BEIJING — 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.
Colorful pyrotechnic displays lit up the midnight sky over Beijing, as firecrackers exploded deep into the early morning hours in the capital.
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 January 26, 2009. China gave the Lunar New Year a raucous welcome with parties, feasts and thousands of tonnes of firecrackers, but the mood was far from bullish as the nation ushered in the Year of the Ox.
Children take a closer look at traditional masks after a religious ritual at a village temple as part of the New Year of the Ox celebration in Hong Kong on January 26, 2009. Millions across Asia are celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Ox which begins on January 26.
People play with fireworks to celebrate the Lunar New Year just before midnight in Beijing on January 25, 2009 between the city's ancient Drum (not pictured) and Bell (rear) towers. Millions across Asia are celebrating the Year of the Ox which begins on January 26.
Actors prepare for a performance during Chinese New Year celebrations at the Dongyue Temple Fair on January 26, 2009 in Beijing, China. Millions of Chinese geared up to welcome the Year of the Ox, packing temple fairs, setting off fireworks and firecrackers and hurrying to train and bus stations to get home for the traditional holiday.
Chinese burn joss-sticks as they offer prayers at a temple during the first day of Chinese Lunar New Year in Beijing, China, Monday, Jan. 26, 2009. China greeted the arrival Monday of the Year of the Ox with fireworks and celebrations, bidding farewell to 2008 marked by a massive earthquake, the Olympics, and a global economic crisis.
Worshippers burn incense sticks as part of the New Year of the Ox celebration in Hong Kong on January 26, 2009. Millions across Asia are celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Ox which begins on January 26.
Actors dressed in Qing Dynasty costumes take part in an opening ceremony for the Ditan Temple Fair in Beijing on January 25, 2009. The annual fair opened to celebrate the Year of the Ox one day ahead of the start of the new Lunar New Year.
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.
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.
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.
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 after a year that saw Hong Kong slip into economic recession and left thousands of locals fretting over the fate of their investments in financial products linked to failed U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers.
The economic worries capped off a year that saw the country's leaders juggling one crisis after another, beginning with freak snow storms that paralyzed China's southern transportation system one year ago during Chinese New Year celebrations.
That was followed by deadly riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, which prompted a massive security crackdown.
The tone changed after the massive May 12 earthquake in Sichuan left almost 90,000 dead or missing, a disaster that was met with international aid and sympathy.
China's leaders received widespread praise overall for hosting the Beijing Olympics in August themselves, but just weeks afterwards came revelations of a national food safety scandal over tainted milk powder that left at least six babies dead and nearly 300,000 others ill.
Associated Press Writer Min Lee in Hong Kong contributed to this report.