As global cultures continue to collide, Chinese young people tend to observe Western festivals in a more local way
Adim room and red lights, blood-red “happiness” characters on the walls, women dressed in cheongsam, men dressed in mandarin jackets and spooky music playing in the background. Taking in the scene, you might
think that you have just encountered a Chinese movie filming location. But no, it is actually a Halloween party done in a Chinese way in Beijing. “It’s a natural process that cultures from different countries will emerge within the local ones, especially in metropolitans like Beijing where people are from diverse social and cultural backgrounds,” said Fan Yang, founder and CEO of a private city space sharing app named ELSEWHERE, who held a vintage-style Halloween party themed The Republic of China (1912-1949). Western festivals and celebrations were introduced into China in the 1990s and have been enjoying increasing popularity since then. However, the way young people celebrate and their attitude toward Western culture have begun to change in recent years. Western festivals are being localized and adapted into Chinese culture and lifestyles.
Integrating Chinese culture
“Chinese young people are very creative and they become bored
celebrating Western festivals the same way year after year, and integration of Chinese culture is a trend as they have growing cultural confidence,” said Fan. Fascinated by traditional aesthetics and architecture, Fan and his team organized the special event to intertwine Western fun within Chinese culture.
With a “bloody-red wedding” theme and inspiration from The House That
Never Dies (2014) , a Chinese horror movie, the venue was filled with elements of a traditional Chinese wedding: red veils for the brides, red-cloth flowers for the grooms and red bows and chopsticks for the couples to feed each other with – an essential at a traditional ceremony. The music and light effects created a creepy atmosphere. The event was well received, attracting around 100 attendees, both Chinese and expats.
“It’s quite different from the Halloween parties I have attended before. It was more like a ghost marriage in traditional Chinese culture, which is easier for me to resonate with,” said a participant surnamed Li. He said celebrations with Chinese elements are fresh and more appealing to him since they echo his “cultural codes.”
In fact, integration of Chinese culture and Western festivals has become more common recently. A Chinese-horror themed Halloween parade was staged this week in Zhuzhou, Hunan Province, where people dressed in the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) styles.
The mixing of trends does not only happen in China. According to reports by Phoenix News, a series of “China Pumpkins” – pumpkin artworks made of Chinese blue and white porcelain – saw popularity and high sales in the US during the Halloween period this year. “With broadened horizons to the world and wide knowl
edge of different cultures, more and more young people begin to realize the true amazement and attraction of Chinese culture on a global scale,” said Fan, who had been living in the US for six years before returning to Beijing.
“I think it is a bottom-up trend where people tend to take the initiative to pursue and spread Chinese culture and aesthetics,” said Fan, adding that it has made a sharp contrast to the “top-bottom” pattern in the past when experts and scholars called for the public to preserve their cultural roots.
Individualized and personalized
Meanwhile, the way young people in China celebrate Western festivals is more individualized and diversified. Tan Wenzheng, a senior associate working in the finance sector in Beijing, who lived in the UK for years, feels that people have more options now for celebration.
“The Western festivals were much too commercialized in China in the past. Though it still is now, young people pay more attention to their own needs instead of being kidnapped by business promotions,” said Tan. Take Valentine’s Day for example, an increasing number of couples celebrate it by traveling, making their own gifts or going to exhibitions and performances according to their own interest instead of following the cliché pattern of having dinner together or going to the cinema.
“They can do whatever they like or do nothing at all, and I think people enjoy more freedom from this perspective,” Tan said. Wang Dan, a home-party fan who holds parties in her apartment almost every month, agrees.
A graduate of English literature, Wang was once an enthusiastic follower of Western festivals and Christmas and Thanksgiving were two of her biggest celebrations. Buying a Christmas tree, decorating her apartment and ordering holiday feasts were a must for her for years. However, she put an end to the whole tiring preparation work two years ago and now celebrates them in a more “nuclear” way.
“To follow the essence of the festivals is the key and that’s to enjoy your time with the ones you love, no matter how you celebrate,” said Wang, who felt it boring and pointless to copy the traditional Western festival format. Last November, she took an annual leave and took her parents to travel abroad for Thanksgiving instead of having a party with her friends.
“The ones I should thank the most are my dear parents, and this is called filial piety in Chinese culture. I think it echoes with the spirit of Thanksgiving’s essence,” Wang said. She also sent postcards to her friends along her journey to express her thankfulness for their care and support.
Rise of Chinese festivals
Moreover, the rise of traditional festivals is splitting people’s enthusiasm for Western ones. For example, qixi, the Chinese Valentine’s Day, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, is changing the market.
Based on reports from China.com, the volume of flower purchases during the past qixi festival was at a record high, with more than 1 million orders on HuaWa.com, one of the biggest flower-shopping platforms in China. A 2016 report of Xinhua agency said that a growing number of people indicated that they are more willing to celebrate “Eastern Valentine’s Day” and the transaction volume of flowers in 2015 almost doubled compared with 2014. “Now there are too many excuses for couples to celebrate their love and so the February 14 has become less important,” said Tan. “Qixi is becoming really popular and apart from that, we
even have 520 or even Double 11 when couples also buy gifts for each other.”
However, many call for more content-orientated celebration, rather than purely consumerism.
“Over the past 30-50 years, we haven’t had many creative ways to celebrate traditional Chinese festivals, and now the celebration somehow lacks their original cultural connotations,” said Liu Siqi, who works at a top Internet company in China and celebrates both Chinese and Western festivals.
“They need time for revival and we also need to dig further into the traditional cultures and values to find more creative ways to celebrate,” said Liu, who is looking forward to more trendy celebration of Chinese festivals. Tan agrees.
Take qixi for instance, it has become a perfect chance for men to spend money on women whereas, in the tradition, the festival is not about giving gifts.
Women did needlework and created handcrafts to celebrate the festival in ancient times. Originating in the Han Dynasty, the festival was later attached with a legendary love story where human Niu Lang and his goodness wife Zhi Nv can only meet once a year at Qixi and the day was generally developed as a festival for lovers.
“People have developed that impression from the traditional stories, but the core values and cultures are left behind for commercial promotions,” Tan said.
The Chinese Republican Era-themed Halloween celebration attracted both Chinese locals and expats.
Fan Yang (left) and other participants experience traditional Chinese wedding elements with a Halloween twist; Inset: A female participant dressed in a traditional cheongsam