Image: Artists dressed in Qing Dynasty costumes
Liu Jin  /  AFP - Getty Images
Artists dressed in Qing Dynasty costumes take part in a performance to worship heaven and pray for good harvests at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on Monday. China gave the Lunar New Year a raucous welcome with parties, feasts and thousands of tons of firecrackers.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/26/2009 11:30:54 AM ET 2009-01-26T16:30:54

China greeted the arrival Monday of the Year of the Ox with fireworks and celebrations, bidding farewell to a tumultuous 2008 marked by a massive earthquake, the Olympics, and a global economic crisis.

"Goodbye to the snows of 08, the quake of 08, the pain of 08, the bitterness of 08; May 2009 be bullish for you," read one greeting sent by text message at midnight, as fireworks exploded across the nation in a raucous welcome to the New Year.

The ox is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac and symbolizes, patience, hard work and tenacity and loyalty.

Last year, the Year of the Rat, was not a good one for China, despite high hopes for the Olympic games hosted in Beijing in August. Ice storms interrupted the last Lunar New Year. Tibetans staged a brief but widespread uprising. Tainted milk sickened thousands of babies and a slowing economy heralded heavy job losses.

In Sichuan, where a devastating May 12 earthquake killed more than 80,000 people.

"We've cobbled together a new house. It's not too bad," said Liu Shaoyun, whose nephew was killed when his school dormitory collapsed in Muyuzhen, in northeastern Sichuan.

"It's a little cold, but what can you do?"

Time for lavish spending
The Lunar New Year is China's most important holiday. It is generally the time of the year for lavish spending on elaborate meals with friends and family and exchanges of "hong bao," or red envelopes stuffed with money.

Despite the gloomy economic forecast for the new year, merchants in the capital reported that fireworks sales were up 28 percent from the previous year, with some 230,000 firework packages sold by Sunday, Xinhua said.

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands also temporarily shrugged off worries about economic woes, filing into the annual Chinese New Year market at Victoria Park late Sunday. Shoppers wandered amid a traditionally eclectic mix of goods ranging from popular New Year's decorations like water lilies to inflatable oxen and furry ox-shaped caps. Small windmills — which symbolizes a change in fortune — were reportedly a big seller.

Meanwhile, another 20,000 visited the Taoist Wong Tai Sin Temple to light up incense sticks and pray for good luck.

Deepening global crisis
But the country's economic outlook this year has been dampened by the deepening global financial crisis, with China's 2008 annual growth down to a seven-year low of 9 percent. Thousands of factories have closed in China's export-driven southeast and estimates of job losses exceed 2 million.

Slideshow: Year of the Ox Communist leaders have worried publicly about rising tensions and possible unrest as laid-off workers stream back to their hometowns. They have promised to create new jobs and are pressing employers to avoid more layoffs.

Unemployed people have been allowed to peddle wares without paying a fee at the temple fair in Beijing's Temple of the Earth, the Beijing Times said Monday.

Chinese president Hu Jintao pledged more "equal development across society" during a pre-holiday visit to Jinggangshan, a poor Communist revolutionary base in the southern mountains that has been mostly left out of China's headlong rush to riches over the last three decades of economic reform.

State television showed Hu beaming as a baby kissed his cheek, visiting a marketplace, and singing with villagers at Jinggangshan, where an embattled Mao Zedong regrouped communist forces in the late 1920s before embarking on the Long March.

Acknowledging the winter storms and power outages that ensnarled much of South China last winter, Hu also visited a power plant and called for steady electricity supply.

More on China

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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