Bare branches and single celebrations

Growing up in Australia I knew November 11th as Armistice Day, the day that WWI ended in Western Europe – on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. It wasn’t a public holiday, but I remember stopping in class for 1 or 2 minutes’ silence at 11am.

In China, November 11th is something different. About twenty years ago, some college students took to celebrating their single status with an anti-Valentines’ day. They chose, of course, 11.11 – the day made up of four single ones! In Chinese it is 光棍节 [guāng gùn jié], literally “bare sticks holiday” – a slang for bachelors, since their branches remain unblossomed (without children). In English, Guanggun Jie is usually called Singles’ Day.

“Bachelors of the world unite!” I’ve seen several pictures online that spoof old Communist posters with Singles’ Day slogan. This one, from 2011, is my favourite.

It may have started as a joke, but Singles’ Day is now a huge phenomenon. Singles plan parties to celebrate being single, or to mix with other singles (and perhaps end their singleness). On the way home last night a taxi driver told me that the traffic would be awful tonight with so many people out celebrating. Contrary to Chinese tradition (in which the host pays for everyone, or people fight to be the one who pays the bill) everyone pays their own way – a symbol of singleness.

In 2011, Singles’ Day was a really big day  – 11.11.11! Some called it “Super Singles’ Day”. There were a huge number of weddings on this day (apparently somewhere around ten times the average). I guess having your wedding on Singles’ Day is one way to celebrate the end of your singleness! Proposals are also common on November 11th. Blind date parties have become a big thing. On Super Singles’ Day in 2011, the city of Shanghai held a huge blind date party which brought together 10,000 singles. (The picture above was for Super Singles’ Day).

Singles’ Day has also become a MASSIVE shopping day, especially online. Gift-giving quickly became part of the tradition (which makes sense, since gift-giving is huge in Chinese culture in general). Many companies expect to see a months’ worth of sales on this one day. Last year Alibaba (the biggest online retailer in China) processed over $3 billion in sales on Singles’ Day; this year they project sales of nearly $5 billion. Online shopping is a huge growth market in China – from virtually none when I arrived in 2004 to this display of purchasing power. It really is a different China to the one I arrived in! (If you want to know more, here’s a good article to read).

The author of the blog I found this cartoon on wishes people would pay more attention to love than shopping on Singles' Day...

The author of the blog on which I found this cartoon – which I love – wishes people would pay more attention to love than shopping on Singles’ Day…

When talking about Chinese tradition, we can’t forget about food! The food tradition for Singles’ Day is breakfast for one – four you tiao, and one bao zi. You tiao are a very common breakfast here. They are deep fried sticks of dough, at once crunchy and airy, eaten with Chinese zhou a sweet, watery rice gruel. Bao zi are steamed bread dumplings, sometimes plain and sometimes with various meat and/or vegetable fillings. Together, the four you tiao and the bao zi represent the 1s and the full stop in the date: 11.11

“Happy Singles’ Day”

I think what I love most about this new trend is that it’s part of a growing Chinese belief that the accepted norm of family and relationships doesn’t work for everyone. Sure, for most people it’s still believed that everyone needs to be single while studying, married by 25 and have a kid by 30 (especially the girls) but there is slowly more flexibility. While 4-5 years ago I was regularly chided that I should be married and have a kid by my age (then 27) these days, despite having passed the dreaded 30, I often hear a more relaxed point of view – that having some time living independently is not all bad, and that early marriage isn’t for everyone. I have had many Chinese friends who encountered tremendous pressure from family to marry before they were ready, or pressure to find the right person yesterday – or else! As silly as singles’ day is, I hope it means the stigma of singleness is slowly lifting for Chinese.


3 thoughts on “Bare branches and single celebrations

  1. Pingback: I’m going to miss my xiaomaibu | Tanya's Stories

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