When you think about it, “Happy Halloween” is an oddly cheerful greeting to use for a festival that celebrates the macabre and the supernatural. But, in China, the inherent contradictions of All Hallow’s Eve are clearly apparent to both its celebrants and detractors.
Like other Western festivals such as its multiple versions of “Valentine’s Day”, Halloween has become very popular in China. Retailers and the country’s younger generation have become very receptive towards dressing up and “Trick or Treating”.
But as much as the festival has gained acceptance throughout the country, Halloween has become increasingly controversial.
Three years ago, a Halloween promotion on the Wuhan Metro went awry when women passengers became “scared and shouted” at the sight of Qing Dynasty-era zombies passing out leaflets. And then a couple of weeks ago, a promotional stunt based on Korean zombie film Train to Busan (shown above) was denounced by the Chengdu Metro for “frightening passengers” and “harming civilization”, resulting in a ban on any further scary costumes.
Even though commercial interests are willing to adopt new trends from abroad as a promotional device, China’s conservativism resists any change.
The acceptance of Halloween in China faces a two-pronged attack. Superstitious beliefs held by a number of Chinese lead an aversion to spooky depictions of ghouls and ghosts, while government authorities have cracked down on media depictions of the occult and the supernatural, a law that led to the banning of skeletons in popular MMO World of Warcraft.
However, if we listen to China’s schools, the most frightening thing about Halloween isn’t its scary costumes, but that it is a Western idea creeping into Chinese culture. For this reason, the spooky season of Halloween gets lumped in with the goodwill yuletide wishes of Christmas.
In 2014, education authorities in Wenzhou, Zhejiang banned all city schools from holding any Christmas-related events. Over in Changsha, Hunan, university students wearing traditional Chinese clothing carried signs denouncing Christmas at a holiday event.
The following year, the Modern College of Northwest University concluded that China should stop celebrating Western holidays after 36 people died in a fatal New Year’s trampling incident on the Shanghai Bund.
“It’s just one small aspect of the phenomenon of Chinese worshipping foreign things,” explained He Youlin, deputy to the National People’s Congress and former principal of Sun Yat-sen Memorial Middle School in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province. “The sense of national identity has declined.”
But even though Chinese President Xi Jinping specifically warned against adopting “Western capitalist ideology,” Halloween remains a non-Chinese festival that is widely celebrated at kindergartens across China.
This Halloween has seen scores of Chinese parents dress up their children in costumes to participate in celebrations led by English-speaking foreign teachers. And with costumes readily available for purchase online, dressing up for Halloween has become part of the jousting for high social standing in Chinese society.
A pirate mask and a plastic pumpkin turned out to be inadequate Halloween preparations for one Beijing parent. “When I saw my kid was jealous of his classmates and their costumes, I felt a bit sorry,” said Xu Lei.
And though depictions of ghosts remain taboo in China, this child’s costume as “No-Face” from Japanese film Spirited Away has become the most viral Chinese image this Halloween (watch video here):
Children aren’t the only people celebrating Halloween in China. Young women are getting into the holiday spirit through their favorite method of self-expression, the selfie, which now allow for spooky alternations to be digitally added.
As with most trends, celebrities are leading the way. Here’s Independence Day: Resurgence star Angelababy defacing her doctor-approved non-cosmetically altered features by sporting a Glasgow smile:
Called “extremely lifelike” by iFeng, here’s Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl star Jacqueline Lulu as an alluring vampire:
And here’s iPartment sitcom star Loura Lu as a cute demon:
And even though other Halloween-themed promotions have been met with resistance, the recent release of the Tony Leung-Takeshi Kaneshiro film See You Tomorrow went all-out with their Halloween associations, albeit substituting spooky overtones with a “wrestling” theme:
Halloween is definitely here to stay in China, as are its bans and denouncements. It doesn’t make much sense, but then neither does “Happy Halloween”.