As kids and teens dress up for Halloween, some in China are spooked

Western celebrations are popular among young Chinese, but some fear they represent an erosion of traditional festivals and culture

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 8:32am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 8:15pm

It was her son’s kindergarten teacher who reminded Jin Yong that Halloween was coming.

As she has for the past two years, the Shanghai mother got a WeChat message from the teacher saying she had just a few days to come up with a costume for her five-year-old to wear to the school celebration on October 31.

“Any inspiration this year?” Jin asked another parent over the phone as she scanned the online store where she found Halloween costumes for her son in previous years.

For Jin, this is a “headache” rather than fun, and she said nearly all of her friends with young children also regarded it as a chore.

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Like Christmas, Halloween is celebrated at many schools across mainland China, with children and teens keen to dress up and go trick-or-treating.

It is popular among young Chinese, but some parents are concerned that Western celebrations such as Halloween are too dominant – and that traditional festivals and culture are being eroded.

“To be frank, I don’t understand why a festival of Western ghosts has become one of the most important occasions of the year at a Chinese kindergarten,” Jin said.

“Teachers might spend just half an hour telling the kids a Chinese fairy tale about the moon for Mid-Autumn Festival, yet they spend an entire day holding activities for Halloween,” she said.

“The result is that many kids in the big cities like Beijing might know about Halloween and Easter, but they don’t know anything about Chinese traditions like the Double Ninth Festival or Hungry Ghost Festival.”

This year’s Double Ninth Festival falls on Saturday, right before Halloween.

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Jin’s sentiments reflect a wider concern about the growing enthusiasm for Western traditions among young Chinese in recent years.

In the “two sessions” earlier this year – the annual gathering of China’s parliament and advisory body – delegate Zhu Jun, a well-known television anchor, suggested celebrations of Western festivals in schools and kindergartens should be banned.

“These are religious festivals in the West but they’re given prominence in our education system. But they’re given a shallow interpretation and instead turned into a carnival for kids, which is very bad for youngsters,” he said.

Zhu’s proposal did not result in any official directive at either provincial or national level, but some schools have taken action independently.

One Chinese teacher who works at a middle school in Jiaxing, in eastern Zhejiang province, said she had been told by management not to organise activities for Western festivals.

“We were told that there can be a celebration for New Year’s Day but not Christmas,” said Xu Qin, who did not want to give the name of the school.

Some schools and even universities have had similar rules in place for several years. In Xian, Shaanxi, the Modern College of Northwest University banned its students from leaving the campus on Christmas Eve in 2014 – ordering them instead to watch videos about traditional Chinese culture being shown in classrooms, Huashang Daily reported.

Lu Peng, a communications specialist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said such bans were groundless and interfered in harmless recreational activities, but he agreed that children should get more exposure to Chinese traditions rather than Western ones.

“Our children don’t have many opportunities to grasp local traditions, yet we sow this seed in their minds [of cultural traditions from the West] by holding grand celebrations for Western festivals,” he said.

This willingness to embrace Western celebrations is partly a result of globalisation, Lu said, but it is also because these festivals are often seen as more fun and modern by young Chinese.

Traditional festivals meanwhile are usually closely connected to lessons in morality and involve big family gatherings.

“Many young people dislike and shun these occasions because family reunions mean inquiries from their aunts and uncles about who they are seeing, how much they’re earning and other matters they would rather keep private,” he said.

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Lu suggested that traditional festivals should be observed in more interesting ways so that they are more enjoyable for children and teens. He gave the example of an outing or camping trip to celebrate Double Ninth Festival, based on the tradition of climbing a mountain on this day to show respect for elderly people.

In an effort by the government to promote traditional Chinese culture, three festivals – Ching Ming, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival – were made national public holidays in 2007.

Xu, the teacher in Jiaxing, said that despite this, few of her students really knew what those festivals were all about.

“They only know that there is a holiday coming up and that’s fantastic. I read them a story about each festival before the holiday, otherwise they wouldn’t have a clue why they’re having a holiday,” she said.