Photo courtesy of Jinghao Li.
While the holidays may be in the rearview for most North Country residents, for a fifth of the world’s population, the new year’s clock won’t click over until midnight on Saturday, Feb. 1 with the Spring Festival, known more commonly in the West as “Chinese New Year,” a dazzling half-month celebration that sees much of East Asia grind to a halt as families assemble to give thanks and cross their fingers for increased fortune in the upcoming lunar year.
Think of it like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day rolled into one savory, fennel-filled dumpling, the holiday’s staple culinary item.
Local residents will be given an opportunity to experience the world’s most widely-celebrated holiday — it’s celebrated across the region, from Greater China to the Philippines and the homes of the estimated 50,000,000 Chinese who live overseas — with a special performance of Beijing opera, the hallowed form of theatre that combines elements of acrobatics, singing, miming and other vocal performances — including a banter-type routine called “crosstalk” — at SUNY Plattsburgh by the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera (CICO), a Binghamton University-based nonprofit organization designed to spread Chinese culture and good tidings throughout the world.
The performance, “Amazing China,” will feature a slate of world-class professionals by the only performance group in the United States that features Beijing opera.
“When the horse arrives, success will follow,” said Hong Zhang, a member of Binghamton University’s Chinese Department and the music professor who is the country’s leading expert in teaching Mandarin Chinese through singing, on the importance of the upcoming year and its corresponding zodiac animal.
“The New Year is the most important festival for Chinese people,” she said. “People like the horse year because horses are such good animals — they are loyal and run fast.”
Like with Christmas and Thanksgiving, the Spring Festival comes with its own unique set of traditions.
In Mainland China, over 700 million people watch the CCTV New Year’s Gala on New Year’s Eve, said Hong. It’s an event similar to the Times Square Ball featuring a steady stream of domestic personalities and performers.
On the night before the first day of the fifteen-day holiday, families join together for a reunion dinner. Lots of food is consumed — mainly fish, a dish that symbolizes hope for leftover money, dumplings and sticky rice — while kids outfit themselves in new clothes and household furnishings are dressed in red, the traditional symbol for prosperity.
“We’ll be happy to celebrate with Plattsburgh people this year,” said Hong, who is originally from Shanghai but has been in the US for the past 25 years developing Binghamton University’s Chinese curriculum. “I don’t think they’ve ever seen this kind of performance.”
Hong commands a small, award-winning group of seven professionally-trained and internationally acclaimed performers, including martial arts specialist Wang Fei, acrobat Zhang Rui and actor Liu Chunnuan, who is pictured above.
Saturday’s program will include a variety of dynamic feats — including barrel-rolling and that infamous plate-spinning — and a vocal performance by Hong herself, who will sing three songs accompanied by both a bamboo flute and pianist Pej Reitz.
“This is authentic and deep Chinese culture, not just chopsticks and mapo doufu,” said Hong, referring to a type of pungent tofu that’s often used as a metaphor to symbolize superficiality in Mainland Chinese culture.
Hong said that she hopes performances by CICO, both in Plattsburgh and elsewhere in the country, will be successful in both reacquainting American-born Chinese with culture that they may see as antiquated while igniting a passion in young Americans, not only for the Chinese language, but also for the country’s rich pantheon of performing acts and ancient culture.
In addition to offering courses on the Binghamton campus, CICO organizes lectures, workshops and various other activities.
As a specialized Confucius Institute, their primary focus is on promoting opera and music. It’s the only performance group in the United States to feature Beijing opera, which plays a major role in the promotion of performing arts and culture on college campuses and in communities nationwide.
National class-one performer Tu Linghui — that’s the highest level you can obtain in the country’s national ranking system for Beijing opera — will sing three songs, the traditional “Farewell, My Concubine”, “The Drunken Beauty” and a contemporary holiday-themed song called “The Worker’s Return” that refers to chunyun, the massive migration of workers returning to their hometowns during the monthlong holiday period that clocks upwards of over two billion individual journeys, which is more than the country’s total population of 1.354 billion.
“I feel really passionate and excited when people come to watch me sing,” she said. “It’s always a new feeling every time.”