I’ve celebrated Chinese New Year more than a few times in Asia, whether it was with the remote Dong people in the mountains of Guizhou, venerating the Jade Emperor with ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, or watching a rock band in Singapore. However there’s one particular New Year I remember well. My teacher, Master Zhou, invited me to spend it with his family, and took me to visit his kung fu elders. For the Chinese, New Year is somewhat akin to Christmas, and apart from getting loads of presents from Santa, the atmosphere was very similar.
For New Year’s eve we made dumplings, which is a New Year’s tradition. First we made a small batch of vegetarian ones, which were to be offered to Buddha later, then we made the meat ones for ourselves. As the night drew in, the sound of fireworks filled the air outside, every few seconds you could hear great big bangs and the spitting sound of crackers. Master Zhou and his wife offered the vegetable dumplings to the Buddhist shrine in their living room, then lit incense.
Master Zhou took me outside to set off fireworks, which is something Chinese people love. No matter how small a celebration, they will set off fireworks, whatever time of day! The fact that the Chinese invented gunpowder to celebrate, but the Europeans turned it into a weapon, is something not lost on the Chinese. Something I had always wondered about in China was why people always light little fires on crossroads at night. Master Zhou explained is to burn offerings to your ancestors as he took a wad of “death notes” from his pocket; which are large pretend notes of money. He drew a circle in the snow on the street and made a little fire with paper, which did little to relieve my chapped hands. This way his ancestors would have money to spend in the afterlife and wouldn’t cause trouble to the living. Then we went back inside, lit incense to offer to his late master and his parents, followed by a huge dinner of traditional Shandong food and some weird Chinese “medicinal” liquor.
I was woken up at about 5.30am by the sound of firecrackers ouside my window! The sound continued every few seconds for the rest of the day. I arrived back at master Zhous apartment and there was plates of nuts and nibbles on the table, with a few disciples sat arond smoking. All through the day, family members and students would stop by to wish happy new year to Master Zhou, including a star from a local TV station. Once the coming and going settled down, we went to visit some kung fu elders and give them some small gifts.
The first stop was Master Zhou’s late master’s wife. She is 103 and lives with her son, who is also a well known master. She was partially blind and deaf and laying in bed. She just looked so old, and just grumbled. It was amazing to think she was born in the Qing dynasty, when there was still an emperor on the throne! The things she must have seen as China changed, but as age had caught up to her, I was unable to ask her anything. Next stop was to visit an early disciple of Cui Shou Shan. He is one of the last few people alive who trained directly with the great master, and lived in a very basic, old house. When we left, he looked Master Zhou in the eyes and, clasping his hand with both of his, said “You must do your best to pass on Taiji mantis to more people, you have learnt the system more thoroughly than any of us, don’t let it be forgotten.” That was moving for me, to see that old man say it in such a heartfelt way, it confirmed that I am training under a great master.