Chinese New Year is an ancient holiday. Most of its traditions date back to thousands of years ago. But as times change, it’s not surprising that new traditions are formed. The most prominent is the Chinese New Year Gala (Chinese full name: 中央电视台春节联欢晚会 / zhōng yāng diàn shì tái chūn jiē lián huān wǎn huì).
This televised variety show is broadcasted by China Central Television (CCTV). Also known as the Spring Festival Gala or Chunwan (春晚 / Chūnwǎn), it is one of the premier TV events in China. It is popular in diaspora Chinese communities as well and the Gala makes it a point to include them in the show.
Origins of the Spring Festival Gala
Performances such as Chinese opera, lion dances and acrobatics have always been part of Spring Festival celebrations. They moved to the TV with the invention of the technology.
Beijing Television had small-scale New Year’s Eve broadcasts starting in 1956. But in 1983, CCTV aired its first live Chinese New Year program. The show begins at 8:00 PM on New Year’s Eve and goes on until a bit after midnight. As technology develops, the stage also changes.
In 1996, the Gala was broadcasted from separate studios in Nanjing and Shanghai, in addition to Beijing. This was repeated in 2016, showing live split-screens from 4 other trademark cities—Quánzhōu (泉州), Xī’ān (西安), Guǎngzhōu (广州) and Hulunbuir (呼伦贝尔 / hū lún bèi ěr).
In 2009, LED lights were installed on the stage for extra effects.
In recent years, livestreams became available for diaspora Chinese on websites such as YouTube. There is also an online Chunwan aired beforehand with celebrities targeted at the younger generations.
Types of performances
Chinese New Year Gala performances include:
The two types of Chinese comedy acts are stand-up skits (相声 / xiàng shēng) and sketches (小品 / xiǎo pǐn). The stand-up skits, also known as cross-talk, still maintain the original performance style. There are usually two male comedians and they wear the traditional cheongsam.
Sketches often explore real-life issues and give social commentary within a comedic frame. In recent years, fraud, migrant workers and family life have been hot topics.
Song and dance
Song and dance performances range from traditional classic styles, to folk, ethnic and modern acts. Many old-time favorites can be seen every year, but younger celebrities and amateurs are included as well.
Remixes of popular songs can be heard, such as Little Apple (小苹果 / xiǎo píng guǒ). Some songs debuted here go viral as well. For example, Bèi ér Shuǎng (倍儿爽) became the ringtone of many middle-aged folks in 2016.
C-pop singers, such as Leehom Wang (王力宏 / Wáng lì hóng), Hán Gēng (韩庚) and Chris Lee (李宇春 / Lǐ yǔ chūn) have been invited to appeal to more demographics.
There are usually song medleys and dances featuring the different ethnic groups in China. The major groups include Tibetans, Mongols, Uyghurs, Miao and more. In addition, you can hear music performances with both Western and Chinese instruments.
Acrobats and magic
Chinese acrobatic shows are some of the most breathtaking acts. The contortionists are impossibly flexible and they perform heart stopping maneuvers and flips. You will see traditional touches, such as spinning plates, climbing bamboo poles and Chinese yo-yo tricks (空竹 / kōng zhú).
There’s usually at least one stage magic performance each year as well. Foreign magicians are common and the Gala MCs are often incorporated into the act. Magician Louis Liu (刘谦 / Liú qiān) shot to stardom and returned in consecutive years.
Though emphasis on the traditional arts has decreased over the years, they still play a role in the Gala.
Every year, there is a Chinese opera medley near the end. It features well-known parts from Peking opera (京剧 / jīng jù), Henan opera (豫剧 / yù jù), Shaoxing opera (越剧 / yuè jù) and more.
CCTV-3 also has a special New Year performance exclusively for traditional opera.
Traditions of the Gala
As midnight nears, the MCs begin giving out New Year blessings and reading Spring Festival couplets.
Traditionally, the Gala would end with a rendition of the song “Can’t Forget Tonight” (难忘今宵 / nán wàng jīn xiāo). The original singer was Lǐ Gǔ Yī (李谷一) and she is still invited to lead the song, though she is more than 70 years old now. The tradition was broken in 2012, but reinstated in 2013.
1987: Kris Phillips (费翔 / fèi xiáng) became the first Taiwanese to perform in Chunwan. At that time, Mainland China and Taiwan had still not opened their doors to each other. Phillips further developed a career in New York Broadway.
1990: Comedian Zhao Benshan (赵本山) stepped onto the Spring Festival Gala stage for the first time. He later became a regular—almost a symbol of the Gala—and people grew to expect his sketches every year.
2005: The most famous performance was “Thousand Hand Buddha” (千手观音 / qiān shǒu guān yīn). The impressive dance requires extreme precision and was performed by mute and/or deaf youths.
2006: Two performances made headlines this year. The first was “Qiào Xī Yáng” (俏夕阳) performed by children and seniors. The dance imitates Chinese Shadow Play, a traditional art. The other was “The Auspicious Three” (吉祥三宝 / jí xiáng sān bǎo), which featured the Mongolian language.
It was also announced through the Gala that two pandas would be gifted to Taiwan. The names were Tuantuan and Yuanyuan. Together, they make “tuán yuan” (团圆), which means “reunion.”
2008: Before Chinese New Year, there were extreme snowstorms in Southern China. The Gala included a poetry recital performance to motivate viewers to help with disaster relief. They also invited seven astronauts who were preparing to go to the moon.
2012: Singer and actor Han Geng performed the Legend of Chinese New Year’s Eve. Through this, we learn of how a young boy defeated Nian (年), a monster who appeared annually to plunder villages. The performance includes cultural elements, such as the traditional art background, kung fu and use of internal energy (气 / qi).
Reach and significance
The Chinese New Year Gala is shown on various CCTV channels, such as CCTV-4 (international), CCTV-Español and CCTV-Français. Other TV channels relay the show and schedule their own galas on different nights to avoid competition.
The performers are usually invited by the production team. Starting in the 2000s, amateur artists have been encouraged to join. The televised auditions and competitions are popular too.
Though yearly viewership ratings are disputed, a couple hundred million viewers are definite. The acts, especially comedy sketches, work to promote good ethics and customs. The performances also give a good idea of what Chinese culture is like.
Whether in the United States or in the islands of Fiji, diaspora Chinese would calculate time zone differences to watch the Gala. If you tune in to the livestreams, you will see many comments reminiscing about the festivities in their childhood.
Times are changing and new traditions arise. But what doesn’t change is the meaning and impact of Chinese New Year. Regardless of the form, it will continue to be one of the most important nights of the year, full of happiness and hope.