Hongbao triumph over flowers in China

RED-HOT VOWS: A Chinese couple kissing while being recorded on video during a symbolic ceremony of receiving marriage licences on Valentine's Day at a marriage registry office in east Beijing.


    Feb 18, 2016

    Hongbao triumph over flowers in China

    WITH more recognition than Halloween and less than Christmas, Valentine's Day as a recent imported festival faces a precarious situation in China, where it is caught between shifting forces of tradition and fashion.

    Valentine's Day has a natural foe in China. And it is not the Chinese equivalent, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, usually around half a year away from Feb 14.

    It is Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year, that will keep the Feast of Saint Valentine at bay.

    Because of the differences between the lunar calendar and the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese New Year shifts each year but generally falls in early February. The secret is not just the specific date but also the length of the celebration.

    While the legal holiday lasts seven days, the festive mood lasts for at least twice as long.

    As custom has it, the 15th day of the first lunar month marks the official end of festivities. And add to it the run-up to Chinese New Year's Eve and it could be 20 days in total.

    No wonder expatriates who first arrive in China are flabbergasted that the country can grind to a halt and for so long.

    However, many Chinese still complain about inadequate time-off.

    Compared with some Western countries, they maintain, we seem to have far less time- off.

    Well, it really depends on the line of work one is involved in.

    If work has a fixed schedule, tough luck. You will probably have to report to work by the end of the public holidays. But most bosses are more considerate. They will give days-off if they can be arranged. Generally, it is a gradual process to return to the work mood.

    Back to Valentine's Day, which fell on the seventh day of the lunar year this year. This meant many couples were on the way back from their journeys home. If it were the 10th day, the sales of roses may have been much higher.

    Last year, Valentine's Day was five days before the Chinese New Year and, in 2010, it coincided with the biggest day on the Chinese calendar. Statistically, most Valentine's Days are outshone by the colourful illumination of red lanterns and dazzling fireworks.

    Of course, the two holidays are not direct competitors so there is no reason they cannot co-exist.

    It is just that a month and half earlier, there is another imported and localised holiday which pretty much steals the thunder - or shall I say the appeal - of the occasion.


    In China, Christmas is mostly for the urban youth, who have stripped it of its religious coating and secularised it to the point that it is an urbane celebration of romantic love. As a matter of fact, most Western holidays come with a built-in vogue or sophistication.

    The real feud between East and West probably took place over a century ago when China's door was forced open by Western powers and Chinese intellectuals advocated westernisation as a means to beef up China's ability to compete. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar and Western measurements was both an acknowledgment of their influence and an effort to assimilate into the world order.

    Nowadays, we see them as the international standards.

    But had China been as powerful as the United States, naysayers of the metric system and other outside influences would have wielded more clout. For a full century, we have had two systems running in parallel.

    When I was a kid, my grandmother would use traditional Chinese measurements and the lunar calendar. New Year's Day, Jan 1, was adamantly dismissed. The week leading up to the Chinese New Year, on the other hand, was so rich with rituals that I never managed to figure out which day was for what activities.

    While nobody uses the Chinese time concept of shichen, equal to two hours, the Chinese unit for area, mu, is very much alive and not in danger of losing out to hectare.

    When I write for an American readership, I often convert mu to hectares and then to acres, which would be unimaginably convoluted without a calculator. But it reminds me of the give and take of every system, calendar and measurement.

    The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC), unified the then-disparate languages and measurements of smaller kingdoms. He did it with an iron fist, killing countless and brutalising local cultures into submission.

    The upside to his tyrannical rule is the convenience we enjoy today in terms of communicating within the vast territory.

    He could not wipe out all the dialects though - something only television and bullet trains are capable of.

    Observers of such matters are fortunate to be living in this day and age when normal transformation, including the ebb and flow of the old way of counting giving way to the new, is accelerated so drastically. It is also fascinating to see a new holiday like Nov 11 gaining traction in such a short time. If it were not given the push by e-commerce, it would have languished on college campuses.

    And it is a bit sad to see the Chinese Lovers' Day struggling for relevance.

    Who is to blame?

    It was built on a beautiful but heartbreaking tale of endless pining but little fulfilment.

    Which pair of lovers would want to see each other only once a year a la Cowherd and Weaving Maid, the lovers in the original story?

    When it comes to the eventual outcome, practicality usually trumps all other concerns.

    Laws can help, such as the three traditional festivals of Tomb Sweeping, Dragon Boat and Mid-Autumn gaining legal status in 2008 and giving every Chinese citizen a day-off, but laws cannot push what people have no feelings for.

    So, the celebration or boycott of imported holidays - or homegrown ones, for that matter - should be no cause for worry. If they are irrelevant, no amount of media hype will change the public's mind; and if they are embraced, there must be an innate need which they happen to satisfy.

    Since we have no global Qin Shihuang to impose one system upon every country, we can always rely on a dual approach by which we share with the outside world on one hand but preserve our own ways of life on the other. Lovers need every excuse for joyeuse fete, and two sets of lovers' days do not look crowded on any calendar.