‘Evil spirits’: The truth about Chinese New Year

Story highlights

Meeting a partner's Chinese family for the first time is an alcohol-imbued affair

Baijiu, a distilled spirit, is consumed in huge quantities over the festive period

Celebrations involve much food, karaoke and sore heads

CNN  — 
BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 26: (CHINA OUT) Passengers wait for trains at Beijing West Railway Station on January 26, 2014 in Beijing, China. The Chinese Spring Festival travel rush began on January 16 and about 3.62 billion passenger trips are expected to be made across the country, with around 257 million train trips during the 40-day lunar New Year travel period. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
The world's largest mass migration
01:49 - Source: CNN

I thought I could drink.

I thought I could eat.

I even thought I could sing.

Then, Chinese New Year (CNY) 2013 happened.

I didn’t just lose my CNY cherry last year; it was ripped out of me, the flesh devoured and the stone spat back in my face.

I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to fall in love and snuggle up and giggle childishly – like all first times should be.

Instead I was shocked, slightly abashed and in just enough pain to hope I didn’t have to do it again soon.

CNY was, as far as I understood, an annual get together for families and loved ones to enjoy each other’s company.

So when my then girlfriend (now wife) suggested we go to her hometown to meet her extended family for the first time, I agreed – with all the bouncy enthusiasm of a puppy being led to the vet.

I was happy simply to be going somewhere, simply to be included, blissful in my ignorance of the anguish that awaited.

What unfolded was an education in consumption that nearly matched in three days what I learned in four years as a Scottish university student.

MORE: 11 things to know about Lunar New Year

The CNY myth

During CNY, millions of families reunite to eat, drink and eat, drink some more.

If you do a little research into CNY, you’ll be told it’s a two-week period during which everyone goes home to honor their ancestors, worship deities and partake in superstitions and dragon dances that hark back centuries.

Right. And Westerners celebrate Christmas by singing hymns, praising St Nicholas and distributing wealth and good cheer to the needy.

It may go on in some places, for a short while, but for the most part, in most families, it’s about drinking and eating far too much and trying not to disembowel each other over a Pictionary board.

The real CNY – at least my version of it – is a similarly non-traditional tradition that revolves around food, arguments and of course baijiu, the sickly, sticky distilled spirit with more kick than a startled mule.

It is this 100-proof (57% ABV) pungent, nasal-cavity-searing liquid that will forever tinge my memories of that first CNY experience.

Baijiu or Bacchus?

It started with a 15-hour train ride from Shenzhen to Jiujiang – because we wanted to “do it properly, like locals.”

That’s 225 million locals to be precise – the number of people who traveled by train during 2013’s CNY.

It involved quantities of baijiu that don’t make any sense to our numerically challenged brains.

Eleven billion liters were consumed in China in 2012 – that’s one third of all spirits consumed worldwide – and my new family seemed convinced they could help surpass that in 2013.

The drinking of baijiu at CNY is a ceremonial affair that goes like this: there will be one uncle at the table who quietly designates himself the “baijiu assassin” – empty baijiu glasses and sober people are his prey.

His mission, he has decided, is to ensure no one can stand up from the table without stumbling and giggling.

His weapon of choice is the toast, which works like this: he will stand, proffer his glass of baijiu toward another member, say something auspicious about health and fortune for the coming year, and then drink.

The irony of that act has not yet been grasped, it seems.

In order to acknowledge and accept the toast, the toastee must also stand and drink. Importantly, the toastee must drink the same quantity as the toaster.

And if you’re a “yingguoren” (Englishman) or other “laowai” (foreigner) introduced to the group for the first time, you’ll often be the subject of these toasts.

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Body slams

In fact, all 12 members of the group toasted me at least twice. And a “ganbei” and “ceremonial” slamming of the entire glass of baijiu accompanied each toast.

At one point, one of my new “cousins,” whose body mass was at least twice mine, decided to pay the ultimate respect by toasting me with three consecutive tumblers full of the stuff.

In the hazy aftermath of what followed, I can vaguely recall a karaoke den, in which I decided “Ben” by Michael Jackson would be a good choice.

Tip: MJ’s “Ben” is never a good karaoke choice, even when you don’t have to sprint for the bathroom midway through.

But I was no worse than one of my new cousins, who appeared to make the rookie mistake of confusing volume for tunefulness.

Cousin number one, he of the three-glasses toast, revealed exactly why he was so “respectful” at dinner as he proceeded to dispossess me of loose change in a game of liar’s dice.

And so on, and so forth, until the next thing I saw was my future mother-in-law bursting into the hotel room to feed us congee, thankfully one of the world’s great hangover soothers.

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Cracking morning after

I was thankful to have survived the previous night, until I was told in an airily dismissive way to get washed and dressed for we were to have lunch soon, and the celebrations would begin all over again.

Hangovers and firecrackers. Not a nice mix.

The only way I could have felt worse is if a thousand firecrackers were going off just outside the window.

Which they were.

Those firecrackers, unleashed upon so many hungover skulls each CNY to symbolically drive away evil spirits, were like audible nails being hammered into my ear canals.

If there is a pairing more unfortunate than the year’s most alcoholic night followed by the loudest morning after, I’ve not heard of it.

The second day went much like the first, and the third day went much like the second.

Thankfully, 2014 is not going like 2013.

We’re staying home. In Hong Kong. With a bottle of red.

MORE: Why I dread Chinese New Year