Christmas is hot, hot, hot in China

merry christmas 1 lg 20050710Merry fifth day of Christmas, everyone. I still have a lot of Christmas coverage left in my email inbox, and I hope to get to some of it in the midst of my travels.

One of the most interesting stories of the pre-Christmas coverage was a Beijing-datelined feature by Edward Cody in The Washington Post. The heart of this story focuses on a question raised by some elite gradate students in China, but it is a question that is just as newsworthy in almost any North American context, as well.

So, is Christmas a Christian holiday or not? And, even it it is not a Christian holiday, does celebrating the holiday at all chain people to Western values and commercialism?

From a pure Chinese perspective, it’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Here’s a major chunk of the story:

The students, from such elite institutions as Tsinghua, Peking and People’s universities, wrote a weighty-sounding open letter complaining that Christmas is a Christian holiday imported from the West and suggesting that Chinese should stick to the traditions and festivals observed in their own culture.

“We 10 doctoral students from different universities and research institutes solemnly call on our countrymen to be cautious about Christmas, to wake from their collective cultural coma and give Chinese culture the dominant role,” they wrote in a letter posted … on the government-controlled China Daily Web site.

In some ways, the students’ sentiments harked back to former policies of China’s Communist Party, when foreigners were regarded with suspicion and Chinese who fraternized with them were warned of the dangers of “spiritual pollution.” But more broadly, the students took issue with the pervasive influence of Western culture since China opened to the world 25 years ago. They also resent the willingness of many Chinese to embrace foreign goods and fashions as superior to their own.

Thus, the students proposed boycotting Christmas — as a blow against the modern Western invasion of their culture via mass media, commercialism, etc. Instead, they suggested that Chinese citizens focus on old-fashioned values, such as Buddhism, Daoism and mainstream Confucian philosophy.

And all the people said, “Amen”?

ChinaChristmas SantaMao 051206Not quite. When the letter was posted, thousands of writers weighed in to say that Christmas is harmless fun — nothing more. Think of this as a pre-Olympics form of cultural exchange on a mass scale.

However, note again that the key issue is culture, not faith.

He Liangliang, a well-known commentator on the Hong Kong-based Phoenix television station, said it is “absurd” to suggest that China’s 5,000-year-old culture is suffering under Western attack. “As a matter of fact, Chinese culture has developed a lot while embracing other cultures,” he said. “It is not necessary to boycott Western culture. You just can’t.”

Others, however, agreed with the students, lamenting a fashion that they said tends to play down the value of China’s own traditions in favor of Western-style commercialism. “I will applaud those doctoral students who advocate boycotting Christmas this Christmas season,” said Yin Jianguang, an editorial writer at Huashang newspaper in the central province of Shaanxi. “Chinese people don’t understand Christmas, yet they celebrate Christmas. I think the reason is that they worship foreign things and fawn on foreign powers.”

And what about the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?

By the end of the story we are told that the 800 seats at the St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral midnight Mass will be full — researved seating, in fact. You have to laugh (to keep from crying) at the marvelous details that the Mass has become a hot ticket “for worshipers, but also for college students who regard it as a trendy date.”

Like I said, the big question raised by the story is this: Is Christmas Christian, in the modern Western context? That’s a great question in Beijing, London, New York, Los Angeles and lots of other places. This story is a must read.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Andrew

    That really is an interesting article, especially in conjunction with the story a few months back about foreigners in Japan moonlighting as Roman Catholic priests, play-acting at weddings.

    I studied and lived for a time at Tsinghua University in Beijing. My landlady had grown up in a Christian home in Shandong province, and although not an active Christian herself she was an interesting example of someone explicitly pro-Christian and explicitly anti-foreign (within limits). Tsinghua is traditionally a lot less political than Peking University, and students there certainly don’t carry the party line the same way they do at People’s University, but I’m also not surprised to read that students there are starting to react. Pictures of Santa Claus are ubiquitous, year-round. We in America tend to get upset that marketers have pushed the Christmas season gradually up to October. Imagine dealing with the decorations in March, and without any sort of cultural context.

    The ongoing diminishing importance of Chinese traditions isn’t going to stop anytime soon. Twenty years ago festivals like Chinese New Year meant family reunions, the country shutting down since with nobody working. Now the demands of the market economy are gradually chipping away at that, people won’t be able to afford not to work.

    Of course, Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, is approximately 10% Catholic. Beijing has fewer Christians, and fewer religious of any persuasion, than that, but they aren’t non-existent. I wonder how believers in both the official and underground churches feel about the Christmas wars heading their way.

  • Francis W. Porretto

    It might not be Christian in the most desirable sense…but it has potential. We commemorate the birth of Christ as we do because it is an occasion for wonder and joy: wonder that God Himself should have deigned to become one of us, and joy that He did so for our sakes.

    The Chinese are a sufficiently thoughtful people that a goodly number will ponder those aspects of the thing seriously, and will ultimately want to know more. Hopefully much more.

  • Pastor Ron Allen

    The idea of how is Christmas thought of in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada compared to China. It proved very interesting to discover how China is reacting to “Christmas.”

    Here in Edmonton; our population is just touching on one million. Recently they tell us that our 2nd largest ethnic group is now Asian. It had been English, Ukrainian then German (in that order) for many years. The last 5, the Asian has taken 2nd place. We have numerous Christian churches that are Chinese, Phillipino, etc but the Chinese community still offer our culture over-all a wonderful flavour of celebration by their Chine New Years etc. So many attend their functions and at the same time they are moving towards the Christian faith!