Happy 牛Year!

By Christopher C. Heselton

On January 25, 2009, Lunar New Year’s Eve, millions of Chinese watched Zhao Benshan’s comedic stylings on the Spring Festival Gala, but for many, when they turned to check the inbox of their cell phone, they found it full of dozens of unread text messages. No, they weren’t advertising cut-rate travel packages to the latest tourist paradise – for the most part at least. They were messages from friends, family, significant-others, co-workers, and acquaintances congratulating the recipient on the “Happy 牛Year!” (a play upon “niu,” the Chinese word for ox or cow, sounding similar to the English word “new,” of course).

Eating dumplings, setting off fireworks, watching the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV, and now – wait, what’s this? – sending a hoard of text messages on your cell phone? That’s right: sending text message greetings to close ones on Chinese New Year has rapidly become the new New Year’s thing to do. In fact, text message greetings have become a tradition for nearly every Chinese holiday and special occasion: Mid-Autumn festival, Western New Year (now celebrated with great fanfare in China, though still not nearly as much as the other one), even birthdays. Of course, this trend is mostly among young and middle-aged cell users. It has yet to be a popular venue of “new year obeisance” (拜年) with those over forty. Between January 25 and January 31, Chinese users sent a mind-boggling 18 billion text messages according to the three largest telecom companies in China. Over half of those messages were sent on January 25 (Chinese New Year’s Eve) as many sat down watching the Spring Festival Gala. To put it in context, that’s fourteen messages for every Chinese citizen, averaging thirty messages sent from each cell phone and representing one in every forty text messages sent in a year!

These holiday messages are often full of word-plays and poetic rhymes ranging from the witty to the cheesy, the hilarious to the innocuous, the inane to the heart felt. They often involve the Chinese zodiac animal of the year and perhaps national themes; last year, many of these messages made references to the Olympics, such as ones that played off the fact that the characters for Olympics also mean “mysterious luck.”

This year, as expected, the prevalent theme is the ox (牛). One typical rhythmic message I received read:

The ox’s twisted horn always faces forward; the ox’s big round eyes look at the pieces of fortune; the ox’s heavy body is healthy and strong; the ox’s tail sweeps clear to welcome in happiness; the ox’s thunderous call beckons spring’s return; the ox’s hooves stamp intentions into shape. Wish this Year of the Ox to be more prosperous. The flourishing ox carries forth prosperity to fill the heavens. Great luck in year of the ox!

牛角弯弯总向前,牛眼圆圆看福篇,牛身重重身体健,牛尾扫扫尽欢颜,牛声震震唤春归,牛 蹄踩踩心意圆。祝愿牛年多财气,旺牛载运福满天。牛年大吉!
Others made humorous word plays off the word “ox.” One such message I received used a vulgar Chinese expression, “the cow’s vagina” (牛屄), which is roughly equivalent to English terms such as “awesome” or “bad ass”:

I wish for your endeavors to be like an ox/awesome! Your work like an ox/awesome! Your home like an ox/awesome! Your health like an ox/awesome! Your wealth like an ox/awesome! Your fortune like an ox/awesome! Yourself like an ox/awesome! Your entire family like an ox/awesome! Your year of the ox like an ox/awesome! Every year like an ox/awesome! Everything all like an ox/awesome!

祝您事业牛!工作牛!家庭牛!身体牛!财运牛!福气牛!个人牛!全家牛!牛年牛,年年 牛!一切皆牛!
Another used black humor to make light of the recent tainted milk scandal by claiming to deliver me several bovine products, including “a milk cow to send you no health” (奶牛为你送不康). The message continued on to say that they sent me “a Red Bull to make your work prosper” (红牛让你事业旺), a reference to the energy drink, and “a cow herder looking to the length of your love-life” (牛郎望你爱情长) – a reference to the ancient Chinese myth of cow herder boy and weaver girl, a pair of, literally, star-crossed lovers.

If all this is news to you, these messages may seem a quaint, creative, or an ingenious incorporation of new technology into the marking of an age-old holiday, but for many these messages are something else – an enormous annoyance! Many people receive thirty, sixty, even ninety messages in a single night, with each requiring a response out of appreciation or mere propriety. The messages also, with rare exceptions, lack sincerity. Most of the ones I received were copied from the Internet, and this is routine. Many are pulled off the web and sent indiscriminately to everyone in a person’s cell phone book. Some people do resist this trend by single-handedly – or should I say “single-thumb-edly”? – writing personalized messages to each friend, but this can take an hour or so, hence the common use of shortcuts.) The idea is a nice enough one, to show that you are thinking of someone fondly during the holiday season although you may not be able to pay a “new year obeisance”; however, the likelihood that one is simply receiving a mass-produced greeting may mean that few bother to actually read what comes onto their screen.

Despite the irritating ring of the cell phone during Chinese New Year, the trend has been ever more popular with the number of text messages increasing at least 50 percent every year, and this year, according to The Northeast News Net, 85 percent. So, although many may be looking to watch this year’s skit by Zhao Benshan, it’s more likely they’ll be spending that time sending text messages to everyone they know, thus furthering their own holiday anguish.


Anonymous said...

The author's feeling toward the text messages seems like a cliche to describe the propensity among people to complain of nuances that are not part of their own cultural experience; then use that tribulation to characterize their own feelings as a shared reponse among people that are part of the local culture.

Christopher Heselton said...

I agree that in many cases this is a legitimate criticism. It is difficult for one outside a cultural experience to interpret cultural phenomenon, and may often take their opinions of the cultural phenomenon as an interpretation of it. However, in this case, it was not my opinion I was reflecting upon, but the opinions of several friends, acquaintances, and few news articles I found in Chinese media over the years. I, personally, think it is quite fun, I participate in it, and read most messages I recieved.

I also think that just because one is outside the cultural experience does not mean their opinion is any less valuable. For one, it can provide a different perspective than one who is committed to a subjective view point. Secondly, many can learn the cultural significance of certain practices even without being originally of that culture. After all, we are all humans, and therefore, can find similar meanings in certain cultural symbols and practices. Of course, their interpretation will differ, but then again, within a culture interpretations can also differ. If we reject the interpretation just because one is an "outsider," then I suppose we should also reject nearly everything ever written by anthropologist.

su said...

Hey Chris, I do not see how different it is between copied greeting text messages in China and facebook pokes and electronic gifts. The old buying and wraping of a gift now is turned into a mouse click. It is a universal phenomenon: technology helps people to connect more extensively but in a more shallow way, so it changes the standard of how much is it enough to actually show that you care. It has its pros and cons,I can send messages to all the numbers in my cell to show "hey you are someone I think should be in my cell", and I can messages people that I really wanna say hi with a self written simple message. And by receiving different messages, I know who are my real friends and who are someone business-like or just part of the "guanxi".:)

Christopher Heselton said...

That was kind of my point. It's a symbol of consideration, but the actual message may be insignificant in comparison to the gesture. But in sending mass messages, in many ways, it lacks the individual care and attention.

Anonymous said...

I believe the message of 祝您事业牛!工作牛!家庭牛!身体牛!财运牛!福气牛!个人牛!全家牛!牛年牛,年年 牛!一切皆牛! was written by oneself.I guess he did not copy other's.However,most of them copied other's, and they just changed their names.I really was really too lazy to respond them all,but i had to.It's a kind of liation and manners.
I found an interesting phenomenon that is people usually write their names in the messages these years.A few years ago, most people didnt do that, so i could directly send the message to another.Now i need to pay attention to it or i need to change the name.My dad took stupid mistakes a few times.He directly sent the message his friend sent to him to another with his friend's name on it.
I have to mention Zhao Ben shan,i love him and his performance.He really made a lot of contributions to Northeastern(Dong Bei)culture and has many good students like Xiao Shenyang(小沈阳,i still like him,though i knew him and watch his performances before Spring Festival Gala)and Wang Xiaohu(王小虎) and so on.I think his performance is the most funny part in CCTV Spring Festival Gala.It's said that we might not see him anymore in Spring Festival Gala from next year.If so , i will feel sad.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it’s really anguish and annoying sometimes, such as on New year, Christmas Day, and Chinese New Year. Sometimes i don’t respond to them, but i try my best to respond to everyone on Chinese New Year, which is most important holiday for every chinese, out of manners and respect. I also send some messages to some friends and relatives.
However, i will be very happy if someone send me a message to say”Happy Birthday” on my Birthday. I can feel he or she cares about and thinks of me. I’ll also do the same to my friends to let him or her know how much i care about him or her on his or her Birthday, if i am not able to attend to his or her Birthday Party.
In additon, i believe the message of 祝您事业牛!工作牛!家庭牛!身体牛!财运牛!福气牛!个人牛!全家牛!牛年牛,年年牛!一切皆牛! was written by oneself. He did not copy from the internet or other’s message.
I found an interesting phenomenon that is people write their names in these messages. They did not that a few years ago.In that case, i could directly send the message to another. Now i need to pay attention to it and to change the name into mine.My dad made this stupid mistakes several times. He sent the message he got from a friend to another with his friend’s name in it.