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Valentine’s Day Blues

Valentine's Day in China is big business, but are traditional romantic festivals being left behind in the rush to capitalize?

02·14·2012

Valentine’s Day Blues

Valentine's Day in China is big business, but are traditional romantic festivals being left behind in the rush to capitalize?

02·14·2012

Today is Valentine’s Day. I couldn’t fail to notice this as I left our office on my way to lunch today. Filled with excitement and joy, I couldn’t believe my luck when a taxi seemed to intuitively know I was coming, and slowed to a crawl right in front of me. The driver even looked directly at me, but just as I reached the seemingly empty cab, I noticed the back seat was occupied by a massive bunch of roses. I was shooed away. Woe is me.

Despite my griping, restaurants all over China’s major cities will be smacking their lips in anticipation of netting happy couples prepared to pay whatever it takes to impress their loved ones. In the words of one restaurateur, who asked not to be named for reasons which will shortly become obvious, Valentine’s Day allows all restaurants to unite in their complicity to rip their customers off.

It seems unfortunate to me that China has fallen victim to the rampant commercialism and oppressing obligation to be romantic that Valentine’s Day inspires. This is especially true as China has its very own day of romance, traditionally celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Qixi Festival (七夕节), literally “The Night of Sevens”, appears to be dying a slow death at the hands of the commercial juggernaut that accompanies Valentine’s Day. What’s more, the story behind the Chinese festival is infinitely more romantic than the jumble of myths and half-truths that form the background to Valentine’s Day’s romantic connotations (no one appears able to accurately pin down the tradition’s historical background).

The Chinese legend tells of a young farm boy, the Herd-boy (牛郎 niúláng), who falls in love with a beautiful maiden, the Weaving-girl (织女 zhīnǚ), who happens to be the daughter of a powerful goddess. Naturally, the two conceal their love from the powers that be in heaven, and elope to make merry and have babies. However, unions between goddesses and mortals were strictly forbidden, so the goddess summoned her daughter back to heaven. The Herd-boy wasn’t having any of this, and set off in search of his beloved, only to have the goddess discover his intentions and tear a river through the sky, now known as the Milky Way, to separate the two lovers forever. However, once a year, all the world’s magpies take pity on the lovers, ascend to heaven and form a bridge over which the two can meet for one night only.

How’s that for romance? The festival’s traditions are still alive and kicking in Taiwan, where men occasionally abide by a somewhat expensive tradition of buying their loved one assorted numbers of roses. One red rose represents the singularity of love, 11 connotes the slightly dubious virtue of being “a favorite”, 99 means “forever” and 108 roses is effectively a marriage proposal. I asked one former Chinese colleague why his countrymen had allowed this inspiring tradition to lapse. His reply: “外来的和尚好念经,” which roughly translates as “stuff from outside is better.” However, some netizens appear to have got the right idea (in my view, anyway). Recent posts on Weibo poke fun at Valentine Day’s supposed obligations. A common exchange doing the rounds goes something like this:

Q: 你打算怎么过情人节?How will you celebrate Valentine’s Day?

A: 略“过”. This literally means “I’ll celebrate it simply”, but really carries the meaning “to skip,” a mocking reply made by singles with no one to celebrate with. If only more couples would do the same thing today, and at least wait until later in the year to get their romance on.

 

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