11.11.11: Guanggun Jie (光棍节), also known as Chinese Single's Day, is celebrated throughout schools and universities around China, this year with the highest pitch, as the six '1' made it the Guanggun Jie (literally meaning 'naked sticks holiday') of the century (世纪光棍节 - read here about this year's Guanggun Jie celebration). Such a pretentious statement, backed by events nationwide, media acknowledgement and a tradition of eating youtiao (deep fried dough sticks) can make tourists visiting China believe, that this is a profound Chinese tradition. In reality, the less than 20 years-old 'holiday' was initiated by some bored students in Nanjing in 1993. What makes such a simple concept elevate so fast within public's attention?
Regarding Guanggun Jie and some of its modern counterparts, two major agents which intensify its echo are consumerism and the internet. As the middle class Chinese have more leisure time, and as enterprises develop their marketing tools, every special day can become an excuse for shopping discounts and special offers. The growing incorporation of Christmas into the Chinese holiday calendar (see article here) is also to a large extent a result of a growing consumer power. Youngsters, who often feel a need to conform to modern-international leisure patterns, cannot skip on such an international event. And what is a better mark of celebrations than shopping?!
The Chinese National Day (Guoqing Jie) as the major post-1949 holiday and the Spring Festival (Chun Jie) and Chinese New Year as the greatest traditional event are the two major anchors in a calendar full of holidays, some with the rural flavor of the Chinese lunar calendar and some displaying communist themes. It is clear that such holidays are also very happy days for retailers, who backup social significance with many attractive items and deals, though young Chinese, and perhaps not only them, are open for new additional colorful events on their calendars.
The generation gap in China, enhanced by the drastic transformation of the 1979 economic reforms and the one-child policy, is highly evident in China. It seems that except for respecting traditions, young Chinese need to find holidays that represent something more contemporary, expressing themselves as modern world citizens. They celebrate romance both on the traditional Qixi (七夕) festival and on February 14, for example. They feel a need to stay updated with new foreign holidays, if not as a call for action, then at least as important knowledge regarding customs overseas. It would be indeed interesting to survey Chinese and see how they prioritize their holidays and whether those who stress the 'modern' ones disregard tradition. My encounters lead me to believe that for most youngsters one tradition doesn't contradict the other.
Recycling-art activities for World Environment Day 环保日, kindergarten in Dingzha Zhen, Zhejiang
It is wrong to think that every special day or holiday that comes from abroad is being diffused only through the agency of Chinese youth. Government and media personnel, as well, see China's participation in the international activities as an act that makes the country a more modern and competitive player in global affairs. As long as citizens don't go adopting crazy religious ideas, it is important for all levels of society that residents become active participants in international dates, if as passionate consumers, or as ideological-knowledgeable individuals.
32 days before Guanggun Jie, the UN World Mental Health Day was acknowledged worldwide. Initiated by a report by the governmental Xinhua press agency, every big Chinese news portal mentioned this day, reporting certain aspects of mental health services in China or in its local province, while describing awareness activities that were organized by schools, clinics and the Ministry of Health throughout the country. Mental health is not a domain that China can is particularly proud of, but the press, the educators and government personnel aren't looking only to highlight China's strengths, but also to improve and modernize the notion of civilians.
The March 8th International Women's Day (妇女节) is widely marked throughout China since many years ago, the astonishing attention given to environmental protection by the government and the education system recently is concentrated in the April 22nd Earth Day and June 5th World Environment Day. Non-Chinese readers of this article can be certain that many additional international dates that they had never heard about are well 'marketed' in China and become elementary knowledge. Well, perhaps the October 1st World Vegetarian Day could never become so popular in China, and not because it collides with Guoqing Jie...
China is experiencing an epoch of continuous dramatic economic growth accompanied by individual and social retrospection. In such conditions, every international day can be a source of policies and discussions, aiming to improve public awareness and institutional infrastructure, as well as ask where Chinese is heading to. Every Western holiday seems as an opportunity to get closer to 'modern traditions', and additional events can be created to reflect the unique dynamic aspirations of young and middle-aged Chinese.