BEIJING - Fireworks illuminated the skies across China as millions around Asia ushered in the Year of the Sheep Thursday, kicking off festivities with an annual televised gala that got a thumbs down on social media for heavy Communist Party preaching against corruption.
China officially counts the New Year as starting from January 1 but culturally its citizens place greater importance on the lunar computation of days, reflecting centuries of traditional practice.
Ahead of the festivities, President Xi Jinping 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.
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.
Social media users, however, complained Thursday that the show was ruined by Communist Party sermons against corruption, which has been the pet policy of Xi since becoming head of the party.
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.
The day 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 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 Wednesday.