May 06

China’s seasonal politics

Written by Hohhot on Thursday, May 6th, 2010 at 5:05 pm
Filed under:Opinion, politics | Tags:, ,
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China’s rapid social transformation is reflected in a different order of priority of the country’s various annual festivals and commemorative days. As the communist state continues to seek tight control over what is permissible, yet as official thinking also adapts to and tries to steer the reclamation of “tradition”, the texture of China’s festive calendar is altering. This change increasingly raises problems for a country and a people caught between the “new” China of the post-1949 period (which is also now “old”) and the “old” China of centuries past (parts of which are again becoming “new”).

A small example is that the state council of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stipulates that young people aged between 14 and 28 can enjoy a half-day holiday every 4 May: “youth day”. In practice, few Chinese can afford to leave school or work on this day, which commemorates the momentous student protests against the provisions related to China in the Versailles peace agreement of 1919. Today, the occasion little celebrated; as indeed is another seasonal occasion every 1 May, “labour day”.

It’s true that that labour day (1 May), youth day (4 May) and women’s day (8 March) have been recognised as national holidays since soon after the foundation of the “new China” in 1949. But the political associations of these “new holidays” in a new era of boisterous capitalism mean that the authorities are anxious to downplay them. Alongside them, more traditional Chinese holidays – such as tomb-sweeping day (5 April), the dragon-boat festival and the moon festival (15 August) – have emerged to become more extravagantly celebrated.

The labour question

The state is obliged to go through the motions. China’s president Hu Jintao, on the eve of labour day on 1 May 2010, praised Chinese working people as “the most reliable class basis for the party” and described workers as “the unquestionable leading class of Chinese socialism”. An interesting response comes from Ding Xueliang, a sociology professor teaching in Hong Kong. He says that many Chinese working people would be dumbfounded to hear that they are a “leading class”; and that to tell Chinese peasants that the republic is made of a “peasant-worker alliance” (as the state also declares) amounts almost to a political joke.

In the west, “May day” was inspired by the events of 1886 in Chicago and elsewhere in the United States, when a great strike won the right after a hard and bloody struggle to an eight-hour working day. 120 years later, China passed a “labour-contract law” which gives workers rights of guaranteed payment and working-breaks. But in practice, for many Chinese workers – both white- and blue-collar –an eight-hour working day and associated benefits remain a dream (see Kerry Brown, “China: inside strain, outside spleen”, 10 March 2010).

In many western countries there is no official public holiday on 1 May, but it is an occasion when trade unions and leftwing groups march in the streets to affirm working people’s solidarity. By contrast, Ding Xueliang says that the People’s Republic of China is one of the few countries in the world where workers are not allowed to celebrate this day on their own initiative.

The memory of youth

The protests of 4 May 1919, provoked by the humiliating treatment of China at Versailles, featured a march by thousands of Beijing students from Tiananmen Square. On the way some of the their number broke in to the home of then treasury minister Cao Rulin – whom they blamed for selling Chinese interests to an encroaching Japan – and burned it down (see Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, “China’s anniversary tempest”, 25 February 2009).

Some revisionist historians in China regard the house-burning affair in 1919 as a stain on the “patriotic” movement. But however the movement is assessed, it is clear that the republican government of the day lacked the kind of powerful police force or anti-riot capacities now possessed by the Communist Party. Even the warlord-politicians who ruled China were not able to impose martial law and use the army to crush students, as happened in Tinanamen Square seventy years later.

The party reveres the 1919 movement as an embodiment of the so-called “May 4 spirit”: a combination of liberty, science and democracy. Its official propaganda sees this spirit as a weapon against imperialism and feudalism, and the movement itself as a pioneer in awakening the Chinese working class to play an important part in Chinese politics.

But “democracy” is nowadays a political taboo in China – and a word to be filtered by the internet-police (see Johnny Ryan & Stefan Halper, “Google vs China: capitalist model, virtual wall”, 22 January 2010). Ding Xueliang says that the scientific aspect of the May movement is acceptable, but the democracy part has since 1989 become a problem for the authorities. The suspicion of democracy makes it very difficult for officials who deal with young people and students to appear logically consistent in their propaganda work.

The traditional revived

Since 2008, other annual occasions – tomb-sweeping day, the dragon-boat festival, the moon festival – have become national holidays in China. The changes to Chinese national holidays in recent years indicate a tendency to neglect – even phase out – those associated since 1949 with class and revolution; and to place more emphasis on those that seem rooted in older Chinese traditions and shared ancestry (especially the imagine common descent of Han Chinese from the emperors Yan and Huang). The influence of overseas Chinese, and those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, has (says Ding Xueliang) played a big part in these revived celebrations.

But to reserve national days for traditional Chinese holidays carries some dangers, and has incurred criticism. Zhang Yiyi, a writer in Hunan province, condemns the conversion of tomb-sweeping day into a national holiday on two grounds: it originates in an imperial ceremony, thus making it a regressive superstition; and it represents the imposition of a Han Chinese holiday upon non-Chinese minorities, thus making it an act of disrespect.

The moon festival, spring festival, tomb-sweeping day and the dragon-boat festival are heralded as the four cardinal Chinese festivals. All of them are now national holidays throughout China, though most are foreign to non-Chinese minority cultures. The moon festival (15 August) is for Chinese a day for family reunion; but it reminds many Mongols of the history of Chinese rebellion against the (Mongolian) Yuan dynasty. Indeed, legend has it that Chinese rebels used moon-cakes to pass a secret massage “to kill Tartars [Mongols] on 15 August”.

In China, revolution and class are giving way to capitalism and “tradition”. The most seriously celebrated Chinese national holidays are now all Han Chinese in origin. This brings questions of ethnic sensitivity come into play. True, Han Chinese form the overwhelming majority of the population; and Ding Xueliang says that installing a national holiday with a non-Chinese minority origin would require a very complicated legislative procedure. The Chinese state already has enough problems in adapting the calendar and keeping the people in line.

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17 Responses to “China’s seasonal politics”

  1. my mother Says:


    Stop spouting this freaking Chinese = Han and non-Han ≠ Chinese idiocy.

    It seems that it is not so much about Chinese Seasonal Politics, but rather your, or more precisely, DL’s brand of politics.

  2. raventhorn4000 Says:

    I think the Moon festival came way before rebellion against the Mongols.

    and, Qinming Festival (Tomb Sweeping day) originated from Hanshi Day (寒食节, literally, Day with cold food only), a memorial day for Jie Zitui (介子推, or Jie Zhitui, 介子推). Jie Zitui died in 636 BC in the Spring and Autumn Period.

    It’s BEFORE the 1st Chinese Imperial dynasty!

    And Qingming became a full national holiday during the Tang Dynasty, which was ruled by part-Han (part non-Han) Chinese emperors.

    *We can all be more sensitive to minority ethnic groups, but declaring that all national holidays in China are “Han” holidays is stretching the truth too far.

    At the very least, Christmas in a public holiday in China, and it’s Western in origin.

    Furthermore, Lunar New Year is celebrated across many many Asian nations.

    China also has numerous international holidays, such as 6/1 Children’s day, 3/8 women’s day, etc.

  3. Wukailong Says:

    Christmas is being celebrated more and more in China, but it isn’t a public holiday.

  4. ChinkTalk Says:

    The most celebrated days in Canada are St Valentine’s day, Mother’s day, and Halloween. In the States, Thanksgiving is more popular than Christmas. And hardly anybody goes to midnight mass anymore. The only celebration people would stay past midnight is during spring break. It used to be true that during noon time at every Good Friday, the sun would dim and the sky crepuscule, but for years now, we get nothing but bright sunshine at Good Friday noon.

    Last Chinese New Year, a fat white lady gave me a lisee (red envolope) not knowing that you are not supposed to give a grown man that stuff. And she was all giggly and happy because she is practicing a new tradition.

    And my kids are shocked to learn that when I was a kid, we used to eat fish on Fridays.

    And of course, contraception was a no no.

    So what is my point? I don’t really have a point when I try to explain human behavior.

  5. Josef Says:

    Taiwan has the teachers day on September 28. According to Wiki, Hongkong changed it to September 10, to be aligned with the mainland. Does China has a teachers day on September 10 and is Confucius officially rehabilitated?

  6. Wukailong Says:

    @Josef: The teacher’s day is on September the 10 on the Mainland, but unlike Woman’s Day, for example, it’s not a public holiday (women get half a day off on the latter).

    Confucius has been held in high esteem for quite some time since the reforms began, but I’m not sure he ever was that criticized to begin with, except the short time during the Cultural Revolution when the 批林批孔 campaign went on. Confucianism has made a big comeback in China and for high-ranking party members, filial piety is considered a qualifying factor in promotion.

  7. kui Says:

    Stop spouting this freaking Chinese = Han and non-Han ≠ Chinese idiocy.

    Can not agree more.

  8. Hohhot Says:

    Fact: some Chinese can be upset by the fact that China is a multi-ethnic state, Chinese are just one of many peoples in China.

  9. ChinkTalk Says:

    Fact: some Martians can be upset by the fact that Mars is a multi-ethnic state, Martians are just one of many peoples in Mars.

  10. pug_ster Says:

    I agree with Chinktalk. Some people out there always think there’s ulterior motives toward the way China thinks and does. And now Holidays, give me a break.

    I don’t think it is any different than here in the US. In president’s day, do you see anybody trying to commemorate the presidents? In Memorial day, I hear more people trying to get away from traffic and having BBQ’s than remembering the solders fighting in wars. Don’t get me started on Labor day.

  11. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Not all people who live in Tibet are Tibetans. (Well, let’s face it, Tibetans are originally nomads who came from Mongolia).

    Yet, I cannot hear the end of the talk of the “Greater Tibet.”

    Is that a “Greater insult” to all the non-Tibetans who were once conquered by the Tibetan military empire?

    Multi-ethnicity is everywhere.

    I seem to recall that some minority groups fear multi-ethnicity as “cultural genocide.”

  12. pug_ster Says:

    We can also talk about how other countries’ seasonal politics. Take Easter for example. Most people who celebrate Easter should think about the death of Jesus Christ. Instead, many people think of chocolate bunnies, and hiding the colored eggs. Where does it fit in the equation?

    Hohhot, Countries change, traditions change, people change, cultures change, society change and yes even the way how people celebrate and remember Holidays change. And to think some people here are trying to be politically correct of how other people should celebrate and/or remember Holidays.

  13. Steve Says:

    Hi pug_ster, actually the death of Jesus Christ is celebrated on Good Friday, a day where virtually no one gets a paid holiday. On Easter we celebrate his resurrection from the dead but since that’s always a Sunday, it’s also not a paid holiday. Different people celebrate religious holidays in different ways, so there’s no one general rule. Over time, most religious holidays are imbued with secular aspects. The Christmas celebrations in Asia that I saw had nothing to do with the reason for the holiday and everything to do with the celebratory manifestations of that holiday. As long as everyone was having a good time, it was fine with me.

    For me, celebrating the four major holidays in China was one of my favorite learning experiences when I lived there. I see nothing wrong with bringing them back but that’s up to the Chinese themselves and certainly not me.

  14. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Hear, hear, Steve,

    Holidays are about everyone having a good time.

    And if someone is not for some reason?

    Well, there were times when I didn’t feel like celebrating, perhaps because I don’t feel that the holidays were “mine”.

    I take the lessons from good friends: Try to be happy for other people.

    I’m in US, and there are very few Chinese holidays here, if any. But even if I cannot join in the fun with other people here, I’m happy for people who are having fun.

    That’s my philosophy.

  15. Raj Says:

    We get a paid holiday on Good Friday. But that’s common in the UK.

    Also the chocolate eggs are usually had to mark the end of Lent – most commonly consumed on Easter Sunday. Whilst many people might not know why Easter means chocolate, that’s their loss.

    As rt4000 says, we should all enjoy the holidays we get even if it’s just to relax and spend time with friends/family.

  16. S. K. Cheung Says:

    In Canada, Good Friday is also a statutory holiday. And Easter Monday is also a statutory holiday in lieu of Easter Sunday falling on a …well…Sunday. We also get stat holiday Mondays when other holidays happen to fall on a weekend. But recalling my time living in the US, Canada does have more statutory holidays.

  17. Rhan Says:

    Malaysia enjoy 16 days public holiday, I think among one of the highest in the world, however the paid leave (vacation days?) is very minimal start with 8 days. I believe the cause of the many public holidays is due to political reason as we have three major races here, we call ourselves a multi-racial and multi-religion country. The Malaysia Chinese celebrate most of the major Chinese festival including Qing Ming (清明), Zhong Qiu (中秋) and Duan Wu (端午) though there are not public holiday. We don’t celebrate Zhong Yang (重阳) and I think most of us don’t know what exactly is Zhong Yang anyway.

    My Japanese boss used to criticize Malaysia for having too many public holidays and one of my colleague debunk him mention that Japan with one single race know nothing about the outside world and never appreciate diversity, which I think is quite true. Malaysia has non-stop fighting and tussle toward race and religion issue but I have to admit that the decision/distribution on Public Holiday is a fair and reasonable one.

    I personally think China should delegate the decision to elect public holiday back to region, province or state. (perhaps they are, i don’t know)

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