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More old Chinese customs come under modern threat
2014-09-01
By Doug Young

A COUPLE of items in the headlines this week are shining a spotlight on threats to some age-old Chinese traditions and raising the question of whether they’re worth continuing and whether they should be modified. The first involves ancient Chinese literature, following the city’s decision to scrap previous mandatory study of classical poetry for first-graders starting this year.

The second tradition involves mooncakes, which are already starting to flood into our local stores and into news headlines as the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on September 8. This year I’ll skip the usual stories about favorite flavors and the black market for mooncake coupons. Instead, I’ll focus on a newer angle that has many companies ending the annual practice of giving mooncakes as gifts to their clients.

The value of traditions is always a very sensitive subject, generating strong debate between those who think such customs are an inherent part of local culture, and those who say traditions should adapt to the times.

One such ongoing debate surrounds the future of the local Shanghai dialect, and my view has always been that this colorful element of local life needs to be modified or “repurposed” to have relevance in modern life in order to survive.

Perhaps the same could be said of a similar new debate, following the city’s decision to remove all classical poetry from the textbook used for most of the city’s first-graders this fall. Removal of the eight poems was part of an effort to slim down the textbooks, with a broader aim of lightening the workload for many of the city’s overworked students.

While many parents and teachers were pleasantly surprised by these slimmer textbooks and lighter workload, a few inevitably bemoaned the loss of this important piece of Chinese culture from the curriculum of Shanghai’s youngest students.

In this case, I have to side with the teachers who made the original proposal to cut out the classical poems. After all, who is anyone trying to fool? A 6-year-old kid has about zero interest in these poems and would be better served getting exercise by playing outside with his or her friends. Even if some of these kids were interested in the subject, such poems are written in such an old style of classical Chinese that they’re difficult for even adults to read.

That’s not to say that these poems aren’t an important part of Chinese culture, as many are classics equivalent to Shakespearean sonnets. But most Americans don’t usually start to study Shakespeare or any other classics until middle school at the earliest, and there’s really no need for Chinese students to get such an early start on their own classics.

From poetry, let’s move to the second changing custom involving another Chinese classic, the mooncake. We’re just a week away from this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, and even I can sense a little less mooncake excitement in the air than usual. I’m seeing fewer people carrying boxes of the crusty cakes around, and have yet to receive any myself.

Of course very few people actually eat the mooncakes, which are quite greasy. Instead, many end up going to waste, resulting in scandals like one last year when a group of entrepreneurs were busted for recycling filling from unsold or discarded moon cakes.

Firms halt mooncake gifts

I got an explanation for this year’s lower-profile for mooncakes while talking with a friend who works at a state-owned insurance company. Normally, he said, he and his colleagues would get dozens of boxes of mooncakes each year that they could give out as seasonal gifts to their clients.

But this year many companies have stopped paying for these gifts, as part of a broader government austerity drive that has dealt major blows to the catering, high-end liquor and luxury product industries. My friend said that any colleagues who want to give mooncakes to clients this year must personally shop for the gifts and pay with their own money.

While I agree with this mooncake crackdown in principle, this particular campaign does seem a bit extreme. A much more reasonable approach would be to give each employee a quota, perhaps five or 10 boxes, which could then be given to the most important clients. But then again, people have been engaged in such wasteful gift giving for so long that perhaps such draconian measures are now needed to change their attitudes.

At the end of the day, neither the expunging of poems from first-grade textbooks or the cutback in mooncake giving will seriously harm these centuries-old traditions that indeed help to define what it means to be Chinese. Instead, such moves help to bring a dose of 21st century realism to these age-old practices, as part of an ongoing and necessary re-evaluation process to determine their relevance in the present.


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