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[BEIJING] Fireworks illuminated the skies across China as millions around Asia ushered in the Year of the Sheep on Thursday, kicking off festivities with an annual televised gala that got a thumbs down on social media for heavy Communist Party propaganda.
Wednesday night, or Lunar New Year's eve, was marked by loud booms as people shot off firecrackers in various parts of the country, filling the air with the pungent smell of explosives.
Indoors, hundreds of millions of Chinese tuned in for the annual televised Spring Festival gala, which lasts for about four hours and is broadcast nationwide, featuring singing, dancing, skits and comedy performances.
Spring Festival, which sees Chinese pack flights, trains and automobiles to return to their hometowns for family reunions, is the Chinese name for the holidays.
Social media users, however, complained Thursday that the show was ruined by Communist Party sermons to root out corruption, which has been the pet policy of President Xi Jinping since he became head of the party and government.
The performance included comic dialogues criticising the endemic culture of bribe-taking.
"It was the most disgusting Spring Festival gala," read a post on microblog Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter. "It was just for the state leaders, not for common people." "The gala is a political performance, the so-called anti-corruption-themed performances are for licking the shoes" of state leaders, another user said.
Ahead of the festivities, Xi proffered a Lunar New Year's greeting to a gathering of more than 2,000 people inside Beijing's ornate Great Hall of the People.
"We are proud of our great country and we are proud of our great people," he said in the speech on Tuesday, which was also attended by other top leaders, including Premier Li Keqiang, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
In Shanghai, China's bustling commercial capital, Chinese New Year celebrations were toned down with events cancelled and numbers of people limited at tourist spots after a stampede killed 36 people seven weeks earlier.
Revellers, many of them young women, were trampled to death after flocking on December 31 to the historic riverfront, known as the Bund, a popular tourist destination.
Police on foot patrol and driving golf cart-like vehicles kept an eye on tourists who visited the area on Wednesday.
The timing of the traditional New Year varies annually due to the nature of the lunar calendar which follows the cycles of the moon. It was celebrated last year on January 31, which marked the Year of the Horse.
Traditional astrology in China attaches different animal signs to each lunar year in a cycle of 12 years.
Lunar New Year is also celebrated in other parts of Asia, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, North and South Korea, Mongolia and among ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.
Fortune tellers in Hong Kong said that the Year of the Sheep, also known as the Year of the Goat, should be calmer in general than the previous Year of the Horse, which was characterised by catastrophic international air accidents, brutal terror attacks, global political upheaval, a resurgent Ebola virus and war.
In Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou prayed for "safety, health and happiness for the country" in the coming year while attending a religious ceremony in New Taipei city late on Wednesday.
Singapore, a largely ethnic Chinese city-state, ushered in the New Year with a countdown party in the heart of Chinatown on Wednesday, culminating in a fireworks display at midnight.
The streets of Singapore's Chinatown were lit with lanterns and cheerful decorations, with a vibrant night market selling local Chinese delicacies adding colour to the occasion.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 63, was discharged from hospital on Wednesday in time for the Lunar New Year celebrations after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer on Monday.
In Australia, Sydney is embracing the Year of the Sheep, given the animals were the backbone of the country's early farming success, with the country once said to be "riding on the sheep's back" due to lucrative wool exports.
Tourism officials said Chinese arrivals were also set to boom for the festival, with Chinese airlines putting on charter flights for the holiday period.
China is Australia's most valuable and fastest growing inbound tourism market, with 95,000 Chinese arrivals recorded in January 2014 - the month that the Spring Festival fell that year - an increase of 67 per cent on the previous year.
Qunar, a Chinese online travel service, announced a 350 per cent jump in overseas flight bookings for the Lunar New Year holiday period in 2015 compared with last year, with trips to the United States racking up the biggest gain.