BEIJING — Families slaughtered their fattest pigs Monday in preparation for the beginning of the much-heralded Year of the Dragon--and some awaited the arrival of relatives from Taiwan for the first time in four decades.
According to China's 5,000-year-old calendar, the Year of the Dragon, the most auspicious sign in the Chinese zodiac, begins Wednesday and brings with it prosperity, action, daring and tumult after the calm and moderation of the Year of the Rabbit.
Officials are dealing with newly imposed rationing of pork, the country's staple meat, by shifting emergency supplies to urban areas to satisfy holiday demand. Meanwhile, in villages nationwide, millions of peasant families are butchering their fatted hogs for feasts with relatives.
This year, more than 20,000 Taiwanese will take advantage of the recent relaxation in their country's policies to cross the narrow strait that separates the island from the Communist mainland and celebrate emotional reunions with families they have not seen for four decades.
A record 1.5 million Hong Kong residents, loaded with gifts of televisions and refrigerators for mainland relatives, also will cross into China.
At midnight on New Year's Eve, the sky over China and Chinese communities throughout Asia will explode in a cacophony of firecrackers--traditionally intended to frighten off lingering ghosts that might cast an evil eye over the propitious moment.
For the Year of the Dragon, fortune tellers are predicting booming business and big spending, flaring tempers and acts of revolt as well as waves of prosperity and disaster. It is a year for surprises.
To usher in the new year, the most important Chinese festival and traditionally a time for family reunions, Chinese from Sydney to Beijing shop for delicacies and pack bundles of new bills as gifts into red envelopes--the color of good fortune.
The holiday is the longest of the year for China's peasants and workers who have spent the final days of the outgoing Year of the Rabbit scrubbing their homes and crowding into public bathhouses to present a clean face to the dragon.
In Hong Kong, where fireworks have been banned since 1967, residents crowd into temples to pay homage and torch mounds of bogus paper money in ceremonies honoring their ancestors.
In Taiwan, the clatter of mah-jongg tiles sounds from countless homes as workers take advantage of an unspoken police amnesty to gamble away their year-end bonuses.
And in Singapore, officials are forecasting a baby boom as mothers seek to ensure their newborns are endowed with the power and luck that superstition accords to so-called "dragon seeds"--said to wear the horns of destiny.