By James Jeffrey
The poetry of Walt Whitman has lasted more than 150 years. The poetry of Shakespeare more than 400. Both are outdone by the Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who wrote more than 2,000 years ago and is still remembered in China where a major national holiday, the Dragon Boat Festival, is held annually in his honor.
The lunar festival occurs each June, this year the 6th, and involves the making and eating of zongzi—cone-shaped wedges of sticky rice wrapped in reed leaves—and racing ornately decorated dragon boats on Chinese rivers. The tradition has even helped inspire dragon-boat racing in Austin, Texas, and other Western cities.
Despite its popularity, there’s a contradiction at the heart of the poet’s fete. For many in today’s China, where breakneck economic development is driving social change, the Dragon Boat Festival’s biggest appeal is simply getting a day off work. It’s a familiar problem: many a country’s rising economy and the affluence it brings has generated apathy about tending traditional roots. To prevent that fate befalling China, authorities are pushing an appreciation of the country’s cultural treasures, including Qu Yuan—and conversations suggest that at least some Chinese are solidly behind the effort to preserve historical perspective.
“If you remember your traditions, you are loyal to your country,” said Wang Jihuai, 90, as she took her walk around Houhai Lake—a popular spot with tourists and locals in Beijing—on the day of the festival. “Remembering the festival means you are loyal, as Qu Yuan was loyal.”
Qu Yuan was not only a poet, but also a distinguished statesman who criticized corruption among the State of Chu’s elite and defended the people’s rights. As a result, he had many enemies among aristocratic cliques who eventually had him banished from Ying, the state’s capital, which then fell to enemy forces in 278 B.C.
In his great sorrow, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Miluo River of Hunan Province. The locals were so distraught they took boats onto the river and threw rice into the water, hoping it would prevent the fish from disturbing Qu Yuan’s body.
“Everyone knows about Qu Yuan,” said Zhang Leyan, a 26-year-old dance teacher also at Beijing’s Houhai Lake, “even though his poems may now not be so relevant to our lives and culture.”
According to Wang Xinyue, a comparative literature student at Beijing Capital Normal University, Qu Yuan’s behavior was crucial to his being remembered. “He was the first patriotic poet in Chinese history,” she said. “His loyalty set a good example for the Chinese people,” adding that when the government became concerned people were forgetting the tradition, officials expanded the one-day festival into a three-day holiday to encourage remembrance and celebration.
China’s rich cultural heritage suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976—Mao Zedong’s experiment in breaking from the past by destroying historic artifacts and entire traditional customs. In addition, the government actively discouraged people from honoring any history that didn’t include the Chinese Communist Party or Mao.
Today the government’s interest in preserving the full range of Chinese culture, seems to be having some impact.
At Wangfujing Bookstore in Beijing, an employee who wouldn’t provide her name due to the store being state-owned, said poetry texts are selling well, though mostly with students and professors. “The government is making an effort to encourage students to learn about poetry and culture,” she said. “More and more are learning about them.”
But in today’s China, the issue of cultural traditions isn’t always the first thing on non-academic people’s minds. “The Dragon Boat Festival has nothing to do with me,” said Lou Zhenhua, a 22-year-old Beijing restaurant worker. “I don’t pay attention to these festivals as my profession has nothing to do with them.” He added, if time permitted, he might join friends to celebrate but he expected he’d be too busy.
“It’s an unavoidable trend becoming commercialized,” said Yong Fan Xing, 38, an associate professor at Central Normal University’s Center for Studies of Chinese Poetry. He explained that traditional festivals become focused on particular elements—with the Dragon Boat Festival it’s the zongzi. “The object is gradually taking the place of the true significance of the festival,” he said.
While China’s economic juggernaut thunders on, people are increasingly looking to the future and more comfortable, modern lifestyles and good jobs. Given the previous turbulence of China’s relationship with its own culture, the government now appears ready to protect it, though for intentions not entirely decipherable—cultural mores can make for useful political tools.
Yong said that due to the process of globalization, the Chinese people are becoming more Westernized—eating Big-Macs, drinking coffee—but are still Chinese as they’re a people with their own culture and history.
“The differences between China and others will always exist,” he said, “and retaining the cultural history will help remind us who we are.”