Shanghai’s Chinese New Year Melancholy

Recently a Shanghainese friend shared this screenshot on WeChat:

Shanghai-CNY 上海春节的杯具

I’ll transcribe it below as text for you learners:

我们上海人不过年是真的,因为我们没有什么事可以做!过年就是比谁年夜饭的酒店订得早,然后躺在家里看朋友圈欣赏全国各地的人是怎么过年的……我们不怕春运,又不能放鞭炮,也不爱看春晚,没有习俗,也没有土特产,家里亲戚少且关系没那么好,路上没有店也没有人。

And a translation:

It’s true that we Shanghainese don’t really celebrate Chinese New Year because there’s not really anything for us to do! Chinese New Year is just competing who can make the earliest restaurant reservation for Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner [年夜饭], then lying around at home browsing WeChat Moments to see how the rest of the country is celebrating Chinese New Year…. We have no fear of the massive CNY migration [春运], and we’re not allowed to set off fireworks anymore. We don’t like the CCTV New Year’s Gala [春晚], and we don’t have any real traditional customs or local specialty foods. We have few relatives, and the ones we do have, we’re not on great terms with. There are no shops open or any people in the streets.

My immediate reaction was, “wow, this is so true! And sad!” I shared it with my co-workers, and a Shanghainese co-worker’s reaction was:

大实话。有时候我会羡慕赶春运的人们。

Translation:

So true. Sometimes I envy those people crammed into trains just to get home for Chinese New Year.

[I had to take liberties translating 春运.]

This year my family and I will spend Chinese New Year in Japan (again). At first I felt uncomfortable with this. You hear Chinese people say all the time, “Christmas is like you guys’ Chinese New Year,” and while that’s not really true in many ways, it is true in that they both are the year’s biggest holiday in their respective cultures, they both mean a lot to the people of that culture, and they’re both meant to be spent with family. But then how could my wife be OK with running off to Japan (without her parents) instead of spending CNY in Shanghai with them? I would not be OK with blowing off Christmas in similar fashion.

One of the ways I’ve made sense of this cultural issue is reflected in the post above: the Shanghainese really do have a bit of a different take on Chinese New Year, and it has evolved rapidly in recent years (as evidenced by the role of WeChat in the original post). The Shanghainese are different.

My first Chinese New Year was spent in Zhuji (诸暨), Zhejiang Province. It was cold, it was crowded, it was noisy, it was non-stop eating and card-playing and tea-drinking chatting. It was undoubtedly very Chinese. It was pretty fun for me, but as an outsider, it’s not something I would really want to commit to every year (especially if it’s not with my actual family).

Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not a huge fan of Chinese New Year festivities. But as the traditions have faded in Shanghai and the holiday is left something of a husk of its former self, I can’t help but feel bad for the Shanghainese.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

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