Many people in Britain dread the inevitable pressure of family gatherings at Christmas time. For a couple of days you are inveigled into spending time with relatives you normally keep at arm’s length. The difficult uncle, the whiny brats who are your aunt’s kids, the ever-so elegant and hyper-critical sister-in-law etc etc. Not to mention the cost: travel, appropriate gifts for everyone, contributions to the booze and the food, it all adds up.
Then there is the poor woman (I say woman because it usually is a woman) who is in charge of all the domestic arrangements: clean bedding/towels for all the extended family, having the neighbours over for mulled wine and nibbles, an endless round of meals- including the big one on Xmas day – catering for all the various complex dietary demands, frantically wrapping gifts at midnight on Christmas Eve. By the day after Boxing Day she is usually stressed out, and exhausted from trying to keep everyone happy, and just wishing they would all bugger off home.
The same is true for Chinese families over the Spring Festival, Chun jie 春节 (aka Chinese New Year/CNY).
Everybody is expected to spend at least the first few days of the holiday period with their parents and family – even if that requires a trek of several thousand miles. The airlines are all booked up, the trains are full to capacity – millions are on the move. Mothers and aunties have been cooking up a storm – the fridge is bulging, piles of jiaozi 饺子 have been prepared, numerous bottles of Baijiu白酒 are available for the men to enjoy, decorations have been purchased and pasted up, red lanterns are aglow, and hong bao 红包(red envelopes containing money given to the children) have been prepared.
And when young Chinese adults get home, they face relentless questioning: “Do you have a girl/boy friend? why are you not married yet? My friend’s daughter/son has married well, you shouldn’t be so picky, you are getting older; I will find someone for you.” And if you are married: “You’ve been married nearly one year already, why are you/is your wife not pregnant yet? I want a grandchild – a boy would be best”. The pressure is enormous, and for Chinese who are LGBT is even more intense, as this is usually something they cannot admit to their parents, as they might lose face within the family and with friends and neighbours; they frequently get someone of the opposite sex from the LGBT community to stand in as a ‘fiancee’ which covers for both their families. Then they all sit around eating and drinking too much, letting off fireworks and watching the atrocious annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala on television.
This Spring Festival the whole of China has been talking about a Spring Festival family gathering of gargantuan proportions. The Ren family from Shishe village beside Shenzhou City in Zejiang Province had a monumental get-together.
Ren Tuanjie, one of the family elders was up-dating the family records for the first time in 80 years (the family records go back 26 generations which is 850 years) and he had the bright idea that as many family members as possible should be invited for a massive Chinese New Year celebration. He sent out links on social media to all those he could trace and asked them to spread the word; he also contacted the local police in all the Chinese provinces and asked for their help in informing any members of the family that they might know of. He put advertisements in newspapers. Of the potential 1000 decedents, 500+ turned up! (I am told that oldest was 94 yrs old and the youngest was four, but I noticed some babes in arms in the photos). He contacted a photographer to take the ultimate family photo. Zhang Lianzhong chose a famous local beauty spot to be the location of what could have been a nightmare assignment, and with the help of a megaphone and a drone he produced a picture that will have pride of place in Ren family albums in China and overseas.
Weibo (the Chinese social media platform) has been awash with comments, jokes, and questions about this CNY family gathering. One wag asked if one of them met a family member of the opposite sex that they fancied at the event, would it be OK to marry them? Another asked how many children were in the family, because it would cost a fortune in New Year hong bao.
Personally I am all in favour of such a huge gathering of the clan. Less pressure on individuals, less time for individual spats, and no-one will argue that they want a traditional home cooked meal, and then announce that they are vegan. Book a restaurant – actually book at least five restaurants!