Pop­u­la­tion shifts af­fect fes­ti­val

Peo­ple born in agri­cul­ture econ­omy now un­easy about pace of change

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By LI YANG in Shang­hai liyang@chi­nadaily.com.cn

China’s pop­u­la­tion is un­der­go­ing ma­jor changes, af­fect­ing many tra­di­tional cus­toms, es­pe­cially the Lu­nar New Year or Spring Fes­ti­val.

Three years ago, for the first time more than half of China’s pop­u­la­tion was living in ur­ban ar­eas rather than the coun­try­side. In five years, the coun­try’s ur­ban­iza­tion ra­tio will hit more than 60 per­cent. And the one-child fam­ily plan­ning pol­icy im­ple­mented since the late 1970s has markedly shrunk the size of Chi­nese fam­i­lies. More and more old peo­ple live by them­selves, and most fam­i­lies’ bread-win­ners do not have broth­ers or sis­ters.

As the most im­por­tant fes­ti­val in China, the Lu­nar New Year of late last week, was a time for Chi­nese peo­ple who were born in an agri­cul­tural so­ci­ety, grew up in an industrial age and ma­tured in an in­for­ma­tion era, to feel anx­ious by fast changes in the ma­te­rial world.

The Spring Fes­ti­val dates back about 4,000 years ago and it is as­so­ci­ated with many su­per­sti­tions of an agri­cul­tural so­ci­ety. Ba­si­cally, the fes­ti­val marks the be­gin­ning of a new farm­ing sea­son in re­gions along the Yel­low River in North China, where China’s an­cient civ­i­liza­tion was born. Farm­ers of­fer sac­rifi to the deities in charge of their food, land, life and money, as well as the dead in their fam­i­lies, on dif­fer­ent days through­out the fes­ti­val, ap­pre­ci­at­ing their pro­tec­tion in the past and pray­ing for their bless­ing in the fu­ture.

Th­ese cer­e­monies are ob­served by big fam­ily clans com­ing to­gether. Peo­ple living in vil­lages in China usu­ally share one or sev­eral main fam­ily names. It used to be much eas­ier to or­ga­nize a fam­ily re­u­nion than to­day. Good food and new clothes are pre­pared for the fes­ti­val, mark­ing a rare time to sat­isfy one’s ap­petite and ap­parel es­thet­ics for the farm­ers mostly living a hand- to­mouth ex­is­tence through­out a year.

About 1 mil­lion such vil­lages have dis­ap­peared in China’s ur­ban­iza­tion pro­gram in the past decade, in­volv­ing more than 100 mil­lion peo­ple. Mean­while, China’s In­ter­net user’s pop­u­la­tion rose to 650 mil­lion from less than 10 mil­lion. Nearly half the coun­try’s 1.36 bil­lion peo­ple take trains and planes or use au­to­mo­biles to re­turn to their home­towns dur­ing the fes­ti­val for long-awaited fam­ily re­unions.

But when they meet their rel­a­tives, they eas­ily feel bored af­ter end­less feasts, and mahjong. Chil­dren grow­ing up in cities would not be that will­ing to wear a new cot­ton-padded coat made by their ru­ral grand­mother for them. They pre­fer money. Red en­velopes con­tain­ing cash for rel­a­tives and friends’ chil­dren add to the adults’ fi­nan­cial bur­dens, but help them save face.

Dif­fer­ent living and work­ing en­vi­ron­ments leave rel­a­tives in a big fam­ily clan few com­mon top­ics. Fire­works and smoked meat, a popular food in many places along the Yangtze River, are par­tially banned to avoid air pol­lu­tion.

Tem­ples and birth­places of great peo­ple are crowded with quasi-believ­ers dur­ing the fes­ti­val. Peo­ple burn a large amount of in­cense in front of var­i­ous statutes of Tao­ism, Bud­dhism or Mao­ism, to pray for luck, health and wealth.

China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion’s an­nual Spring Fes­ti­val gala, a pro­gram popular since 1983 for its live­li­ness, has lost its au­di­ence, es­pe­cially the young, be­cause of its rigid­ity. Play­ing on smartphones and other gad­gets is a ma­jor way for many mid­dle-aged and young peo­ple to kill time dur­ing their hard-earned fes­ti­val hol­i­day.

The pop­u­lar­ity of a re­den­ve­lope APP this year sheds light on the fes­ti­val’s lack of live­li­ness. Smart­phone users can turn to their con­tact list to send and re­ceive red en­velopes. Peo­ple are happy with even sev­eral cents of red- en­ve­lope money they re­ceived through the APP from some peo­ple they might not have con­tacted for years.

Some bet­ter-off fam­i­lies go abroad or to do­mes­tic tourist re­sorts dur­ing the hol­i­day, par­tially to avoid bland Spring Fes­ti­val rou­tines. Last year, about 109 mil­lion Chi­nese trav­eled over­seas, mak­ing China the largest tourist ex­porter in the world. Over­all spend­ing by Chi­nese trav­el­ers in for­eign coun­tries and re­gions is $165 bil­lion, up 30 per­cent year-on-year.

Some ex­perts af­fil­i­ated with in­sti­tutes funded by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment are ea­ger to pack­age Spring Fes­ti­val into a part of China’s soft power, par­tially to counter the in­flu­ence of West­ern cul­ture events, like Christ­mas Day. Yet be­fore do­ing that, they should think about why Spring Fes­ti­val has lost its in­flu­ence at home. When the so­cial and cul­tural con­nec­tions for Spring Fes­ti­val fade, blood ties ap­pear to be the last rea­son to main­tain the fes­ti­val’s mean­ing for fam­i­lies and the na­tion.

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