Sun, 02 Feb 2003

Imlek, a symbol of reconciliation and hope

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Gong Xi! Gong Xi! The Chinese word for congratulations is being heard all around the world this weekend with Chinese New Year falling on Saturday.

Beyond all the festivities -- the lion and dragon dances, the food, the clothes and the commercialism -- there is an interesting history behind the holiday which goes back thousands of years.

Chinese New Year is not a religious celebration, but rather a tradition to welcome the arrival of spring.

"China is an agricultural country, so people depend very much on the change of seasons or weather," said Eddy Prabowo Witanto, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia's School of Chinese Studies.

"After a long dreary winter, spring represented a hope for better things to come."

At the time the Chinese set up their calendar system, which was 2,554 years ago, spring was then the highlight of it.

"The calendar was called Yinli. Hokian people -- an ethnic group who make up the majority of Chinese-Indonesians -- however, pronounce it Imlek, and that's how we call the Chinese New Year here until now," Eddy said.

In contrast to the festivities surrounding the holiday, Imlek is not a public ceremony, but a sort of thanksgiving where families and relatives gather in one house and pray.

Therefore, Imlek is not identified with the barongsai (lion dance) performance held out in the open air, especially in China where the weather is still cold at that particular time.

"In China, public celebrations occur 15 days after the New Year, or the first full moon. That's when the lion dance is performed. Here, the celebration is called Cap Go Meh," said Eddy.

Many families celebrate Imlek 15 days prior to the event, as the jiazhang (head of the family) performs a small ritual to accompany the kitchen god to the sky.

Chinese people believe that the god called Chao Jun is present in every household, and he flies off through the sky every New Year to meet the highest god, Tian, to report on the family's deeds.

"To avoid a bad report, every family puts a variety of sweets and snacks on the offering table. They even smear sugar around the mouth of the kitchen god idol, so that the god will only report good things," said Eddy.

On New Year's Eve, people start the day in the morning by going to the temple and praying for their ancestors.

At night they have a family dinner, and spend quality time together. Later, they often set off firecrackers.

"Legend has it that a hideous monster would climb down the mountain every New Year's Eve, looking for prey. Firecrackers were set off to scare it away," said Eddy.

To keep the monster away, people also glue red paper in front of the house as the creature is said to be afraid of the color red.

On New Year's morning, families welcome the holiday by wearing new clothes and praying in the morning, but this time only at home.

Younger people will visit older relatives who give them money inside a red envelope.

There are some myths surrounding the New Year that many people still believe. Two to three days before and after the New Year, people are forbidden from sweeping the floor for fear they will sweep good luck out of the house.

Scissors and knives can also cut good luck and should not be used.

Meanwhile, store owners are prohibited from selling needles, thread, salt and oil, for those are things that have saved them during the winter.

Eddy said the customs and celebrations of Chinese New Year in this country were not different from those in China.

"Since China is communist, Chinese culture outside the country is even closer to its original form. The Chinese who live abroad tend to preserve their culture. One of my colleagues said that the most original and ancient forms of Chinese culture is found in Southeast Asia," he said.

The most important aspect of Imlek, however, is the moment of reconciliation and maintaining good relationships.

"Besides the myths, people are asked to purify themselves before the New Year comes. Whoever has a debt should pay it off, and people need to ask for each other's forgiveness," he said.

Above all, Imlek is a symbol of hope, just as the spring flowers start to bloom and the sun starts to shine again.