwhile, Spring Festival was approaching. “Had it been a normal year, February 5 would have been the day for Shanghainese to begin preparation for the New Year’s Eve feast, but in 1967, it was no more than an anniversary of the founding of the Shanghai Commune [a group of central government-appointed rebels named after the Paris Commune of 1870],” said Liu Qishun, a woollenmill technician.

“A million people turned out for the celebration in People’s Square,” Zhang Renxing recalled. “Factories used fleets of trucks to transport their ‘revolutionary rebels’ to the site. All the rebels in our factory, over 200 people, were taken there in four trucks.”

Liu Qishun was among the spectators. “I had been made a worker-journalist to cover the event, but I wrote nothing. I knew that cookie-cutter reports would be concocted anyway,” said Liu.

A Cold Festival

Laden with slogans, the State Council’s announcement was on a continuous loop over the public address systems of local railway stations, encouraging the masses to sacrifice their train tickets and return to their government-assigned jobs with renewed revolutionary fervor. In the city’s factories, the message to continue working was reinforced even on the eve of the festival itself, when many were “asked” to work overtime.

In rural areas, people busied themselves digging irrigation canals, cultivating fields and building houses. While the doors of households were adorned with couplets of poetry as per New Year tradition, their usual wishes of happiness and plenty were replaced with the instruction: “Let us not rest on New Year’s Eve; Continue working on the first day of next year.”

Revolutionary celebrations were far from festive. Family members would dine frugally under the ubiquitous portrait of Chairman Mao, before a solemn ceremony of “self-criticism.” When the clock struck midnight, the children would wish “Comrades Mother and Father” a happy New Year. The next morning, families sang revolutionary songs together, with “Little Red Book” of Mao’s quotations in hand. Greetings between neighbors, such as “May you be prosperous,” were replaced with “May you see Chairman Mao in Beijing this year.”

Traditional forms of celebration, such as fireworks and public performance, were forbidden. Some local governments also cancelled Spring Festival bonuses and advance issuance of wages, both established practices, calling them “a conspiracy to corrupt the revolutionary masses.”

That New Year was the coldest of Liu Qishun’s life. After a simple meal with his girlfriend, he escorted her home to find rebels had broken into and ransacked her house, her father having been labeled a “reactionary academic authority,” a damning term reserved for senior intellectuals. As they approached the house, they heard revolutionary rebels berating her parents. The two stood at a distance, Liu’s girlfriend weeping silently.

“We walked the streets for seven hours that night,” Liu told NewsChina. “No one was around, and the streets were dead silent. No firecrackers, no street performances, no-one burning ceremonial offerings to their ancestors. There were no signs of a festival, only enormous posters saying ‘Long live the Cultural Revolution,’ ‘Smash the head of such-and-such a person,’ and so on,” he continued.

In 1979, three years after the death of Chairman Mao, the People’s Daily published a letter entitled “Why is there no Spring Festival vacation?” The following year, in the newly relaxed political climate, the nation officially reinstated all traditional customs. Over the past three decades, China’s New Year celebrations have continued to evolve, with younger generations adding shopping and travel to their annual festive activities.

Tags: Lunar New Year, Spring Festival, Cultural Revolution

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