People across China are ringing in the Lunar New Year with family gatherings and crowds visiting temples after the government lifted its strict zero-Covid policy, marking the largest festive celebration since the start of the pandemic three years ago.
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, with 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 Covid-19 restrictions, many people were finally able to make their first trip back to their hometowns to reunite with their families without having to worry about the hassles of quarantine, potential lockdowns and travel suspensions. Larger public celebrations also returned for what is known as China’s Spring Festival, with the capital hosting thousands of cultural events – on a larger scale than a year ago.
The mass movement of people could cause the virus to spread in certain areas, said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control. But a large-scale surge in Covid-19 would be unlikely in the next two or three months, as about 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people had been infected during the recent surge, he wrote on social media.
In Beijing, many worshipers offered morning prayers at the Lama Temple, but the crowd appeared to be smaller compared to the days before the pandemic. The Tibetan Buddhist site allows up to 60,000 visitors per day, citing security reasons, and requires advance reservation.
At Taoranting Park, there was no sign of the usual bustling New Year’s stalls, despite the walkways being decorated with traditional Chinese lanterns. There is another popular temple fair in Badachu Park this week, but similar events in Ditan Park and Longtan Lake Park have yet to take place.
In Hong Kong, people flocked to the city’s largest Taoist temple, Wong Tai Sin, to burn the first incense sticks of the year. The site’s popular ritual was suspended for the past two years due to the pandemic.
Traditionally, large crowds gather before 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, with everyone trying to be the first or one of the first to put their incense sticks in the stands in front of the main hall of the temple. Worshipers believe that those who are among the first to place their incense sticks are most likely to have their prayers answered.
Freddie Ho, who visited the temple on Saturday night, was happy 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, that the pandemic will go away from us, and that we can all live normal lives,” said Ho. “I believe this is what everyone wishes for.”