left corner left corner
China Daily Website

Keeping the spirit

Updated: 2013-06-17 15:48
By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily)

Ancient rituals were mostly born out of either inconvenience or a respect for the unknown. We didn't know what happened to those beloved who left us, so we would burn ghost money and paper-folded assets during the Qingming Festival. If we are absolutely certain our ancestors would not be using that money to buy up properties in whichever level of heaven they are now, it would look ridiculous, right? It is safe to say Chinese holidays, or holidays of most countries, are not created by scientists. Sometimes we need to resort to the metaphysical to appease our heart and soul.

Back to Duanwu, which is also known as the Dragon Boat Festival. I've never seen a dragon-boat race except on TV, let alone taken part in one, and I grew up in a place crisscrossed with rivers. There are many practices associated with the occasion and different places often emphasize one or two of them. In my hometown we don't drink realgar wine or race dragon boats, but we do eat zongzi. And the origin story for zongzi in relation to the great poet has many versions. We all know Qu Yuan was a great patriot, but few could digest his poetry, with the exception of the couple of oft-quoted lines. I had to use Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang's English translation to decipher the Chinese original, which was written in an archaic language only linguists and literature professors can fathom.

If left to ordinary people, we would rather create a public holiday that celebrates Li Bai, the Tang Dynasty poet known for his hard drinking and, when drunk, penning some of the most sublime and also highly accessible verses in the Chinese language.

I have a vague notion that customs fall into two categories: those endorsed by the government and those ignored by the government. Official endorsement brings the gloss of media coverage, but most of the rituals tend to be staged, devoid of spontaneity while grassroots activities shared by one village or a large swath of the population often go unnoticed by everybody except a handful of diehard anthropologists. For example, survivors of the quarter million people killed in the 1976 Tangshan earthquake have made it a ritual to burn joss paper in the wee hours of July 28, a sight briefly portrayed in Feng Xiaogang's movie Aftershock. However, the officially sanctioned commemoration is to lay flowers at the memorial wall that was erected only in recent years. Which way has sustaining power?

Traditions and the holidays that celebrate them are bound to be chaotic and evolving. Once you preordain them with strict conventions, you'll risk disconnecting what is done from what is meant. In this sense, it is good that people can choose to love or hate the three-day combo deal of the past week as they see fit, just as they can pick whatever fillings for their zongzi. It's the spirit that counts.

For more X-Ray, click here


Previous Page 1 2 3 Next Page

  • Group a building block for Africa

    An unusually heavy downpour hit Durban for two days before the BRICS summit's debut on African soil, but interest for a better platform for emerging markets were still sparked at the summit.