Financial Times, May 18, 2004


When Wu Bing'an, a retired professor from Liaoning University, wrote to authorities regarding protection of traditional customs and culture, he did not expect his appeal would create such a public stir. Wu wrote about the Duanwu Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and has long been regarded as an important traditional Chinese festival. On that day, people hold dragon boat races and eat zongzi, special dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves. When invited to an activity to mark the Duanwu Festival in the Republic of Korea (ROK) earlier this month, Professor Wu, also a member of the committee for the protection of traditional Chinese customs and culture, was told by his Korean counterpart the ROK is considering an application to list the festival in the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). On hearing the news, Wu wrote to a vice minister of China's Ministry of Culture, appealing for intensified efforts to preserve traditional Chinese customs. After the news was leaked to the media, defending the festival from being appropriated as another country's cultural heritage quickly became a hot topic of public discussion.

The public's enthusiasm and eagerness to keep our traditional customs and culture intact are understandable, but it is more important that we take actions to enrich our national heritage. The latest report confirmed that so far UNESCO's headquarters based in Paris has received no such application from the ROK. But even if the country really forwards such a proposal, we should take it normally. It is widely believed the Duanwu Festival originated in China some 2,500 years ago. This custom, however, was spread to Korea as long as 1,000 years ago. Over the past decades, unique Korea contents have been added into celebrations of the festival.

Splendid cultural heritages, no matter where they originated, together constitute the civilization of humanity and should be enjoyed and cherished by human beings everywhere. That is the very reason UNESCO set up the system of preserving precious cultural heritage in all nations. As a nation that boasts rich cultural heritage, China should have the confidence and broad mind to view the Dunan Festival issue realistically.

When the news was driven home, what we think about should not be whether the ROK is qualified to make such an application, but a thorough review of our practices of preserving traditional culture. On this point, we have to admit what we have done is far from enough. As early as 1967, the Duanwu Festival was listed as a national cultural heritage in the ROK. In China, the festival itself is unknown to many young people, let alone its connection with Qu Yuan, a great poet some 2,500 years ago. Our country began to emphasize the importance of preservation of traditional customs and culture only several years ago. Compared to the bustling Christmas and Valentine's Day festivities that have been introduced here in recent years, the cold and cheerless atmosphere surrounding many traditional Chinese festivals is downright disgraceful. Shouldn't this phenomenon be cause for consternation?