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Spring Festival Tradition of China

Despite the growing popularity of foreign holidays, the Spring Festival, which this year falls at the end of January, is still the most significant festival in the country. At that time, family members gather together and have reunion dinners, as well as setting off fireworks and visiting friends. Yet, particularly among younger people, the holiday is not without its stresses.

RED GLOW: In the Lantern Festival, children are cheered by skillfully made lanterns

As more people leave their hometowns and work in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the Spring Festival is a time when they can go back home and meet with their parents after a long separation. The national broadcaster reported that commuters made 1.9 billion trips during the 2005 Spring Festival period, and it is estimated that the number will increase to 2 billion this year.

Although the transportation capacity has improved each year, it still does not meet the demand, and as a result, the transportation situation remains tight. Many people choose to travel by train, which is less expensive than flying, and that causes big headaches since it is extremely difficult to buy a train ticket at this time of year.

Ma Liqiang, Deputy Secretary General of the National Development and Reform Commission, contended, "The shortage of transportation capability will not be fully made up for even in five to 10 years, and the tight situation during the Spring Festival frenzy may last longer than in the past," as more people travel and extend the holiday period.

FESTIVAL FEAST: Eating jiaozi is one of the customs of the Chinese Spring Festival, especially in the country's northern part
Referring to the Spring Festival, Lin Xi, who works for the Ministry of Construction, said, "I believe many people have mixed feelings toward it." It is exciting for people to get together with their parents, but the process of buying a train ticket takes up too much energy and is a headache, he added.

For many young people, the Spring Festival can be a difficult experience. Lin said for those who have a good career, the holiday could be a platform for showing off their accomplishments. But those who have just started out in their careers might feel an intangible pressure: Their "worth" could be materialized in the value of the presents they send to others. Therefore, those people may feel embarrassed by both the excitement of coming home and their inability to give more expensive gifts.

Like Lin, many young people in cities are growing tired of the rituals of eating, drinking and sending gifts at the Spring Festival. As a result, some experts are concerned that the holiday may lose some of its significance.

Protecting heritage

Early this month, Gao Youpeng, an expert on folklore, wrote a Protecting Spring Festival Declaration, noting that the holiday, as a symbol of Chinese traditional culture, should be preserved in a world where globalization is gaining the upper hand.

Compared with the increasing popularity of foreign holidays, traditional Chinese festivals seem less attractive to the younger generation, and this worries many people. Although the majority of Chinese will have yuanxiao (glutinous rice ball) in the Lantern Festival and zongzi (dumpling made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves) in the Duanwu Festival, the cultural content of the holidays has been declining and people are less passionate about celebrating the festivals than before.

DRESSING UP: In the Lantern Festival, Chinese people dress up and dance so as to wish good seasons in the coming year
Sociologist Wu Ming also warns that traditional festivals are facing a predicament, which is closely related to changes in society. Urbanization has altered the social structure, people's way of life and human relations. Thus, many of these festivals, which are closely linked to agriculture and village life, can be easily ignored by people living in urban areas.

At the same time, the cultural content of festivals is changing slightly. For instance, the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is supposed to be a day full of idyllic charm, has become a showcase for manufacturers' ability to make ever-more-luxurious moon cakes, a snack typical of the day. Those expensive moon cakes serve not only as food, but also as networking presents for business people and individuals.

In November 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization accepted South Korea's application to list the Gangneung Dragon Boat Festival as a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity, bringing closure to a yearlong dispute between Korean and Chinese academic communities over the festival.

The Duanwu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival) was originally celebrated in China, and has a 2,500-year history there. That tradition was transmitted to neighboring countries and became localized in following years. The successful bid of South Korea's dragon boat festival for intangible cultural heritage status led the Chinese to ponder how to protect their traditional culture and festivals. Many experts and scholars restated their view that some traditional Chinese festivals should receive legal protection.

The government has already taken action. On December 31, 2005, the Ministry of Culture presented to the public its first list of nominees for intangible cultural heritage status, including the Spring Festival, the Qingming Festival (day for paying homage to the dead), the Duanwu Festival, the Qiqiao Festival (dubbed as China's Valentine's Day), the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Chongyang Festival (also known as Senior Citizens' Festival).

Some media reports have suggested that the government is determined to protect China's cultural heritage in a complete way.

But others have a different view of government intervention in the matter. An article in Modern Express, a Chinese newspaper, said the Spring Festival should not be protected heavily. It explained that first, the Spring Festival should be a totally folk event, and thus the government should not organize any major activities but rather allow people to observe it in their own way. Second, the Chinese should learn from the celebration of foreign holidays, and, according to the author, people should not spend the whole festival at home, playing cards and mahjong.

The article also contended that many traditional festivals have lost their original meaning for many Chinese. What people should protect, it said, is the original charm of the festivals instead of customs that have lost their characteristics. In a sense, traditional festivals should again become pure folk festivals.

(Beijing Review January 28, 2006)

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