新年快乐！ Happy (Chinese) New Year! January 23rd signified the beginning of the Year of the Dragon, a magnanimous and self-assured beast, proud, passionate and decisive. No bad thing in the right hands but Dragons can also be arrogant, dogmatic, intolerant and brash and won’t hesitate to violently breathe fire on those who oppose them in fits of tyranny. Legend has it that those born in the Year of the Dragon, along with monkeys and rats, will make the best leaders, albeit susceptible to megalomania, narcissism and inflexibility, and so whilst wise and noble on the one hand it seems Dragons can be formidable on the other, especially when faced by a perceived lack of respect or threat to governance. Sound familiar?
The word ‘Dragon’ could quite easily be replaced by ‘China’ in that description, and so it’s no coincidence that the Dragon is one of the most loved of the Chinese zodiac animals inside and out of the country; the famous dragon dance interferes with almost all Chinese New Year celebrations, or miaohui, be it Year of the Dragon or not. So, with the dragon upon us what might it mean for the plight of China’s 55 ethnic minorities and/or indigenous peoples (the two aren’t mutually exclusive) in the coming year? At first sight it might not seem promising, but let’s delve further…
Chinese New Year occurs amidst chunjie or Spring Festival, a 15-day festival that, although perhaps through state control and manipulation, in many senses unites Chinese ethnic groups. It’s a time for feasting on dumpling suppers with family, exchanging hongbao or red envelopes filled with cash, adorning houses with red lanterns and terrorizing the streets with firecrackers (health and safety in China is not what it is in the West!). Outside of China, the festival is a time to embrace Chinese diaspora and culture with supermarkets promoting Chinese ready meals, the launch of a seasonal version of Angry Birds and next weekend Trafalgar Square will be buzzing with cultural stalls and live performances, probably including a dragon dance or ten.
There are variations across China’s ethnic minorities; Zhuang people, China’s largest minority drink a special ginger concoction; the Tujia in Hunan province perform a hand-waving dance; Inner-Mongolians traditionally kowtow to their ancestors before drinking and dancing the night away; and the Miao of Guizhou province adorn traditional dress and enjoy flute performances in addition to celebrating their own New Year at a different time; but generally lots of red, lots of loudness and the exchanging of money denotes Chinese New Year throughout the country.
However, it is never quite the harmonious society that the Chinese government would want us to believe. The red, the loudness and the money are symbolic of the measures that Chinese people traditionally used to scare away the evil demon Nian, who would terrorize their villages. And to some minorities, China, the state, has turned into Nian to terrorize them. Xinjiang cities being adorned with red lanterns might be more evocative of increasing Han dominance in the region and forced unification than Uighur desire to celebrate as they do not celebrate Chinese New Year and often work throughout the festival, despite it being a national holiday. Instead they celebrate, along with other Muslim ethnicities, Noruz to mark the first day of Spring, yet they are not allotted holiday by the Han-led Chinese Communist Party.
Tibetan celebrations of New Year are also different, although the dates often coincide and there are stories of pressure to celebrate the Chinese way as opposed to the Tibetan way. Following the 2008 Tibet riots it was reported that the state forced Tibetans to celebrate New Year despite a desire to boycott celebrations in memory of those killed during the unrest.
Let’s also not forget the plight of the migrant workers in the cities, consisting of many different ethnicities but forming a social minority in their own right. State control of national holidays and lack of additional chances of vacation throughout the year force them to queue for hours at train stations for elusive tickets to make their way back to their hometowns. This year it has been reported that a new online train ticketing system was especially tough on migrant workers, particularly those with limited education and web knowledge.
But in a sense there is hope. Look at 2011, Year of the Rabbit, which unlike Dragons are supposedly gracious, kind, flexible and shy. Yet 2011 was marked by continued oppression of minorities with ethnic skirmishes in Xinjiang, self-immolations in Tibet and even a rare uprising in Inner Mongolia. The rabbit also brought a heavy crackdown on political dissidents, most prominently the artist Ai Weiwei.
None of these events are in-keeping with the placid rabbit and so perhaps this will set precedent for the coming year to work against superstition and tradition. So far things aren’t looking promising as already there have been widespread reports of unrest and Tibetans being shot by Chinese paramilitaries for refusing to celebrate Chinese New Year in protest against Beijing control. We can only hope that the dragon’ fire will be extinguished and its more positive attributes used to establish sensitivity toward, greater recognition of autonomy for and less oppression of minorities and indigenous peoples.