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China: Nary Xmas?

A group of PhD students at several of China's biggest and best universities came together last week to release a letter calling for Chinese to boycott Christmas—a holiday they see as representing waning interest in traditional Chinese culture—and all the rest of non-native cultural trends. Presumably not a very popular stance in China, most bloggers took issue with their reasoning, and had sightly different ideas about where exactly the blame should lay.

Highly-read Tianya Blogger Ten Years of Chopping Timber reposted a post on the subject from internet writer Ya Kefu:

十博士在《呼吁书》中一开头就说:”西洋文化在中国已由'微风细雨'变成'狂风骤雨',最为直接和集中的体现,莫过于'耶诞节'在中国的悄然兴起与日趋流行。在此,我们,十位来自中国不同高校和科研院所的博士研究生,郑重呼吁国人慎对'耶诞节',走出文化集体无意识,挺立中国文化主体性。” 读了这段博士高论,在下却十分不以为然。首先我觉得西洋文化在中国演变成”狂风暴雨”并非是现在才发生的事,也并非仅仅体现为”过圣诞节”。实际上,我们现代中国人的生活中几乎方方面面都受”西洋文化”的影响,随手举几个例子:我们日常穿的衣服、鞋子是西洋式的;我们乘坐的交通工具是西洋式的,我们家庭用的电器也是西洋式的;我们所受的教育是西洋式的,我们用来工作的电脑也是西洋式的;即使是生了病,我们多半也是看西医——莫非”十博士”们认为,我们必须穿身穿长袍马褂,足登布底皂靴屁股下坐着八抬大轿,点着大红灯笼,读四书五经写八股文章,拔拉算盘珠子当上网,张口”之乎者也”、闭口”呜呼哀哉”,病了只服仁丹或者是请来巫婆神汉跳大神,才算是”走出文化集体无意识,挺立中国文化主体性”?是不是我们应该学习阿富汗的塔利班,一股脑儿将西方的”腐朽文化”统统禁掉,发扬我们的传统,让女人重新裹起小脚,男人重新留起辫子,以显示我们重新拾回传统的决心?

The opening line of the ten PhDs’ ‘Appeal’ reads: Occidental culture in China has already turned from ‘gentle breeze and fine drizzle’ to ‘fierce winds and gushing rain’, with the most direct and focused manifestation being the quiet rise and increasing popularity of celebrating Christmas. Thus, us ten PhD students from different Chinese institutes of higher learning and research centers, call in all seriousness on our countrymen to beware Christmas, and move out of your collective cultural unconsciousness and raise up Chinese culture.”
Having read this part of the PhDs’ remarks, I strongly objected. First off, I feel that Occidental culture in China becoming ‘fierce winds and gushing rain’ is not something that only just happened now, nor is it only manifested in ‘doing Christmas’. In fact, the lives of us modern Chinese have been influenced in every single aspect by “Occidental culture”. A few examples off the top of my head: the clothes we wear everyday, the shoes, are Occidental; the vehicles we ride are Occidental; the appliances we use in our homes are Occidental; the education we receive is Occidental; the computers we use at work are Occidental; even if you get sick, more than half of us get treated with Western medicine. Is it possible these “ten doctors” feel we must wear full-body robes and Mandarin jackets, wear cloth slippers and sit our asses up on 8-man sedans? Light red lanterns, read The Four Books and Five Classics and write eight-part essays, spin abacus beads instead of going online, speak in affected ancient Chinese or moan in melancholy [like when translating obscure ancient Chinese phrasing]? Sick? Only take Chinese herbal medicine, or else call a witch doctor. Only then will we ‘move out of collective cultural unconsciousness, raise up Chinese culture'? Should we be learning from the Taliban, rashly and absolutely forbidding “degenerate culture”, promoting our traditions, start binding women's feet or make men wear braids again, to show our determination to return to tradition?


[snip]

“西化”有多么可怕?….如果说我们亚洲人不能”西化”,那么日本、韩国、台湾、香港这些”西化”得比较彻底的国家和地区为什么也活得好好的呢

Is ‘Western Culture’ really so bad? [snip] If you say us Asians cannot ‘Westernize’, then why have ‘Westernized’ countries and regions like Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong gotten along so well?

Put that way, one can imagine that anti-Xmas views in China don't represent the majority of Chinese, urban and educated at least, who seem more interested in getting closer in tune with the rest of the world, starting with their neighbors in Asia. Old school blogger He Caitou posted a Chinese-language news story on the students’ letter, to which commenter K said:

看看日本韩国对西方文化的崇拜永远超过我们, 可是它们对传统文化的保留好像比我们好一百倍. 台湾香港比我们西化, 对中华文化的保持却比我们好. 我们知道什么? 你不去农村, 你甚至不知道中国的婚礼应该讲究什么. 他们以为抵制了西洋文化, 就能保住自己的文化吗? 放P

Look how Japan and Korea's worship of Western culture always surpasses ours, yet they've preserved traditional culture a hundred times better than we have. Taiwan and Hong Kong are more Westernized than us, yet have preserved Chinese culture better than we have. What do we know? If you don't go to the countryside, you won't ever know what Chinese weddings should look like. They thought boycotting Occidental culture would let them keep their own culture? Fart.

Communism might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but seems to have been abandoned lately. Could these PhD students be closet Confucianists, hoping for some pull? Maybe Chinese (bloggers) are enjoying the lack of heavy ideology of the last few years. From Sohu blogger Huang Si:

黄丝要说的,就是双方都不要激动,也不必担心。因为文化传统这个东西,不是靠谁一个呼吁甚至命令就可决定它的生死存亡的。

前几年不是各个地方都在发布命令禁止春节燃放烟花爆竹麽?结果怎麽样了?不但当时实际上没有禁得了,现在居然在强大的习惯和风俗传统的压力下,纷纷由那些当初发布禁令者自行解禁了。

[I] gotta say, both sides shouldn't get too excited, and don't need to worry. Because cultural tradition, this thing, whether it lives or dies can't be decided just by a demand or even an order.
A few years ago, weren't orders being issued everywhere banning the use of fireworks and firecrackers during Chinese New Year? How did that turn out? Not only were they not in fact banned at the time, but under the pressure from massive traditional habits and customs, they were actually repermitted, one by one, by those people who banned them in the first place.

[snip]

你看人家小布什,每年春节,还要专门发布文告,向美国华人祝贺春节,比如2004年,媒体报道说:
『美国总统布什日前在美国《侨报》14周年报庆时发去贺函,向广大华人表示良好的节日祝愿。
布什在贺函中说,对于华裔人士来说,猴年春节是合家团圆,亲友欢聚,并缅怀先人的特殊时刻,同时也是喜迎新春到来和来年繁荣的日子。
布什说,他和夫人劳拉一同向广大华人致以最美好的祝愿,祝新年快乐,健康如意。』

Just look at Little Bush: every Chinese New Year he goes out of his way to issue a statement to all Chinese Americans, wishing them a happy Spring Festival. In 2004, for instance, media reports said:
[Several days ago American President Bush ran a letter of congratulations in the fourteenth anniversary issue of The China Press, wishing all Chinese a happy holiday.
In the letter, Bush said that for all overseas Chinese, The Year of the Monkey will be a time for family reunions, parties with friends, and to remember forefathers, at the same time welcomed a new spring and properous new year.
Bush says he and his wife Laura wish the very best to all Chinese, wishing them a happy new year, healthy and meaningful.

呵呵,这小布什怎麽不怕那些已经归顺了美利坚的华人把中国的传统的”春节文化”带到美国,冲击了他们自己的”圣诞文化”呢?你听听,他还要致以”美好的祝愿,祝新年快乐,健康如意”!说的诚恳得不得了,是不是?人家知道,文化这东西,来硬的不行,不管你愿意不愿意,有时你还得迁就迁就,小布什就知道这个理,所以他尽管笃信上帝,也不会忘记在咱们农历春节里向美国华裔公民祝贺一下。

Hehe, this Little Bush, isn't he afraid that Chinese settled in America will bring China's traditional “Spring Festival culture” to America, attacking their own “Christmas culture”? Listen, he even “wishes the very best to all Chinese, wishing them a happy new year, healthy and meaningful!” Said it pretty sincerely, right? People know that culture, this thing, if it comes too hard, then no luck, whether you be willing or not. Sometimes you just have to get used to it. Little Bush knows this; that's why he does his best to stay faithful to God, but doesn't forget to congratulate America's Chinese when our lunar calendar's Spring Festival comes around.

[snip]

更重要的是,文化要发展,民族也要前进,我们就必须像鲁迅先生说的那样,对自己的风俗习惯也要”加以研究,解破,分别好坏,立存废的标准”。就是说对于不好的,不适合时代要求的落后的东西,也有个取舍的问题,而对于别的民族、国家那些好的东西也可以拿过来加以改造、借鉴,以便形成我们自己的更加先进的文化。
一个大国,而且号称正在崛起的大国,不但在经济上、政治上要站在时代的制高点思考问题,在文化上也同样要站在时代的高峰,以海纳百川的胸怀与气魄,面对其它民族的文化传统,只有这样,我们才能取得发展自己的主动权。

What's key, though, is that cultures will develop, and nationalities will progress, and we must do like Mr. Lu Xun said, and “study, dissect, differentiate between the good and bad and abolish established standards” of our own customs and habits. That's to say, for bad things, backwards things that don't meet the needs of modern times, there's still a matter of choice. And things that are good for other nationalities, other countries, can be taken in, altered, and used to make our culture all the more progressive.
For a great nation, and one said to be on the rise, not only does it need to be in the forefront of the times in considering matters of economics and politics, but in culture as well, with an all-accepting mind and spirit, facing down other peoples’ cultural traditions. Only thus will we be able to develop our own intiatives.

With no symbols or mention of Jesus or Mary attached to Chinese-style Xmas, not much connection to churches at all really, maybe it's better just to let the holiday be what it's already become, a chance to spend money, have fun, enjoy recently-expanded social spaces. From Sina blogger Tianmu Mountain Man, from the Sina Blog front page:

对于中国人,圣诞节不是洪水猛兽,相反,多了一个相互表达感情的机会、或理由,就像”情人节”可以过,”七夕”也照过不误,过两次,多好!对于”中国传统文化”一说,我们照样过我们的农历新年,对大部分人而言,圣诞节没什么概念,对小部分人(尤其是年轻女性)而言,圣诞节就是”过购物瘾”的节日,没人会因此对春节”不屑一顾”了,损害了什么?在商家看来,”圣诞概念”就是商业机会,披红挂绿地,多卖出去好多东西,赚”莫老老”(杭州话,很多)的钱!对孩子而言,多一个向大人要礼物的机会。如此看来,”圣诞节”没什么不妥啊!

For Chinese, Christmas isn't a flood of beastliness; on the contrary, it's just one more opportunity or reason to mutually express emotion. Just like Valentine's Day can be ‘had’, and Double Seven can't be missed, so twice, how great is that! Speaking for ‘Chinese traditional culture’, we still have our lunar calendar's new year; speaking for most people, Christmas doesn't mean much. Speaking for a small number of people (especially young women), Christmas is a holiday for ‘shopaholics’, but this doesn't lead people to ‘disdain’ Spring Festival, or do it any harm. For business people, the “Christmas Concept” is a business opportunity: spread the red, hang the green, sell many more great things and make more money! For children, it's one more chance to get presents from parents. Looking at it like this, “Christmas” isn't inappropriate at all!

14 comments

  • Marcus Garvey used to say that “the uplifting of one race is not the denigrating of another” and I think the same holds true for culture and religion. Freedom and tolerance are the keys.

  • Why is the post being included in the Taiwan section of Global Voices? Neither the issue nor the source of the discussion are very relevant to Taiwan.

  • Hi Feiren! I tagged Taiwan along with South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong because two of the four blog posts above compared mainland China to those places.

    What do you think about some of the points those bloggers made? I haven’t been to Taiwan or Japan and only once spent a few days in Korea, but what they said seemed to make sense to me.

  • Fair enough on the tagging question.

    I’m not comfortable with the notion that Taiwan has “preserved Chinese culture” the way that Chinese bloggers often casually assume. Yes Taiwanese society is overwhelmingly Han Chinese but I think it is fully morphed into a modern society that is no longer particularly concerned with being Chinese (or Taiwanese for that matter).

    I recently traveled to China after having not been there for more than a decade. One of the things I noticed was how the issue of Chineseness is constantly raised with a sort of cultural nationalism that has very much died out in Taiwan. If you read magazines from the 1970s and 1980s in Taiwan, you will find constant anxiety over whether something was Chinese or Western. I believe there was even a dispute over the Chinese word for Christmas–Shengdanjie– because Jesus was not a Chinese Shengren and the term properly applied to Confucius.

    I think your bloggers also sense (correctly) that ultraconservative cultural nationalists like the graduate students who signed the petition are in fact apologists for authoritarianism and the idea that since China is a Confucian country and Confucian values are supposedly incompatible with democratic values, China cannot become a democracy.

  • John, the Global Voices Bloggers page asks us to build Global Voices by posting translations of significant non-Chinese posts. I don’t know who I should tell when I do this. Anyway, I translated this post by Hebi on Hi-on

    http://www.hi-on.org.tw/bulletins.jsp?b_ID=65986

    here on Taiwan Matters:

    http://taiwanmatters.blogspot.com/2006/12/enemies-of-press-freedom.html

    You’ll need to scroll down to the section “Who Said ‘Chinese Pigs’?” to find the beginning of the actual translation.

    Please let me know what the correct way to submit my translations is.

    TIA

  • mahathir_fan

    “I think your bloggers also sense (correctly) that ultraconservative cultural nationalists like the graduate students who signed the petition are in fact apologists for authoritarianism and the idea that since China is a Confucian country and Confucian values are supposedly incompatible with democratic values, China cannot become a democracy.”

    First off, China is already the world’s largest democracy. Anyone can run for elections, and anyone can be President as long as they get enough votes at the NPC. So you shouldn’t say China cannot become a democracy because it already is a democracy.

    Secondly, the people who call for a boycott of Christmas are not ultraconservative. Rather they are philosophers who are posting a very important question for people to think about. Their call can never succeed but it can make people think.

    To rephrase the question, “If you celebrate Christmas, why aren’t you celebrating Eid? (Eid is the Moslem holiday of Prophet Mohammed)”

    People often ask me about why I do not give my son a Christian name like Peter Lee or Vincent Tan (I am a Chinese Christian by the way). I told them, I wanted to name my son “Mohammed Ali” after the great boxing champ, but my wife objected. A big shock or confusion would show on their faces by what I just said. No doubt, in their head, they are asking themselves, “did i just hear that this Chinese guy wanted to name his son with a Moslem name?”

    The big question that is being asked is why this adoration for Western culture but not other cultures like Islamic culture? I have come across so many Chinese people with Christian names who are not Christians, but I have yet to come across a Chinese with a Moslem name who is not Moslem. Are Chinese people inheritly biased and have a fetish love for Western cultures? If the answer is yes, then this is culturally dangerous because it would hinder cultural developments. Take for example pop culture from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Look at the popular songs there. The popular songs from Taiwan and Hong Kong are not original. They are merely Western music sung with Chinese lyrics. Development of Chinese music on the other hand has stopped. No more Er Hu or Gu Zheng. You may think this is not a big deal. But for an artist, it is a big deal. For it is only by understanding oneself can an artist progress. Quincy Jones once tried to play music like a white man and it wasn’t until his music coach lectured him that he should stop trying to imitate white people but to go back to his African roots that he can develop real music.

    In the same way, soceity as a whole would not progress unless we first dig into our own self, but if society merely copies other culture, you get a shallow superficial representation, like pop songs from taiwan and hong kong, western music with chinese lyrics and singers only. This is the concern of the people who are calling for this boycott of Christmas. It is a legitimate concern.

  • Right after 9-11 and for most of 2002 one of the most popular “English” names for high school boys was ‘Laden’, after than was ‘Osama’, and then Bush. Here in Guangzhou, at least, where Arabs and Africans and many others from the Middle East can be seen in large numbers all over the city. I’d guess the reason for that name being so popular isn’t that high school boys are secret terrorists waiting to happen, but that it was a reflection of what had captured their interest at that time.

    In China, there’s no shortage of blogs covering what’s happening around the world, in the news and on the street, and I think it’s fair to say that much more attention is being paid to what’s happening outside China than the other way around, it’s a safe way for issues revelant to be explored via another country without touching too close to home. But it’s not the only option. Take Canada for example: when recent immigrants are killed or involved in serious incidents of crime, mainstream English media will often spend a lot of time covering those. Compare that with Guangzhou, home to thousands of Africans, earlier this month when a black man’s body was found chopped up in pieces and dumped into a river in a plastic bag. Aside from the brief mention that a corpse was found and had belonged to a black man, three weeks later neither his name or country of origin have been reported.

    Back to pop music, hip-hop and R&B are hot now in Taiwan and China and Hong Kong like they were with white guys twenty years ago. Most North Americans I’ve talked to are excited about the idea of Chinese hip-hop, but disappointed at what’s out there to find. You could say the social context is different, or that the languages are incompatible, invoke Madonna, Elvis or Eminem, or you could say that new genres of music are being created, and popularly enjoyed, regardless of whether people outside the age 14-27 Chinese demographic think they’re any good. Ask anyone who the biggest pop star in mainland China is and has been for the past 4-5 years and they’ll say the Taiwanese Jay Chou. He’s chosen R&B as his main style, but at the same time he incorporates quite a lot of traditional elements into his songs. It’s not the best example, but I’d like to hear what you think of the song 千里之外 he released last year with Fei Yuqing.

    Or have heard of Li Jie (李杰)? He had this one song out about three years ago that was just him on one traditional Chinese instrument, with some slow dance-y beats in the background and just him on vocals. It sounded like a song he would have written himself, and sounded pretty good if you ask me. He even had a white girl dancing in the music video!

  • mahathir_fan: “In the same way, society as a whole would not progress unless we first dig into our own self, but if society merely copies other culture, you get a shallow superficial representation, like pop songs from taiwan and hong kong, western music with Chinese lyrics and singers only. This is the concern of the people who are calling for this boycott of Christmas. It is a legitimate concern.”

    This is getting close to the essence of the issue. I am living in Canada and I’ll tell you that we’re having the same problem over here. You can blame cultural globalisation but I think it’s something deeper. I think it’s due to a global shift in priorities and ways of thinking.

    If you take the example of China (which I always like to do because China has an extreme example for everything) You can see that the beauty of the culture is not in it’s forms necessarily. Whether or not you have firecrackers on New Years is not what Chinese culture is all about, the braids and the slippers, the robes and the temples are just forms. Christmas trees, Santa Claus those are just pretty pictures but the real culture is in the essence.

    Chinese culture is about wisdom, compa ssion, high mor al character, dignity, searching for the Tao, respect for man, nature and the heavens so on. If these are the essences of Chinese culture then havn’t you already lost the meaning of you festival forms?

    The way the country is going, does anyone dare stand up for what’s right anymore under such government terrorism? Who dares to beleive in the true culture after the Cultural revolution? Hasn’;t the c o mmuinst prop panda education raised you all to be absolute materialists who beleive in money and struggling for earthly gains? So arent people who think according to the essence of the culture labelled as superstitious and foolish according the prevalent ideology?

    I live in Canada and when I went Christmas shopping I couldn’t find anything with pictures of the deities and saints. Cultural globalisation has ruinned any strong traditional forms but that’s not the issue. I think the issue is that people in general are overly materialistic, ignoring things they can’t see with their eyes such as virtues, God, kindness, wisdom…

    absolute materialism turns us into beasts who just want presents and pleasure, not like the old ways at all.

  • Catherine

    What matters is not the form, but the essence of the culture. Students here celebrated Christmas, held parties, sent presents to each other, but very few of the students know the religion and the culture behind Christmas.
    “Chinese culture is about wisdom, compassion, high moral character, dignity, searching for the Tao, respect for man, nature and the heavens so on. If these are the essences of Chinese culture then havn’t you already lost the meaning of you festival forms?”
    These are really the essence of Chinese culture, but fewer and fewer students ponder upon these ideas nowadays. To young students, what matters is how to get admitted in a prestigious college and a promising major, what matters is how to get a well-paid job , and how to play and have fun.
    In my school, most students celebrate Christmas not because they are Christian, just because they wanna have fun.. They need an excuse to play , to hold parties and to have fun..
    “The way the country is going, does anyone dare stand up for what’s right anymore under such government terrorism? Who dares to beleive in the true culture after the Cultural revolution? Hasn’;t the c o mmuinst prop panda education raised you all to be absolute materialists who beleive in money and struggling for earthly gains? So arent people who think according to the essence of the culture labelled as superstitious and foolish according the prevalent ideology?”
    While Chinese governments didn’t intend to raise people to be absolute materialists. They first intended to raise people to be loyal communists. But they failed, no youth believe communism today. Then they try to rob the independent thinking ability of the people, and they succeed to some degree. As a result nowadays most Chinese youths refuse to ponder upon serious ideas and focus their mind on earthly pleasures and become materialist.

  • Helen

    Hi, everyone,
    I think what you are talking about is really interesting and practical. In my opinion, Chinese culture is strongly influenced by western culture. I am a post-graduate and major in English. In my university, the phenomenon of cultural westernization is more serious than what you think. Students favor western holidays, like pop and rock music much more than our own traditional music, prefer western food (like MacDonald and KFC)…..
    These students can remember Back Street Boys and Britney, but they have already forgotten Chinese folk songs and operas. They even forget Chinese traditional values and spirit, but they know individualism and freedom. They want to be free, free sex, free life, free spirit, everything should be free.
    I was wondering in Chinese universities, where has our traditional culture gone?

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