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Exploring popularity of Western festivals in China
Author :  KUANG YE, LU DI Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2017-01-03
In recent years, the popularity of Western festivals in China has led to concerns regarding cultural preservation. There are internal and external factors which can explain why Western festivals—sometimes filled with religious elements—have spread widely and won recognition in China.
Chinese culture has historically been relegated to the position of an apprentice learning new skills during the spread of Western festivals in China.
The period from the Revolution of 1911 to the May 4th Movement was crucial to the cultural development of China. Cultural elites represented by Lu Xun and Chen Duxiu, put forward the strategy of total Westernization, leading to Chinese people’s discrimination and abandonment of the traditional culture of their own country. This left an unforgettable impression on them and made them think all Western things are advanced and essential while traditional customs are backward. These attitudes had a significant negative impact on Chinese festivals and their role in traditional culture.
This cultural self-discrimination went deeper and began to affect the strategies of governments.
Sun Yat-sen abolished the use of the lunar calendar and shifted to the solar calendar as the official time unit in January, 1912. At the same time, the traditional Chinese festivals, having close relationships with the lunar calendar began to lose their importance and function. Compulsory measures were taken to ban people from celebrating traditional festivals in 1928.
Later, there was reform in this area but very little focused on preserving traditional culture. The government created 28 anniversaries such as National Day and the South North Reunion Day, as well as a number of international festivals including Women’s Day and Labor Day. By 1949, among all the traditional festivals, only the Spring Festival remained as a legal holiday. Later ,as the Cultural Revolution aimed to break all the remnants of the past, the State Council announced in early 1967 that people would have no day off during the Spring Festival. In this way, all traditional Chinese festivals along with the festival system were damaged without exception.
Lack of memory
No change was made until 1979. That year, a number of provinces restarted the holiday during Spring Festival, but other holidays were not reinstated.
The three most important traditional festivals, Tomb Sweeping Day, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, were recognized again as national holidays in the 21st century. The festival vacuum during 1912 to 2007 made Chinese people living or growing in this period have no deep understanding of traditional festivals. Most of them got to know these festivals through the words of the older generation. Their difficulty in understanding the connotations and importance of traditional festivals is attributed to social transformation as well as their lack of direct involvement and awareness.
An investigation exploring why Chinese people celebrate Western festivals shows that about six percent of the respondents believe China has too small a number of traditional festivals, reflecting insufficient attention by various levels of government. The disappearance of ancient and popular festivals has driven people to enrich their spiritual life by celebrating foreign festivals.
Impact of foreign films
The main responsibility of mass media is to spread information about new social phenomena and trends. Content about traditional Western festivals in media reports and video products has raised public attention and recognition, making people feel left out if they don’t follow the trend to celebrate Western festivals.
In terms of the export of films and television programs, Hollywood movies account for about six percent worldwide, while embracing 75 percent of the global box office. America presents and interprets its culture in the screens and stories of their movies, and this is how the culture is distributed. These movies have an impact on foreign receivers who understand and praise Western culture, thus changing their choices in cultural activities.
Western films and television programs represented by America convey cultural ideology such as freedom, equality and independence, which greatly caters to the demands of middle-aged and young Chinese. These products focus on characteristics and charms of Western festivals and present universal values such as love, friendship and affection between family members, raising public interest and expectations of foreign festivals.
Films and television programs reflect the internal characteristics of Western festivals in a comprehensive and insightful way. These festivals emphasize expression of individual emotion and encourage people to indulge themselves in joy while their Chinese counterparts stress constrained entertainment. The reform and opening up of China broadened the vision of Chinese people, who began to look forward to more emotional exchanges. The Western festivals, which advocate direct expression of emotions, gained more popularity and attracted a large number of followers.
At the same time, Western festivals focus on building an equal relationship among people. There is no distinction between leaders and subordinates nor hierarchical orders but equal communication and delightful joy between relatives and friends. These forms of thoughts are hugely different from Chinese ideology. In China, most participants of Western festivals are middle-aged people and youth who have greater expectations of freedom and equality. The Western festive atmosphere enables them to feel cozy and comfortable. Therefore, there is an increasing number of people joining the celebration. Also, the pursuit of pleasure rooted in Western festivals is widely accepted by Chinese who intend to relax and escape from their fast pace of living and relieve stress.
There is also a commercial aspect. Many Chinese companies launch diverse promotion activities during Western festivals. People are gradually becoming familiar and enthusiastic about relaxing through shopping during Western festivals. Admittedly, the effective dissimilation of Western festivals has a close relationship with the economic advantages of the West. Since the introduction of the reform and opening-up, Western lifestyles have entered China as foreign capital flowed into the Chinese market. Western festivals have gained great influence in China because of their exotic elements.
Process of localization
Many of these festivals have seen thier religious elements downplayed in China.This is because these religious aspects have less relevance to China, which in many ways is more secular.Therefore, the Western festivals underwent localization after being introduced to China in order to win social recognition and public involvement. In the process of this spread, the religious elements of the festivals have been diminished while emphasizing the festive experience. In this way, religious festivals have successfully transformed to carnivals which can be celebrated in all countries.
Many Jesuits represented by Mateeo Ricci and Johann Adam did missionary work in China during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. They aimed to convert Chinese to believe Catholicism by seeking similarities with traditional Chinese culture and their religious culture. The introduction of Western festivals drew on the experience of disseminating Catholicism. In order to attract more people to celebrate, these festivals have undergone localized transformation rather than simply defend and emphasize the religious nature.
The public demand for consumption has been kept and highlighted. In circumstances like this, Chinese merchants decorate their shops with great efforts to create a strong festive atmosphere long before arrival of festivals, thus attracting attention of people as much as possible. The bold advertisements in shop fronts lead to people’s anticipation for festivals. At the same time, overwhelming promotions and discount information enhance and drive public desire for consumption. The festive economy has become an indispensable opportunity for Chinese shops to generate profits.
It should be noted that Chinese media cover various aspects of Western festivals in their reports and the scale and frequency are increasing year on year. The content of Western festivals gets widespread coverage in media, driving attention and curiosity of Chinese people.
Chinese merchants and media have grasped the opportunity brought by traditional Western festivals to engage in market-oriented management, thus achieving better development. They have become crucial forces pushing the dissemination of Western festivals in China.
Kuang Ye and Lu Di are respectively a doctoral candidate and a professor from the School of Journalism and Communication at Peking University.