China ushers in Lunar New Year with most Covid rules lifted

China ushers in Lunar New Year with most Covid rules lifted

People across China on Sunday ushered in the Lunar New Year with large family reunions and crowds visiting temples after the government lifted its strict “zero-Covid” policy in what was the biggest festive celebration since the pandemic began 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, this year being the Year of the Rabbit. For the past three years, celebrations have been muted in the shadow of the pandemic.

With most Covid-19 restrictions easing, many people have finally been able to make their first trip back to their hometowns to reunite with their families without worrying about the hassles of quarantine, potential lockdowns and travel suspensions. Larger public celebrations also returned for China’s so-called Spring Festival, with the capital hosting thousands of cultural events — on a larger scale than a year ago.

The mass movement of people can cause the virus to spread in certain areas, said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the China Center for Disease Control.

However, a large-scale Covid-19 surge is unlikely over the next two or three months as about 80 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people have been infected during the latest wave, he wrote on social media platform Weibo on Saturday .

In Beijing, many believers offered morning prayers at the Lama Temple, but crowds appeared to be smaller compared to days before the pandemic. The Tibetan Buddhist site allows up to 60,000 visitors daily for security reasons and requires advance reservations.

There was no sign of the usual bustling New Year’s stalls in Taoranting Park, although the sidewalks were adorned with traditional Chinese lanterns. A popular temple fair at Badachu Park, which was suspended for three years, will resume this week, but similar events at Ditan Park and Longtan Lake Park have yet to return.

Women watch as a toddler poses for a souvenir photo with a rabbit-shaped flower arrangement on the first day of the Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing.Andy Wong/AP

In Hong Kong, revelers flocked to the city’s largest Taoist temple, Wong Tai Sin Temple, to burn the year’s first incense sticks. The site’s popular ritual has been suspended for the past two years due to the pandemic.

Traditionally, large crowds gather before 11:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and everyone tries to be the first or among the first to put their incense sticks in the stalls in front of the main hall of the temple. Worshipers believe that those who are among the first to place their incense sticks stand the best chance of having their prayers answered.

Local resident Freddie Ho, who visited the temple Saturday night, was pleased to be able 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 and that the pandemic will go away from us and we can all live normal lives,” Ho said. “I believe that everyone wishes.”

Meanwhile, crowds praying for good fortune at the historic Longshan Temple in Taipei, capital of Taiwan, were smaller than a year ago, even as the pandemic eased. This is partly because many people there had ventured on long-awaited trips to other parts of Taiwan or overseas.

While communities across Asia welcomed the Year of the Rabbit, the Vietnamese celebrated the Year of the Cat instead. There is no official answer to explain the difference. But one theory has it that cats are popular because they often help Vietnamese rice farmers drive away rats.

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