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Chinese New Year through a Photo App

Photo Exhibition 4 - 15 February 2019

The Chinese New Year celebrates the beginning of the new year according to the lunar calendar. It is a time to return to one's hometown, reunite with family, honour ancestors and worship deities. Many traditional rituals are still practiced at the same time as new modern ways influence how one celebrate and share this event. To send well-wishes via social media and share one's experiences via photography is today very common.

The photo exhibition consisted of photographs selected among the more than 5000 photographs that Chinese people posted on the photo app Kuaipai, kuaipai during Chinese New Year 2018. The photo exhibition was thus both a way to understand how Chinese New Year is celebrated in different parts of China and a way to understand how social media practices and photography today is integrated in Chinese people's lives. The exhibition was curated by Marina Svensson as part of the Digital China Research Project funded by the Swedish Research Council.

With the advent of smartphones and social media, Chinese people’s ways of communicating and sharing events with family and friends have changed. Today some 800 million people in China have access to the Internet and the vast majority of them, some 98 per cent, access the Internet through their smartphones. The most popular Chinese social media app, WeChat, has over 1 billion monthly active users. International photo apps such a Instagram are blocked in China and instead some domestic apps have appeared on the market such as Tuchong and Kuaipai.

The photo app Kuaipai, kuaipai 快拍,快拍 was set up in 2015 by the newspaper Dushi kuaibao in Hangzhou. It is today used by some 50 000 people in China. People share photos and take part in both online and offline activities, competitions, and exhibitions.

In 2018 I was asked to be one of the curators during the Chinese New Year. My task was to select and comment upon photos during a couple of days. During the two weeks the competition was open some 5000 photos were uploaded on the app. The photos provide a glimpse of how the Chinese New Year is celebrated in different parts of China. Around 50 photos were later exhibited at the Hangzhou Municipal Library.

The current exhibition at the Centre consists of selected photos from the competition as well as images showing how the app looks and is used. The exhibition provides a sense of how photos are seen and shared on the app and how it works with comments and likes. From the images in the exhibition one also gets a sense of how embedded smartphone and social media use are in Chinese people’s lives. People not only send greetings and photos via social media but the old tradition of sending money in so-called red envelopes are also done online today.

The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival (chunjie ) is the start of the lunar year. People try to return to their hometowns/villages for the festivities that last for two weeks and end with the lantern festival (yuanxiao 元宵) on the 15th day of the first month in the lunar year.

The Chinese zodiac is a repeating cycle of 12 years, with each year being represented by an animal. The 12 animals are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. 2018 was the ear of the Dog, and 2019 (starting on 5 February) will thus be the year of the Pig.

In which year are you born? Check out here

The spring festival includes many preparations and rituals. The old traditions are today mostly upheld in the countryside. Since food is central much preparation is put into shopping and preparing different specialities.

Sacrifices are made to the Kitchen God, to Heaven and Earth and to the ancestors. This includes offering food, burning paper money and setting off firecrackers in the home, in temples and in the ancestral halls.

People put up new year couplets (chunlian ) with wishes for the new year outside of the door and new year posters in the house. The posters include traditional symbols such as ‘fat babies’ and ‘fish’ that signify prosperity. But there are also new year posters featuring political leaders such as current party secretary Xi Jinping. The colour red symbolises happiness in China. Many decorations are made on red paper and people often also dress in red during the new year period.

The main event during spring festival is the new year’s dinner (nianfan ) that families eat together on New Year’s Eve (chuxi除夕). Different regions have their own specialities. In north China dumplings is central and many also eat sweet rice cakes (niangao 年糕). Fish symbolises abundance and surplus as the word for fish () is pronounced yú like the word for surplus (). So a common saying, also found on paper cuttings, is ‘surplus year after year (nian, nian you yu 年年有余)’. The character for happiness  is also ubiquitous on decorations and on traditional paper cuttings.

The Spring Festival Gala on TV used to be a must see and central entertainment but these days people tend to spend more time on the Internet and social media. Children receive a red envelope (hong bao ) with money (yasui qian 压岁钱) from the elders in the family. But people also give money to friends and these days many send them in ‘digital red envelopes’ via the app WeChat.

Setting of firecrackers is central during spring festival although many cities now try to control it. The firecrackers are set off during rituals and worship and the noise is said to frighten off evil spirits and the monster Nian.