Diffusion, Memes and Celebrations: What makes some national identities more interesting than others?

On Savage Minds, Kerim Friedman blogged about Chinese Dragon Boat races, looking back to their putative origin in  a festival commemorating the death of poet Qu Yuan (Chinese: 屈原) (c. 340 BCE – 278 BCE) of the ancient state of Chu, in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. Fuji Lozada comments that Dragon Boat Racing  


"is a growing international sport. Here in Charlotte, North Carolina, I helped with a group largely consisting of the Asian Chamber of Commerce start an annual race, where I first learned about the many groups here in the US that practice and travel together to different competitions. They are sometimes outgrowths of different groups, i.e., a Laotian social group or breast cancer survivors. In the inaugural race, our college sponsored a boat (which I rowed in, missing my chance at crew as an undergrad), and somehow we managed to win first place!


"I remember watching races in Nanjing about 5 years ago, in support of the SAIS-Nanjing crew, which got pummeled by the corporate-sponsored boats. I’m wondering if Chan’s article looked at the boats themselves – I’ve heard that the best boats for dragon-boat racing are German. I looked into buying a boat for the college (back then, around US $25,000 complete, with trailer), which is how I found out about the German boats from other more experienced, more knowledgeable racers."


These observations evoke for me a problem for anthropological theory that I have been pondering, not very seriously, for several years. Why is it that celebrations associated with only a handful of national identities have not only spread worldwide but also attracted participation by people with little or no claim to the identities in question? Dragon Boat Races (Chinese) are one example; Samba parades (Brazil), St. Patricks Day (Irish) and Burns Suppers (Scottish) also come to mind. Others may suggest additional candidates—how did I forget Oktoberfest? But I would hazard a guess that the list would stop at no more than a dozen familiar examples.  


Diffusion is, of course, a classic anthropological problem, albeit one neglected and left to likes of rural sociologists after the rise of structural functionalism. Memes have also stirred considerable debate. The spread of global religions and political ideologies might be seen as larger examples of similar cultural processes. But what is it, in particular, about Dragon Boat Races, Samba parades, green beer and celtic music, or bagpipes, haggis, and men dressing up in kilts and the other regalia that make up "the full fig" for the celebration of a Scottish poet's birthday, for example, events that attract people who are neither Chinese, Brazlian, Irish nor Scottish to participate in these events, claiming for themselves, at least one day a year, the national identity in question?


Ideas, anyone?

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Comment by John McCreery on June 29, 2011 at 7:49pm
In point of fact, the examples were suggested by experience in Japan, where Samba and Dragon Boat Races are established institutions, and every metropolitan area boasts several Irish pubs that throw St.Patrick's day parties. The majority of those participating in all of these events are Japanese. Burns Suppers are in a different league, associated with St.Andrew Societies and the cricket, rugby, tennis clubs set up in outposts of the former British Empire. In Japan, however, these events also attract Japanese participants.
Comment by Keith Hart on June 29, 2011 at 9:18am

In most of these cases, are we not talking about the US as a place where national celebrations are taken up more widely by the general population? In which case, I would say that one explanation is that Americans, having escaped from history, tragic nationalism and sectarian conflict, feel free to celebrate whatever they like. Most people in the Old World don't.

Last St Patrick's Day my daughter, who is a British Californian, sent out a picture of shamrocks to her Facebook friends, including me. I sent her a churlish note, "Since when did we celebrate with the Micks?" which I thought was prviate but it was actually posted on her wall. You can imagine the response I got from her Irish friends.


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