China Reflections: From Christmas 2007 to Chinese New Year 2008

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by Robert Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.

October 15, 2008
Introduction to this essay: I was very busy during my first months at SISU. Class preparation for my two major lecture classes occupied a great deal of energy. At the same time, I began to observe some of the special Chinese festival customs. In this essay, I tried to explain these aspects in contrast and in relationship with western holiday and religious holidays. This essay was written on December 9, 2007 and sent out via email to Passionists and their employees as well as members of St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish, the Passionist parish in Baltimore, Maryland.

A spirit of celebration and festivity exists in China from December through February. During this time, China becomes alive. Merry Christmas greetings and holiday decorations are found in almost every store window. Young people especially look forward to December 25 and New Years Day on January 1. Soon after this the Chinese Lunar New Year is celebrated on February 7, 2008. 2008 is the year of the Rat. The opportunity to teach here in Chongqing, China at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU) has given an understanding of how much modern western culture and traditional Chinese culture are part of contemporary Chinese daily life.

On September 3, 2007 I started my year of teaching in China. In affiliation with Aitece, a facilitating organization based in Hong Kong which recruits and places teachers and other experts in China ( I have, so far, had a fascinating teaching experience. In turn this has made me increase my basic respect for the Chinese people and culture. Let me explain. I teach three classes-all in English-at SISU. Once a week I teach a lecture course of an hour and a half on international relations “hot topics” to about sixty students. I have spoken on pollution, the War in Iraq, world wide business, world religions, mental health, the 2008 Olympics, and my image of China in the world of today. Students have been positive. A second one hour and a half lecture class is to about 150 students on United States history and culture. Included in this have been individual lectures on Canadian, English and Australian history and culture. I have put to good use much of what I had learned from my 1992 Georgetown University Ph.D in American and East Asian history. Finally, the last class is spoken English. This class is also one and one half hours once a week, but is divided into five sections of about 25 students each. Together, these three different subjects in seven classes, have made me appreciate and apply the wide range of experience I have had as a Passionist.

Most especially, it is the students in the spoken English class that provided me with the insight on the China holiday spirit. Generally, all of the students admit that while Christmas and New Years are traditional western holidays it is also true that they have become cultural celebrations for many of the younger Chinese. More and more, Christmas Eve has become the chance to gather with family or friends to share greetings and even give each other gifts. My students confess that as every year passes China is more consumed (pun intended) by Christmas. To my surprise, students from the Chongqing area told about how Christmas Eve and New Years Eve is a time when people go to Jiefangbei or Shapingba. These two large Chongqing business districts that have a New York Times Square atmosphere become home to those who want to celebrate and party on these historic western holidays. While many go out to eat the traditional Sichuan “hot pot” spicy cuisine there is also a large group that descend on these areas with plastic wands that are often seen at sporting events. They wave them and hit each other in a rambunctious manner. I am told it can be a bit daunting to see or experience.

At the same time there are an increased number of Chinese who go to church on these days. The Catholic churches in Jiefangbei and Shapingba do have Christmas services. On Sundays I have been to both of these churches to pray and attend the local Catholic mass in Chinese. The people have a vibrant faith. Similarly, in the Tian Xing Qiao area of Chongqing I have found a large Protestant church with regular Sunday worship. I can tell you that over my time here I have met Chinese who regularly attend these churches. It is safe to say that their faith is important to them in their everyday lives.

Yet, my students did share some other interesting perspectives on the Christmas season. Some told how if they had been fortunate enough to have foreign English teachers from their high school they had learned some Christmas songs. Others told how their high school teachers told them that there would be no Christmas celebrations in their high school since it was a western tradition, not a Chinese tradition. In a sense, my respect for Chinese history and culture makes me appreciate this tension of modern China. For example, when I travel here in Chongqing-a city of almost 4 million people-I find myself seeking out scenery from the past dynasties of China. Last month, I had to admit that anyone who comes to China today has to face the reality of China as an economic giant in the world. In other words, business and commerce are everywhere. Therefore China faces a unique challenge: how does it hold on to traditional Chinese culture of over 5,000 years and still grow into the future with hope and prosperity for all its people and with respect for foreigners who work or visit here? What does China mean for China? What does China mean for the rest of the world?

That said, a good number of students reflected on the knowledge that Christmas commemorated the birth of Jesus Christ. Some were aware that his life was discussed in the Bible. Others mentioned his mother Mary. Still others commented how Christmas corresponded to Santa Claus who gave gifts to children. One student even said that Christmas consisted of Christmas Eve, the birth of Jesus, Santa Claus and Boxing Day which is a Canadian festive day. All the students respected the link between Christmas and religion. Certainly, while extensive knowledge on this subject is not part of the personal experience of many Chinese, it can be said that increased contact and relationship with non-Asian and western countries, in particular, has been the foundation of a better historic understanding of Christmas.

Many students went on to say that the western traditional Christmas and New Years were similar to the Chinese festivals like the Lunar New Year of February or Spring Festival when Chinese family members get together. All people living away from home return home. This is crunch time for the transportation systems for a month and a half. During the Spring Festival, airports, railway stations and long-distance bus stations are often crowded. Wearing red clothes like Santa Claus is common at Chinese New Year celebrations as are poems on red paper or “lucky money” for children in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire and drives away bad luck. The fireworks that shower the festivities are rooted in a similar ancient custom.

In the end, it is safe to say that the opportunity to teach and witness in China has allowed me to share my knowledge of international relations, history and spoken English. At the same time I have the comfort of knowing more about Chinese culture. Living here I will have the good fortune to celebrate the western sacred and religious holiday of Christmas on December 25, then New Years on January 1, 2008. Soon after, on February 7, 2008 I will celebrate the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. I know this will increase my sense of personal peace while living here. I hope sharing these reflections with you increases your religious respect for the long Christmas season through the Epiphany. Furthermore, I hope it offers you new and peaceful insights on the rich Chinese culture of today as we end 2007 and move into 2008.