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June 6, 2011

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Putting meaning back into old festivals

FOR years folk experts warned that traditional festivals were hollow, merely days for eating special foods. Now the Dragon Boat Festival is a public holiday and Chinese reflect on its meaning, reports Yao Minji.

For the past month, 67-year-old Wang Yuqin, a retired high school teacher in Shanghai, has been counting the days until the Dragon Boat Festival (duan wu), which falls today.

Last weekend, she took her nine-year-old grandson to City God Temple and got multicolored silk, long red strings, Chinese herbs like bai zhi (angelica dahurica), sweet-flag leaf (calamus) and cang shu (Chinese atractylodes). These she uses to fashion sachets of herbs that are insect repellents and once said to ward off evil. These sachets and bags of herbs are seen hanging in front of pharmacies these days as people get ready for the festival.

"When I was little, and even when my daughter was a child, we used to celebrate the festival with a lot of old traditions, but somehow, gradually it just became a day for eating zongzi (dumplings of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves)," Wang tells Shanghai Daily.

Five years ago she realized that the old traditions and meaning had gone out of the festival. That was when her grandson suddenly asked her, "Granny, can we go race dragon boats?" The child was disappointed because both parents had to work, and there wasn't any dragon boat race to watch or join.

In 2008, after many sociologists and experts in folk customs expressed concern that old festival traditions were being lost, the government officially added the Qingming Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival to the list of public holidays, when people can take a day off from work.

For many people, these additional holidays, especially when they can take a three-day weekend, become a great time for a family trip. And for some families like Wang's, the holidays give them a chance to revive some fading traditions.

"I closely followed the whole discussion from proposal to the final announcement on the holiday," says Wang. "We celebrated it by making zongzi, silk scent bags and hair accessories with my grandson, just as we did when my daughter was a child."

"It was great. The boy was happy, and we felt nostalgic for old times. So we did it again last year and we are doing it this year for the third time."

Like Wang's family, 31-year-old Jack Ma also plans to take his five-year-old daughter shopping for the festival.

"I'm very excited. I plan to make a red silk bag for dad, a green one for mom and a pink one for myself," Ma's daughter says.

But she used to think of the festival only as a day to eat zongqi, glutinous rice balls, stuffed with sweet filling and wrapped in leaves.

Culture experts have long warned about the loss of tradition since many Chinese families have come to associate some festivals only with food - zongi for the Dragon Boat Festival, yuanxiao dumplings for the Lantern Festival and moon cakes for the Mid-autumn Festival.

Considering festivals as days to eat special food has made it easy to forget the essence of the festivals. Long ago when people were poorer and diets were simpler, these special snacks were delicacies made especially for festivals. Today snacks are available all year round.

"The aspect of dispelling illness and wishing for health is an important part of the Dragon Boat Festival, and should be vigorously promoted since food security and health is a pressing topic today," says Tian Zhaoyuan, professor of anthropology and folk customs at East China Normal University.


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