Debate Over Chinese New Year vs Lunar New Year Rooted in Misplaced Patriotism

26 Jan 2023
Yue He Parkinson at CLD dinner

The British Museum recently held an event to celebrate the Korean Lunar New Year, which was criticised by Chinese internet users for displaying "ignorance of history". They also accused Korea of stealing the Chinese Lunar New Year concept. The museum removed links to the event from its website and social media channels without explanation.

The Chinese critics of the museum believe the Lunar New Year celebration is exclusive to China, because in China's education system, one rarely hears of other East Asian countries celebrating the festival.

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was a new international student in the United Kingdom, a Chinese friend complained, "The Koreans actually think that the Dragon Boat Festival is theirs." I was surprised, too, and thought the Koreans were wrong.

That some Chinese international students went to the British Museum on January 20 to "rectify" the mistake for passers-by is the result of the patriotism cultivated in all Chinese citizens, most whom subconsciously feel obliged to defend China's reputation.

When I used to defend China unconditionally before, my British husband thought I was being unreasonable. But I thought I was standing up for the Chinese people.

A week ago, Chinese Liberal Democrats co-founder Merlene Toh Emerson invited me to attend the organisation's "Dumplings Legends" event as part of "Lunar New Year celebrations". If I were still an international student, I would have wondered how a Singaporean could call herself Chinese and why she hadn't specified that the event was being held to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year.

But having lived in the UK for a long time, I have dispelled my previous cultural narrow-mindedness. Now I know that the Chinese Liberal Democrats comprise Chinese people from around the world, not just mainland China, and that Lunar New Year here does not specifically refer to the Chinese Lunar New Year, because the festival is also celebrated in Vietnam, Korea, Singapore and other countries.

While Chinese students in the UK do not understand this British common sense, the first generation of mainland Chinese immigrants should. I recently described myself as a "1.5-generation immigrant", because I am not like my children, second-generation immigrants whose values are in sync with the UK's because they were born and raised here. However, I am also unlike many first-generation Chinese immigrants, because my thinking on British society and politics has evolved.

While the Chinese critics of the British Museum and Korea see speaking out as signalling their love of China, a gesture that will be applauded in mainland China, I believe their actions have left a negative impression of China on the British Museum and Korean society.

I also wonder how first-generation Chinese immigrants will get along in the UK now that the country has become increasingly politically distant from the Chinese government.

When China and the UK had a good relationship, most first-generation immigrants were happy to be the bridge between the two countries, telling the Chinese story in and exporting Chinese culture to the UK.

I understand this position. For a first-generation immigrant, it is difficult to understand and accept British society and culture, let alone to make a name for oneself in the UK. And making a name for oneself is an aspiration of many contemporary Chinese people.

If one cannot achieve this dream in the UK, then one would look for opportunities in mainland China, where one has family, friends and networks, and try to leverage the advantages of being in the UK. Such thinking, often unrelated to political positions, is pragmatic.

But the golden diplomatic relationship between China and Britain is long gone. Two first-generation Chinese immigrant women - one from mainland China, the other from Hong Kong - who were close to the top political echelons in both countries and who were once seen as the leading Chinese elite in the UK have been criticised by the British media, and both have now disappeared from the public eye.

Away from the political arena, China and the UK still cooperate in the cultural sphere. While Downing Street's annual Chinese New Year celebration has become a Lunar New Year event encompassing the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and other communities, at the annual Chinese New Year celebration in London, seen as a "celebration for the Chinese community", with Chinese embassy officials making speeches, the Lunar New Year still seems to be Chinese.

Yue Parkinson is a freelance writer and bilingual author of China and the West: Unravelling 100 Years of Misunderstanding, and China's Ukraine Dilemma: The Shaping of a New World Order