Zhang Jieyu’s hand moved with swift and graceful strokes as black paint sank into the surface of bright red paper. Zhang, a volunteer teacher from the Confucius Institute, celebrated the Chinese New Year with Webster University students, faculty and staff on Thursday, Jan. 26 in the Sunnen Lounge. As she wrote names and phrases for guests in Chinese calligraphy, she showcased her native country.
Video by Gabe Burns
Emma Laheus, a department associate at the Confucius Institute, helps to promote Chinese language and culture by assisting in projects. Some of these projects include setting up a Chinese language testing center and organizing a summer-camp trip to China for high school students. Laheus said the Chinese New Year celebration is an opportunity for the volunteer teachers of the Confucius Institute and Webster students to celebrate Chinese culture.
“It is a good opportunity for the Confucius Institute to get a taste of China,” Laheus said.
Since becoming a part of Webster in 2008, the Confucius Institute has taught Chinese language and culture to K-12 schools, Webster students and adult education programs. Volunteer teachers at the Chinese New Year celebration have been in America since August 2011. They will teach Chinese language and culture for a full year before returning home to Beijing to graduate.
Mao Xiaoning, another volunteer teacher who celebrated the New Year at Webster, said there is a need for Chinese culture to be taught.
“We want to teach kids Chinese at a young age so when they grow up, they know something about China,” Mao said.
Volunteer teachers contributed many services to Webster’s Chinese New Year celebration, including Chinese calligraphy. While guests sat down to eat, Mao sang a song in Chinese accompanied by the Chinese harp. Mao said she was nervous to perform in front of an audience because she doesn’t normally perform on stage. She said she recognized the importance of letting go of her fears to show her culture. Zhang then demonstrated Taiji Rouliqiu, a modern form of a martial art originating in China.
“I learned it in college my sophomore year,” Zhang said. “It wasn’t very popular three or five years ago. Now it’s very popular and very difficult to do.”
Though they weren’t home for the Chinese New Year, the volunteer teachers could still celebrate their culture by teaching it to others.
“Here, dragons are evil things,” Mao said. “In Harry Potter they have wings, breathe fire and it’s a very fierce animal they have to fight.”
Mao said that in China, the dragon represents power and was formed from the imaginations of Chinese people years ago. It includes the body of a snake, the antlers of a deer, the ears of a cow and the eyes of an eagle.
This year is the 12th year of the dragon in Chinese culture.
“We can believe the year of the dragon will be a good year because 12 full years complete the circle,” Mao said. “You wait for the 12th year of the dragon and it will be a good year.”
At the Chinese New Year celebration, volunteer teacher Peng Li discussed the significance of Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival in China.
“It is about forgetting everything and coming home to family to enjoy the occasion,” Peng said.
The Spring Festival is a tradition that started thousands of years ago, Peng said. The festival’s origin is a story in Chinese mythology where a monster called Nian harmed many people. In the story, the people lit firecrackers and drove the beast away to bring good luck.
“We buy a lot of food and decoration and we get together,” Peng said. “No matter where you are, you come to your parents house and have dinner.”
Zhang wasn’t home for Spring Festival this year. She said through Skype and phone calls, she found a way to keep her family traditions alive.
“The morning of Chinese New Year, at 6 a.m., my family called me and told me to get up and celebrate,” Zhang said. “I could hear the sound of fireworks outside.”
Peng said it wasn’t hard to find a way to celebrate the Chinese New Year in St. Louis. Webster’s celebration was the third he had been to this year.
Webster’s celebration also included paper-cutting activities, Chinese games and a performance by St. Louis’ Circus Harmony, an acrobat company that performs regularly out of the City Museum.
The volunteer teachers from Beijing said no matter how far from home, they will always remember the importance of family during the holiday.
“We eat dumplings, but Spring Festival is not about eating the dumplings,” Mao said. “It’s about the process. It’s about making them together.”