The CDT New Year’s Gala

China celebrated the start of the Year of the Dragon with the customary televisual extravaganza and barrage of , as well as a less traditional burst of record-breaking microblog traffic. 481,207 messages were posted to Sina Weibo in the first minute after midnight, the average of 32,312 per second easily beating Twitter’s month-old record of 25,088 tweets per second set during a TV screening in Japan of the Hayao Miyazaki anime, “Castle in the Sky”. There were widespread festivities around the world: Business Insider has compiled a gallery of photos from New Year celebrations in Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney, The Huffington Post collected pictures from New York’s Chinatown, and many more from around the world can be found on Flickr.

Charles Custer, meanwhile, reported for Danwei from the heated kang of a courtyard house in the far north-east of China, where he spent the holiday with his in-laws:

The Li family home is in Kedong, a small town that’s more or less halfway between Harbin and the Russian border. It was once a collection of pingfang – traditional Chinese one-storey houses – but those are increasingly being replaced with modern apartment buildings. Nowadays, if you stood in the center of Kedong, you might even feel like you were in a city. But it’s just an illusion; the apartment buildings give way to farmland within a few blocks in any direction.

The Lis take traditions more seriously than most, or so Mr. Li – my father-in-law – tells me …. In the Li family, the most important is the tradition of paying respect to the family’s (male) ancestors. On the morning of the day before , as his son glued a red and gold couplet to the door of the house and then the gate of the courtyard, Mr. Li washed his hands carefully and pulled scrolls out of a corner. These scrolls, it turns out, are likely at least 200 years old – they go back ten generations – and have been inscribed with the names of every one of Mr. Li’s male ancestors. After affixing them to the wall, Li taped on a 100 RMB note and then, reflecting on my presence perhaps, added a US $100 note above it.

CCTV’s annual New Year Gala was not warmly received by the Li family. The variety marathon will mark its 30th anniversary next year, and somewhat questionably boasts an audience of well over a billion people. The government’s political sensitivity may be undermining the show’s entertainment value, however, with a number of participants dropping out this year amid rumours of censorship. Among them is Zhao Benshan, who was absent for the first time in over twenty years. From Barbara Demick and John Lee at The Los Angeles Times:

Although the 55-year-old actor cited exhaustion, there was widespread speculation in the television industry that the skit he submitted this year didn’t get approval.

“This is the most censored show on Chinese television,” said Wu Renchu, a film critic based in Shanghai. He said the gala acts must go through three rounds of approval.

“There is more and more ideology and less entertainment. It is all about praising the achievements of the party and the nation. With stand-up comedy, you can’t have anything that touches on the reality of life in China ….”

Jiang Kun, a master of the Chinese comic art known as crosstalk, is also off the program this year, with columnists speculating it’s because his skit touched on a train crash last year in Wenzhou.

Zhao and Jiang’s absences were surely balanced, though, by the inclusion of a year-old, borrowed clip of billionaire investor and philanthropist singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” with a ukulele.

Judge for yourself at CNTV.cn, where this and previous years’ shows are available to view online.

New Year fireworks threatened to cloud the government’s new PM2.5 air quality readings, whose accuracy has already come into question. From Jonathan Watts in The Guardian:

Wang Qiuxia, of the Darwin Nature Knowledge Society NGO, said the in many Chinese cities deteriorated sharply every New Year’s Eve.

He joined other activists in launching an online campaign for a “green new year” that urges people to save the money they would spend on fireworks and donate it to civic groups so they can buy pollution-monitoring devices.

Others demand tougher actions. The author Zheng Yuanjie, has used his Sina Weibo microblog to press the Beijing government to resume a ban on fireworks inside the fifth ring road. Others suggest the city should stage a single spectacular display – as Hong Kong does – rather than allowing millions of individuals to fire off starbursts and fire showers ….

The explosives also create a mountain of rubbish. According to the city environmental sanitation department, 58 tonnes of used fireworks were picked off Beijing’s streets during the new year festival in 2011.

Looking beyond the holidays, couples in China and around the world are seeking fertility treatment in order to give their offspring an astrologically auspicious start in life. From The Wall Street Journal:

Assisted-reproduction clinics in the U.S., China and elsewhere are reporting a surge in demand tied to the year of the dragon. The Los Angeles-based Agency for Surrogacy Solutions and sister company Global IVF Inc. have seen a 250% increase in business from Chinese or Chinese-Americans so far in January, according to co-founders Kathryn Kaycoff-Manos and Lauri Berger de Brito.

They expect the trend to continue until mid-May, the time by which couples need to conceive in order to deliver a baby by Feb. 9, 2013. Any baby born after that will be a snake not a dragon.

Luxury brands also have high hopes for the year ahead, according to CNN:

Watchmaker Piaget created more than 20 pieces exclusively for its Dragon and Phoenix line, which honors the dragon and its mythical mate. Items from the collection range from $25,000 to north of $100,000 for its Altiplano Double Jeu, a 43 mm watch in 18-carat white gold set with 78 cut diamonds, with an enamel dial and a white alligator strap.

Shanghai Tang incorporates the dragon motif in its Nespresso Dragon Collection, which includes a shiny red coffee maker, a box to hold Nespresso coffee capsules and a cup-and-saucer set.

Instead of starting from scratch, Rolls Royce’s Bespoke Team incorporated imagery and colors of the year of the dragon to put a new spin on its classic Phantom automobile.

And looking in the opposite direction, the Smithsonian Institution’s Surprising Science blog wonders where the idea of dragons came from in the first place. Via Jeremiah Jenne:

Ancient people may have discovered dinosaur fossils and understandably misinterpreted them as the remains of dragons. Chang Qu, a Chinese historian from the 4th century B.C., mislabeled such a fossil in what is now Sichuan Province. Take a look at a fossilized stegosaurus, for example, and you might see why: The giant beasts averaged 30 feet in length, were typically 14 feet tall and were covered in armored plates and spikes for defense ….

The most fascinating explanation involves an unexpected animal: the human. In his book An Instinct for Dragons, anthropologist David E. Jones argues that belief in dragons is so widespread among ancient cultures because evolution embedded an innate fear of predators in the human mind. Just as monkeys have been shown to exhibit a fear of snakes and large cats, Jones hypothesizes that the trait of fearing large predators—such as pythons, birds of prey and elephants—has been selected for in hominids. In more recent times, he argues, these universal fears have been frequently combined in folklore and created the myth of the dragon.

For a taste of how Beijing rung in the new year, see this video produced by the New York Times: