Since the mid-2010s, a number of museums across the world have been curating exhibitions, publishing blogs, and hosting events to celebrate the Chinese New Year, more commonly known as 春节 (chun jie, Spring Festival) in China, and more widely known as the Lunar New Year in other east and southeast Asian countries. The terms ‘Lunar New Year’ and ‘Chinese New Year’ are intertwined as Chinese cultural practices have had a significant influence on those of its neighbouring countries. This overlap indicates positive cultural exchange. But it has also sparked controversies, which have often been negotiated within museum spaces.
For instance, in January this year, the British Museum invited the public to celebrate the ‘Korean Lunar New Year’. This offended Chinese students in the UK and Chinese communities online and from across the globe, who accused the Museum of cultural appropriation. In order to provide more and accurate information about Chinese New Year, Chinese students dressed up in 汉服 (han fu), their traditional garb, and distributed flyers to visitors in the Museum. But the Museum removed all links to this event from its website and social media channels without any explanations.
春节 (chun jie, Spring Festival), the ‘Chinese New Year’, or the ‘Lunar New Year’ is valued as intangible cultural heritage by east and southeast Asian communities. Controversies around the origins of shared cultural heritage like this have been ongoing since the early 2000s within east and southeast Asia. But these feuds become more severe when negotiated at an international level. In 2005, news that South Korea planned to nominate its 강릉단오제 (Gangneung Danoje) as intangible cultural heritage to the UNESCO list ignited an uproar in China, with many arguing that the similarities between 강릉단오제 (Gangneung Danoje) and the 端午节 (Duanwu Jie, Dragon Boat Festival), suggest that the festival originated in China and is thus, Chinese intangible cultural heritage.
In Europe and America, people have criticised the official use of the term ‘Chinese New Year’, perhaps in response to the heated claims that Chinese communities have made on shared intangible cultural heritage like 春节 (chun jie, Spring Festival) and 端午节 (Duanwu Jie, Dragon Boat Festival). Some media outlets, politicians, and public institutions like museums prefer to use the term ‘Lunar New Year’, to be respectful towards all east and southeast Asian communities who celebrate the festival and to avoid criticism.
The debate surrounding shared intangible cultural heritage and their terminologies raises important and critical questions for museums and museum workers: should museums be neutral, or should they provide a forum for the negotiation of these debates through exhibitions, events, outreach projects, and collections-based research? Could exploring, researching, writing, and talking about collections relating to shared intangible cultural heritage provide opportunities to emphasise their versatility and universality?
MAA has a sizable collection of objects relating to the 春节 (chun jie, Spring Festival) or Chinese New Year. To begin with, John Preston Maxwell (1871–1961) collected a set of five ornaments with text and iconography relating to 春节 (chun jie, Spring Festival). Maxwell was a presbyterian missionary who worked as an obstetrics specialist in Fujian and Beijing between c. 1898 and 1935. The ornaments that he collected were donated to MAA by his daughter, Mrs. M. G. Steen, in 1982.
The text and iconography on these ornaments is specifically related to Taoism and the 易经 (I Ching or Yi Jing, Book of Changes). Consider, for instance, the ornaments below.
These ornaments include the inscriptions 八卦图 (ba gua tu, Eight Trigrams), 太极 (tai ji or tai chi), and 元亨利贞 (yuan heng li zhen). The first inscription represents the fundamental principles of reality, seen as a range of eight interrelated concepts; the second inscription is a cosmological term in various schools of Chinese philosophy; the third is a hexagram statement in the 易经 (I Ching, Book of Changes). Collectively, these inscriptions act as symbols of blessings for the spring and the new year, and are believed to cast out devils.
This ornament depicts the schedule or ‘dairy’ of the household, including important dates of the year, the 24 solar terms, and terms for blessing the house as well as for casting out evils. The Ancient Chinese divided the circle of the annual motion of the sun into 24 equal segments, each of which was called a 节气 (jie qi, solar term). This practice, also known as the 二十四节气 (er shi si jie qi, Twenty-Four Solar Terms), was traditionally used as a timeframe to direct production and daily routines, and remains of particular importance to farmers. It originated in China, and then spread to other east Asian countries such as Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. It was listed by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016.
In addition to the above ornaments, MAA has a set of six postcards depicting activities that can also be observed during 春节 (chun jie, Spring Festival). Donated by Miss U. Lumley, these postcards were produced in the early 1900s in 烟台 (Yan Tai), formerly known as Chefoo, a coastal city in Shandong Province, China. Some evidence suggests that they were created by the China Inland Mission, who ran a Christian boarding school at Chefoo between 1881 and 1951.
One of the postcards from the set depicts two individuals carrying wine. The wine referred to is probably 白酒 (bai jiu), a local distilled alcoholic beverage with between 40–60% alc./vol. Chinese 白酒 (bai jiu) or 米酒 (mi jiu, rice spirit) serve as important beverages for the large meals and family gatherings organised as part of the 春节 (chun jie, Spring Festival) celebrations.
In most parts of China, 春节 (chun jie, Spring Festival) is celebrated for 15 days, from 除夕夜 (chu xi ye, New Year’s Eve) to the 元宵节 (yuan xiao jie, Lantern Festival). People in some regions celebrate the occasion for an entire month. For most people in China though, 元宵节 (yuan xiao jie, Lantern Festival) marks the final day of the New Year celebrations. On the festival day and the following ones, lanterns are displayed, lion and dragon lantern dances are performed, and lantern riddle games are played – these are all popular activities during the festival.
A postcard from the Lumley collection depicts four individuals bearing lanterns inscribed with the Chinese character 喜 (xi, celebratory). The lantern of 喜 (xi, celebratory) is not only used during 元宵节 (yuan xiao jie, Lantern Festival) but also on important occasions such as weddings or when good news is brought home.
In addition to the above postcards, MAA has a set of pictures depicting Chinese figures and activities, donated by Cambridge anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon. One of these pictures depicts two children playing with a fish lantern. Fish is a symbol of prosperity and is thus found on ornaments, pictures, and the dining table.
I have highlighted only a few objects relating to 春节 (chun jie, Spring Festival) or the ‘Chinese New Year’, or the ‘Lunar New Year’ at MAA. There are many more relevant at MAA and other museums. Most of the objects relating to the festival at MAA are attributed to China. Consequently, they represent how the festival is celebrated in China. But perhaps, a more expansive and in-depth exploration of material culture relating to the celebration of the New Year across east and southeast Asia could provide a better understanding of how festival celebrations have been adapted by different communities, and ultimately, of how it is a shared intangible cultural heritage.
I thank LU, Jianfang, senior research associate and former curator of Nanjing Museum, who provided insight and expertise that greatly assisted this piece.