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February 11, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright February 11, 2009 Christopher C. Heselton. Used by permission.


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.”