Chinese New Year goes digital

Feb. 28, 2018
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Real Asian sei-katsu-sha: China

Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living Shanghai (HILL Shanghai), a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan’s Hakuhodo Inc., is a think-tank established in Shanghai in 2012 to serve the Hakuhodo Group in China. Leveraging the expertise on sei-katsu-sha* that Hakuhodo has amassed in Japan, the Institute supports companies’ marketing activities in China while offering insights and ideas on new Chinese lifestyles of the future. Its activities include reporting on the state of Chinese sei-katsu-sha today.

Here Wang Huirong, Senior Researcher at Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living Shanghai (HILL Shanghai), reports on the latest trends surrounding the Chinese New Year.

The Chinese New Year celebrations began on February 15 as a festive mood swept through town. As a way to bring in the New Year, many Chinese families customarily display a Spring Festival couplet (chunlian) at the front door. (A Spring Festival couplet is a pair of auspicious verses written on strips of red paper and pasted at the front entrance of the home. This New Year’s custom is observed throughout the Chinese-speaking world.)

Spring Festival couplets are, like Japanese tanka and haiku, a form of poetry, and composing a decent pair of verses takes considerable verbal dexterity. Really you’re supposed to compose the couplet yourself and write it with a brush, but fewer and fewer people bother to do so these days. Most people simply buy something ready-made at the store.

Photo 1. Spring Festival couplets on display at the front door of a home

Displaying Spring Festival couplets is a cultural tradition, almost a ritual, in China, and except for the fact that fewer people bother to actually observe it nowadays, this family custom has changed little in recent years. Or so I thought, until I recently saw an online news story about “AI Spring Festival Couplets.” Only then did I realize that digitization has encroached on Spring Festival couplets as well.

China’s biggest search engine, Baidu, has gotten people talking by offering a free service that generates Spring Festival couplets using artificial intelligence (with software that versifies on your smartphone). All you do is input whatever two to four Chinese characters you like, and the AI engine will automatically draft multiple couplets. I promptly gave the service a try, and it didn’t do a bad job at all. Plus it’s versatile too. You can place an order online for the couplet you like best and get it printed out. You can brush it yourself. Or you can just send the digital data to relatives and friends. AI Spring Festival couplets are great fun for sender and recipient alike.

Photo 2. An AI Spring Festival couplet composed by a smartphone app (using Baidu’s AI Spring Festival Couplets)

Nor are AI Spring Festival Couplets the only New Year’s innovation. Over the past year or two there has been a change in another Chinese New Year’s custom, giving gifts of money to children, thanks to the spread of electronic payment apps like Alipay (a mobile payment service offered by China’s Alibaba Group) and Wechat Pay (the mobile payment service of Wechat, a social media platform run by China’s Tencent). No longer do you need to insert cash in the traditional red envelope, or hongbao; you can select whatever design of electronic hongbao you prefer on your smartphone, and then send the payment with a click. It occurred to me for a moment that in another couple of years there might be children who have never even seen a paper hongbao.

Photo 3. Electronic Red Envelope, a digitized version of the traditional New Year’s gift of cash to children

Still, despite changes in Chinese New Year customs, and despite the digitization of Spring Festival couplets, the Chinese New Year remains a cherished occasion for people to spend time with family.

Finally, let me wish everyone reading this column a very Happy Chinese New Year!

*The term Hakuhodo uses in place of “consumer” to mean the holistic person with a lifestyle, aspirations, and dreams.

Wang Huirong
Wang Huirong, a native of Shanghai, has a BA in English literature from Shanghai International Studies University and an MBA from London Metropolitan University. She worked in a manufacturing firm’s in-house research department and at a market research company before joining Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living Shanghai. She is experienced in identifying challenges and proposing solutions, and having lived in China, Japan, and the United Kingdom, she loves to examine things from different perspectives. She constantly exercises her mind in pursuit of that eureka moment when a fresh viewpoint reveals a new truth.
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