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China ushers in Lunar New Year, lifting most Covid rules

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People across China ushered in the Lunar New Year on Sunday with family gatherings and temple visits in droves, in the biggest celebration since the pandemic began, after the government lifted its strict zero-Covid policy .

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Lunar New Year is the most important annual holiday in China. Each year is named after one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, with this year being the Year of the Rabbit.

For the last three years, the festivities were muted in the shadow of the pandemic.

With the easing of most COVID-19 restrictions, many people can finally make their first journeys to their hometowns to reunite with their families without worrying about the restrictions of quarantine, possible lockdowns and suspension of travel.

The big public celebration known in China as the Spring Festival also returned, with the capital hosting thousands of cultural events – on a larger scale than a year ago.

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Wu Junyu, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control, said the movement of large numbers of people could spread the virus in some areas.

But a massive Covid-19 surge will be unlikely in the next two or three months as nearly 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people have been infected during the most recent wave, he wrote on the social media platform Weibo on Saturday.

In Beijing, many worshipers offered morning prayers at the Lama Temple, but crowds appeared smaller than in pre-pandemic days. The Tibetan Buddhist site allows 60,000 visitors a day, citing security reasons, and requires advance reservations.

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In Taorenting Park, there was no sign of the usual New Year’s bustle of food stalls despite being decorated with traditional Chinese lanterns. A popular temple fair in Badachu Park will return this week, but similar events have yet to return in Deitan Park and Longton Lake Park.

In Hong Kong, revelers flocked to Wong Tai Sin Temple, the city’s largest Taoist temple, to burn the first incense sticks of the year. The popular ritual of the site was suspended for the past two years due to the pandemic.

Traditionally, large crowds gather before 11 p.m. on Lunar New Year’s Eve, everyone trying to be the first or the first to light their incense sticks in front of the main hall of the temple.

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Worshipers believe that those who place their incense sticks first will have the best chance of getting their prayers answered.

Local resident Freddie Ho, who visited the temple on Saturday night, was happy that he could attend the event in person.

“I look forward to placing the first incense stick and praying that the new year brings world peace, that Hong Kong’s economy prospers, and that the epidemic be removed from us and we all live a normal life,” Mr Ho said. “I believe that’s what everyone wants.”

Meanwhile, crowds praying for good fortune at the historic Longshan Temple in Taiwan’s capital Taipei were smaller than a year ago, even as the pandemic eased. This is partly because many people there went on long-awaited trips to other parts of Taiwan or overseas.

As communities across Asia welcomed the Year of the Rabbit, the Vietnamese were instead celebrating the Year of the Cat. There is no official answer to explain the difference, but one theory suggests that cats are popular because they often help Vietnamese rice farmers chase away rats.

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