CCTV New Year’s Gala

Spring Festival means visiting your hometown, family time, homemade dumplings and the most well-known entertainment show in the country, CCTV New Year’s Gala.

The chances are you’ve already heard about how a regular family starts their Spring Festival celebration: an extended three-generation family stay together on New Year’s Eve, gleefully make dumplings for the reunion dinner and meanwhile, as essential as the dumplings, watching CCTV New Year’s Gala because it adds a festive mood within the house as people laugh, discuss and enjoy the show. It has easily become the most popular entertainment show in the country, starting up a furious debate nationwide for who will or will not attend before the show begins and the same amount of criticism about intrusive advertisements, extravagant stage settings or dated jokes during the week-long holiday after it.

The tradition of presenting a New Year’s Eve broadcast started as early as 1979. However, it wasn’t until 1983 when CCTV created the first live stage show that it became people’s favorite ritual for Spring Festival. It is said that the name Chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì (meaning Spring Festival get-together evening show and commonly abbreviated in Chinese as Chūnwǎn) had not been settled until 10 days before the show was aired for the first time, but has remained the same for 35 years. Watched yearly by some 700 million people around the world, it broke a Guinness World Record in terms of viewership in 2013.

Although the show is cherished by millions, its popularity has decreased dramatically in the south.

For 35 years, it has been considered a great honor to be given the chance to perform in the show with a gathering of relevant celebrities. For example, last year people were thrilled to see Fu Yuanhui, a medal winner from Rio Summer Olympics, and the heartthrob many teenage girls adore–also known as the Chinese Justin Bieber or “little flesh meat”–Lu Han, appeared on the program. In fact, many Hong Kong and overseas Chinese singers and stars use the opportunity to push for the mainland market. Over the years, it has granted overnight success to performers who later became a household name for the Chinese. Zhao Benshan was the most representative example of how Chunwan makes the career of performers.

Chinese skit and sitcom actor, Zhao Benshan earned his fame in the 1990 Chunwan and attended the following 20 years. Chinese audiences were so used to him in the show that they were shocked and sad to hear of his retirement from Chunwan in 2012. Zhao had a turbulent childhood in Liaoning province. At the age of six, he was orphaned and brought up by his uncle, a blind street performer, to learn all kinds of Northeastern folk performing arts such as the erhu, a Chinese music instrument and er ren zhuan, a type of two-person stand-up comedy. For 21 years in Chunwan, his comedies had deeply depicted a vivid Northeastern peasant image and were well-accepted by the vast grassroot class. Founding his own Benshan Media Group, he brought er ren zhuan into the spotlight and further invested in TV and movies, bragging over three billion in wealth.

Although the show is cherished by millions, its popularity has decreased dramatically in the south. A report from global marketing researching company ACNielsen in 2008 showed that, compared to a dominating percentage of TV rating in the northeast provinces like Liaoning and Jilin, there was only a measly 4.59 percent in Guangdong and 0.1 percent in Dongguan specifically, meaning just one in 1,000 Dongguaners watched the gala.

Not only Guangdong, but other southern provinces such as Hainan and Guangxi have also seen less than 10 percent of ratings throughout the years. Language barriers and cultural differences are two major reasons why southerners can’t enjoy the show like northerners, and CCTV never really bothers to include a lot of southern elements.

So, if Dongguaners aren’t impressed by the Chunwan, what do they do instead?

Well, people around the Pearl River Delta will watch the Hong Kong version of the New Year’s gala, which is much more understandable for them. And for Dongguaners, it’s a custom to queue up (or should we say race up?) to burn the first incense in the Qifeng Buddhist temple as a special tradition of the city, since whoever is able to do that is considered to have a super lucky new year.

Nowadays, due to close followers of social media and of TV series and films, even the youth will give the show a glance from time to time, to avoid being left out in the discussion later.