PICTURES

Chinese give Year of the Horse a toned-down welcome

A man makes Chinese Zodiac animals from candy at a Chinese New Year street fair on the eve of the holiday in Shanghai, on Jan 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man makes Chinese Zodiac animals from candy at a Chinese New Year street fair on the eve of the holiday in Shanghai, on Jan 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Visitors take pictures at a Chinese New Year fair on the eve of the holiday in Shanghai, on Jan 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Visitors take pictures at a Chinese New Year fair on the eve of the holiday in Shanghai, on Jan 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
This picture taken on Jan 28, 2014, shows a worker putting the final touches on a cartoon horse at a temple fair in Beijing for the upcoming Lunar New Year, marking the Year of the Horse starting on Jan 31, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
This picture taken on Jan 28, 2014, shows a worker putting the final touches on a cartoon horse at a temple fair in Beijing for the upcoming Lunar New Year, marking the Year of the Horse starting on Jan 31, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
Traditional dancers perform lion dance during the opening of the temple fair for celebrating the Chinese New Year at Ditan Park, also known as the Temple of Earth, in Beijing, on Jan 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Traditional dancers perform lion dance during the opening of the temple fair for celebrating the Chinese New Year at Ditan Park, also known as the Temple of Earth, in Beijing, on Jan 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A couple look at Chinese New Year lanterns decorating Yuyuan Garden in downtown Shanghai, on Jan 28, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
A couple look at Chinese New Year lanterns decorating Yuyuan Garden in downtown Shanghai, on Jan 28, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
A man covers his ears after lighting fire crackers on the eve of Chinese New Year in Shanghai on Jan 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man covers his ears after lighting fire crackers on the eve of Chinese New Year in Shanghai on Jan 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - Chinese welcomed the arrival of the Year of the Horse with toned down celebrations on Thursday, as people heeded government pleas to set off fewer of the fireworks believed to bring good fortune, because of concern about air pollution.

Chinese New Year, which begins on Friday, is normally marked by riotous displays of fireworks and countless firecrackers, which are thought to bring good luck and scare off evil spirits.

The fireworks blacken the skies with smoke for hours.

With smog blanketing parts of northern, central and eastern China, including Beijing and the commercial hub of Shanghai, some people decided that a more subdued display was in order.

While Beijing reverberated with fireworks and firecrackers, state media said sales had fallen and some residents said they would not be buying as many.

"This is not good for the environment, it's not good for the air," said resident Lao Song.

"Last year, I spent about 300 yuan (S$63) on fireworks, but I only bought about 100 yuan's worth this year."

Mr Zhang Debi and his wife Fang Lina said their fireworks stall in Shanghai's leafy former French Concession area had only sold half as many fireworks as last year.

"People are still going to light some fireworks because the holiday atmosphere just wouldn't be right without them," said Ms Fang.

"But if too many are lit off, then that wouldn't be good either."

In keeping with President Xi Jinping's call for frugality amid a campaign against pervasive corruption, sales of luxury items normally given as new year gifts have fallen too.

"No one dares to receive such precious gifts any more," Xinhua news agency quoted Mr Dou Qinlian, a seller of caterpillar fungus, a rare and expensive herbal medicine, as saying at his store in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

ORDINARY FOLK

The often gaudy New Year galas shown on state television channels have also been reduced in scale, or cancelled.

Maintaining a tradition of leaders visiting ordinary folk at this time of year, Mr Xi flew to snowy and restive Inner Mongolia ahead of the week-long vacation, the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar.

State television showed Mr Xi, who has tried to cultivate an easy-going, man-of-the-people image since becoming president last year, chatting with herders about sheep and taking tea in a traditional Mongol yurt, or felted tent.

Coal-rich Inner Mongolia was rocked by protests in 2011, as ethnic Mongols angered at the destruction of traditional grazing land and perceived marginalisation of their culture took to the streets.

"Build up Inner Mongolia as a bastion of security and stability," state media quoted Mr Xi as saying.

Practitioners of feng shui, a Chinese form of geomancy, believe the year ahead may bring conflict and disasters related to fire but strong gains in stocks linked to wood.

The lunar new year is marked by the largest annual mass migration on earth, as hundreds of millions of workers pack trains, buses, aircraft and boats to spend the festival with their families.

For many Chinese people, it is their only holiday of the year.