BEIJING (AP) — People across China on Sunday ushered in the Lunar New Year with large family reunions and crowds visiting temples after the government lifted its strict “zero-COVID” policy, marking what will be the biggest festive celebration since the pandemic began represented three years.
The Lunar New Year is the most important annual holiday in China. Each year is named after one of the 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac in a repeating cycle, this year being the Year of the Rabbit. For the past three years, celebrations have been muted in the shadow of the pandemic.
With the easing of most of the COVID-19 restrictions that had tied millions to their homes, people could finally make their first trip back to their hometowns to reunite with their families without worrying about the hassles of quarantine, possible closures and travel interruptions. Larger public celebrations also returned for China’s so-called Spring Festival, with the capital hosting thousands of cultural events — on a larger scale than a year ago.
“He never experienced what a traditional New Year is like because he was too young three years ago and couldn’t remember it,” said Si Jia, who took her 7-year-old son to the Qianmen district near Tiananmen Square in Beijing to experience the festive atmosphere and learn about traditional Chinese culture.
Nearly 53,000 worshiped at Beijing’s Lama Temple, but crowds appeared to be smaller compared to days before the pandemic. The Tibetan Buddhist site allows up to 60,000 visitors daily for security reasons and requires advance reservations.
Crowds of residents and tourists flocked to Qianmen’s pedestrian streets enjoying barbeque snacks and New Year rice cake stalls, and some children wore traditional Chinese rabbit hats. Others held blown sugar or marshmallows in the shape of rabbits.
Taoranting Park showed no signs of the usual bustling New Year’s food stalls, although the sidewalks were adorned with traditional Chinese lanterns. A popular temple fair at Badachu Park, which was suspended for three years, will resume this week, but similar events at Ditan Park and Longtan Lake Park have yet to return.
The mass movement of people can cause the virus to spread in certain areas, said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the China Center for Disease Control. However, a large-scale COVID-19 surge is unlikely over the next two or three months as about 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people have been infected during the latest wave, he wrote on the social media platform on Saturday Weibo.
The center reported 12,660 COVID-19-related deaths between January 13 and 19, including 680 cases of respiratory failure caused by the virus and 11,980 deaths from other diseases combined with COVID-19. This is on top of the 60,000 deaths reported last week since early December. Saturday’s statement said the deaths occurred in hospitals, meaning anyone who died at home would not be included in the count.
China has only counted deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 death toll, a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that would be attributed to COVID-19 in much of the world.
In Hong Kong, revelers flocked to the city’s largest Taoist temple, Wong Tai Sin, to burn the year’s first incense sticks. The popular ritual has been suspended for the past two years due to the pandemic.
Traditionally, large crowds gather before 11:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and everyone tries to be the first or among the first to put their incense sticks in the stalls in front of the main hall of the temple. Worshipers believe that those who are among the first to place their incense sticks stand the best chance of having their prayers answered.
Resident Freddie Ho, who attended the temple Saturday night, was pleased to be able to attend the event in person.
“I hope to place the first incense stick and pray that the new year will bring world peace, that Hong Kong’s economy will prosper and that the pandemic will go away from us and we can all live normal lives,” Ho said. “I believe that everyone wishes.”
Meanwhile, crowds praying for good fortune at the historic Longshan Temple in Taipei, capital of Taiwan, were smaller than a year ago, even as the pandemic has eased. That’s partly because many had ventured on long-awaited trips to other parts of Taiwan or overseas.
While communities across Asia welcomed the Year of the Rabbit, the Vietnamese celebrated the Year of the Cat instead. There is no official answer to explain the difference. But one theory has it that cats are popular because they often help Vietnamese rice farmers drive away rats.
Leung reported from Hong Kong. Associated Press journalists Henry Hou, Olivia Zhang in Beijing, Alice Fung in Hong Kong, and Taijing Wu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.
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