During my time in China last month, two “holidays’ coincided, one that represents old China and one that represents new China.
The traditional holiday was songhanjie (送寒节), the day on which one is supposed to “send winter clothes” to his/her ancestors. The way to do this is by burning paper “clothes” (and money); as the item burns, its ashes are carried off to the departed ancestors. On the days leading up to the holiday, hawkers line the streets selling paper clothes, food, and money to burn.
Representing new China was “Single’s Day” (11.11 because of all the “ones), a recently made up holiday to promote online shopping. It can best be described as Black Friday, Cyber Monday all rolled in together and hopped up on steroids. Consider this: according to the BBC, China’s largest e-commerce company Alibaba made $14.3 billion in one day!
In the days following, Beijing was completely overrun by 3-wheeled delivery carts, the backbone of e-commerce in China.
A friend of mine wrote about the convergence of these old and new holidays over at the ChinaSource blog:
“As Singles Day demonstrates, the new China is definitely here, and it is a world that is increasingly familiar to many of us who have come from the outside. And yet I haven’t seen any piles of ashes on my WeChat feed, nor is there much chatter about the economic and social forces that compel so many young, rural men to risk their lives driving poorly maintained trucks over dangerous mountain roads. On a day that trumpets the supremacy of new China—when iPhones and iPads are purchased in staggering numbers from other iPhones and iPads—I kept crashing into the old China and the ways in which it continues to exert its influence over people’s lives. Let’s not be fooled by the familiarity of the flashing neon and growing conveniences we see on the surface: old China remains, distinct and different. In order for our witness to remain cogent and meaningful we must be careful not to lose sight of these less apparent aspects of life in China that continue to function as controlling narratives for many Chinese citizens.”
That’s a very good reminder, and, as they say, read the whole thing.