Chinese holidays need a festive makeover
On Thursday [March 17th], People all over the world will avoid being pinched by donning their tackiest green clothing and hitting the bars with friends to drink pints of Guinness. Some who are feeling especially lucky might exclaim to the opposite sex, "Kiss me. I'm Irish!"
St. Patrick's Day is the quintessential Western holiday. What would otherwise be just another forgettable saint's day honoring a Catholic missionary has become an international excuse to drunkenly dress and act stupid with friends.
The customs might be a bit silly and even perpetuate a few Irish stereotypes, but for one day each year, a country of just 6 million people gets almost uniformly positive attention from around the globe. On March 17, everyone is Irish.
St. Patrick's Day and other internationally successful holidays like Valentine's Day, Halloween, and Christmas draw an unfortunate contrast to their Chinese counterparts. While Chinese festivals are very old, symbolic and meaningful, there's one thing they simply aren't: festive.
Dragon Boat Festival, for instance, is pretty trivial if you don't have access to an expensive racing boat. Tomb-Sweeping Day is exactly what it sounds like, so not really an occasion to be merry. Mid-Autumn Festival has the exchange of moon cakes and the hanging of floating lanterns, but that's hardly anything to get excited about.
The Spring Festival is China's most pervasive holiday, but major customs include humdrum activities like cleaning the house and giving out hongbao (gift money in red envelops). Wearing red and shooting fireworks is festive, but so far hasn't been unique enough to grab much international attention outside cities with high Chinese populations.
Holidays that are successful internationally tend to have multiple customs which are fun, colorful and easily exportable. They give people an excuse to show off their creativity and draw closer to their community, all by acting a little goofy together for just one day.
Halloween is arguably the perfect such holiday. People of all ages creatively fashion colorful costumes, adults party with friends, and children go trick-or-treating among neighbors. Everyone has a great time and comes closer as a community.
In recent years China has watched some of these Western celebrations start to overshadow homegrown ones among its people. This in part prompted the government to amend the national holiday scheme in 2008 to give workers the day off to celebrate traditional Chinese festivals.
But many prevailing international festivals aren't public holidays in the countries they're most celebrated in; and this has actually helped to popularize them.
Part of the fun of St. Patrick's Day, for example, is to show off festive clothing at work and have themed staff parties.
If Chinese festivals ever hope to stay competitive at home and abroad, they need to add a little flavor.
If Lei Feng, a national soldier icon in 1960s, could be depoliticized, his holiday encouraging people to do good deeds has potential. So long as those good deeds could include buying drinks for friends.
Or there's the little-known Spirit Festival, when people burn fake money and make offerings to their ancestors. Maybe this could go a step further in honoring ancestors by wearing traditional clothing they might have worn in the past. This would be fun and easily adaptable to the culture of any country.
These are just a few poorly thought out ideas, but it wouldn't be hard to initiate some new customs to jazz up an existing festival. The tradition of watching the CCTV New Year's Gala with family during the Spring Festival is practiced by over 700 million people each year, and it just began in 1983. So is the tradition of complaining about how bad it was this year.
If China hopes for more soft power and cultural influence abroad, current initiatives like Confucius Institute and PR videos are one route. But an eventful Chinese holiday everyone can enjoy would probably do more to endear China to the world.
With 1.3 billion people reaching out to every corner of the globe, there's no reason why a Chinese-born celebration shouldn't be internationally recognized. China should follow Ireland's example and give the world a holiday it can relish.
The author is a master's candidate of Global Business Journalism at Tsinghua University. His blog: sinostand.com. firstname.lastname@example.org