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Why do We Chinese Still Watch the Gala?

The CCTV New Year’s Gala, a 5-hour TV feast of dancing, singing, comedies, skits, Chinese operas and magic tricks, has become one of the world’s most watched TV events. It must not be an easy job for the director and the acting crew to put everything together and do it live in front of the largest group of audience in the world.

“It is the television show that everybody watches and everybody loves to hate. ‘It is a crazy phenomenon,’ said Alison Friedman, a Beijing-based dance and theater producer. ‘Everybody complains about the gala, but they still watch it and then they talk about how bad it was.’ ” (Los Angeles Times)

With tons of complaints lined up on the web, why do we still watch the gala? If  the gala has become a Spring Festival Eve tradition in the last 30 years, why do we Chinese need such a tradition?

Here comes my analytical interpretations to the questions. Hopefully you will agree as you read on.

1. The gala serves perfectly as a large Chinese family’s collective pastime

First, take a look at the following 2 photos of 2 families watching the gala and identify things that are in common between them.

A Shanghai family gathers in front of their TV set and watches last year’s CCTV gala in their newly decorated apartment. (from a Chinese photo-sharing website)

 A villager and his family members watch the CCTV gala in Shandong Province. (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times)

Regardless of the stark contrast between the financial statuses of these 2 families, you can find the following similarities:

(1) Both photos involve a large extended family. Spring Festival Eve is the most important time for family reunions. Nobody misses this one out.

(2) Both families are indoors, to be more exact, in their living room (or probably the only room of their house). It is freezing cold in most places of China at Spring Festival Eve, nobody wants to go out. Watching TV can be the most convenient pastime for a winter night.

(3) It is a tradition for Chinese families to stay up until the New Year’s Day comes. All family members sit in front of their TV set and they’ve got 5 hours to kill – together. The family members are from different age groups and may have distinct likes and dislikes toward TV performances. They need some program that can fit in well for everyone in the family.

Now do you see the necessity of making such a gala? Even thought the LA Times article warned that the gala is in jeopardy as younger viewers begin to tune out, I still think that the gala phenomenon is going to last as long as there is such a need for families to sit together for some collective entertainment.

2. The gala is a convenient modern replacement of the lost traditions and roots

In ancient China, people followed traditional rituals such as worshipping their ancestors, gods or Buddhas at Chinese New Year’s Eve. I still remember that my grandparents used to burn incense sticks in front of the wooden name boards of our ancestors that were placed on the shrine in our old house in the countryside. But that was many years ago.




















(A Chinese shrine with a figurine of Maitreya Buddha on the top. Maitreya means happiness. He is one of the most popular buddhas worshipped by atheist Chinese people.)

However, in modern China, a lot of the traditions have been lost in the process of unification (minority groups being assimilated by Han people) and urbanization (villages being developed into towns).  What do people do if their traditions have been washed away by the irresistible flood of modernization?

This is where the gala comes in.

The gala is not only a TV event, but a cultural and psychological replacement of the lost rituals which means a lot to the modern Chinese people who may not be aware of their missing cultural roots.

You can find a lot of the ancient ceremonial elements making modern appearance in the gala.  

Take the following photo of the opening performance as an example. We have some well-dressed TV hosts and performers standing in the middle of the stage and anonymous actresses standing in rows at the left and the right of the photo. The layout of the performers is almost completely symmetrical. Of course, we Chinese lay a heavy focus on visual effects. But if you look at this scene with a religious tint, wouldn’t you consider the TV hosts and singers as priests (or Wushi in Chinese)? In ancient human societies, priests performed the sacred rites of a religion and served as mediatory agents between humans and gods. The TV hosts play exactly the same role! They are here to deliver the message from the Heaven to all the Chinese people that spring is going to come back to the earth.


(Two groups of dancers dressed in shimmering red and golden costumes  form a dragon and a phoenixon collectively on the stage of the CCTV New Year’s Gala.  The photo came from the gala’s tweets on Sina Weibo.)

Also you wouldn’t be suprised to see the great numbers of performers at some of the dancing pieces posing together to create an impressive and somewhat solemn effect. If this is not a religious ceremony, tell me what it is?! If this is a ceremony watched by most Chinese people that bears the covert purpose of fulfilling our psychological needs, how possible is it for it to die?

For anyone who is interested in getting a first-hand experience of the 2012 Gala, go to this link to watch the entire video. The gala is only able to provide the original Chinese version though.

If you like this essay, let me know by dropping a few lines!

February 20th, 2012 Posted by adah at 05:37pm | 2 - Adah's Opinions for Good, 4 - China Stories Told by Adah | no comments

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