Do the young know it's Lunar New Year at all?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2007, 12:00am

It all began with a simple question posed two years ago to a small group of Nanjing children: What is the most important Chinese holiday on the calendar?

Almost all of the children who were under 10 told Nanjing University's Professor Chen Jing that the answer was Christmas.

Their response prompted Professor Chen to organise a petition drive in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province , in the hope of reviving interest in the Lunar New Year festival and have it recognised by Unesco as an example of 'intangible heritage'.

About 10,000 residents turned out in the city centre two Sundays ago to put their names to the bid for recognition.

Such high-profile campaigns have been common on the mainland in the past two years as proponents of various elements of Chinese culture have sought to have them protected. But their efforts have also raised the spectre of nationalism.

China already has 33 natural and cultural heritage sites on the Unesco register, along with two masterpieces of Han oral and intangible heritage - Kunqu opera and guqin music. Also listed are the Uygur Mukam musical compositions and the Mongolian Urtiin Duu, or traditional folk 'long song'.

Many other proposals for inclusion are also being promoted.

Eleven members of the local legislature in Henan province , the birthplace of Zhouyi, or The Changes of Zhou, a classic divination text, drafted a bill last month to have the ancient book of wisdom put forward for international heritage listing.

Many other elements of Chinese culture, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival, have been touted for international recognition, not to mention more tangible heritage sites such as the West Lake in Hangzhou and Songshan Mountain near Zhengzhou , home to the famed Shaolin Temple.

Interest in the process has taken off since 2005, when South Korea succeeded after 10 years in having its Gangneung Danoje Festival included as intangible heritage.

The Korean festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Lunar calendar, is widely believed to be an offshoot of the Chinese celebration, and its inclusion triggered a strong public outcry on the mainland, with many saying they felt as if part of their cultural heritage had been stolen.

Professor Chen, who is also a member of the Jiangsu World Cultural Heritage Experts' Committee, said Chinese people had every reason to feel bitter, because they had long assumed the festival belonged to China. 'To many, it feels like we'd invented something and then one day someone else jumped in and registered it as a patent of their own,' he said.

Chinese people had taken their own culture for granted for a long time, he said, adding that the Korean success might not be bad thing if it sent a wake-up call to the public.

'But what really put me on edge is the diminishing public interest in recent years in traditional Chinese culture including Lunar New Year,' Professor Chen said.

As the mainland builds on nearly three decades of opening up to outside influences, western culture and lifestyles continue to gain a foothold in the country and many aspects of Chinese culture and traditional ways of living continue to be diluted or unravel.

Professor Chen said he was dismayed by the increasing fondness for western culture and festivities among mainland people, and he is not the only one.

A group of 10 mainland PhD candidates launched an inflammatory online appeal in December, calling for a boycott of Christmas because they were fed up with the hype over western festivals.

Flamboyant China Central Television news anchorman Rui Chenggang also got his share of attention last month for criticising American coffee chain Starbucks 'for trampling over Chinese culture' by operating an outlet in Beijing's Forbidden City for six years.

Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Professor Zhang Jiehai said the flurry of outbursts in recent months was not a coincidence, 'but a reflection of the growing aspiration among many Chinese for respect on the international stage as the country's political and economic status rises'.

Professor Zhang said more people were beginning to engage in soul searching over their own cultural identity, 'but sometimes they're just oversensitive towards other cultures and don't choose the right approaches to express themselves'.

Professor Zhang said he did not believe there was a genuine upsurge in nationalism on the horizon and if people sometimes overreacted it was because they were insecure, rather that acting out of some nationalistic impulse.

'That sense of insecurity will diminish as the country continues to develop,' he added.

But Professor Chen said some irrational calls and criticism of western culture were pointers to an awakening nationalism on the mainland and a sign for concern.

'The problem is that we've given up so long ago on nurturing the fondness for our own culture.'