Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in Shanghai

by Maple, guest blogger,  December 25, 2011

[in translation, 中文原文附后]

At Jing'an Temple in Shanghai
I don't know when it started, but my Chinese countrymen have increasingly lost feeling for traditional festivals and become more and more heated up by Western holidays. Even economic depression and "End of the World" panic can't hold back Shanghai's fervor to welcome Christmas.

At a mall in Shanghai
In a place that always leads the fashion trend and where there is no shortage of foreigners and foreign enterprises, it may not be so strange for some people to take this ride for a bit of fun, but when an entire city collectively goes crazy for a foreign holiday, it is a different matter indeed.  Here is the humility that goes with Christianity—such respect for others' cultures must be an overwhelmingly pleasant surprise to the 0.5% of the population in Shanghai that is foreign. So harmonious.

In Shanghai's Zhengda Square
 Each year, when Christmas approaches, the joyful atmosphere seeps to every corner of the city like overflowing water. When nights fall, the city is ever so gorgeous with lit-up trees, silver flowers and colorful embroideries of light, while Christmas music incessantly drones on. Excited young people dress exquisitely, like flowering branches vying for attention. No matter a big department store or small supermarket, no matter a bank or restaurant, no matter a foreign-invested or domestic enterprise or even a government organization, at every building's door there is a Christmas tree fully decorated with neon lights and bags of  presents. Even small residential enclaves and ordinary hospitals are not spared. So what if you are a Buddhist or Muslim, when you go home or go to the hospital, you get to celebrate Christmas.

In Shanghai's hotel
A while ago there was a joke circulating on the internet: in a contest for the most enigmatic department on the earth, the winner is China's "relevant department" ("有关部门").  I suspect, to place Christmas trees in every corner of Shanghai is the glorious mission of a "relevant department."
In a residential enclave of Shanghai

Perhaps people so exhaust their enjoyment during Christmas, that when it actually comes time for our own spring festival, the reaction from both businesses and the populace is fatigued.  Besides the dull red lanterns, sausage and smoked pork, plus the CCTV Gala Show that gets worse and worse every year, there is nothing else. Compared with people's enthusiasm for Christmas, spring festival no doubt is cast in the shadows.

In Shanghai's supermarket
Nowadays when commenting on something interesting, the Shanghai idiom goes, "That has some tunes" ("老有腔调的").  Is it because we Chinese are so insipid and constrained in nature that our traditional festivals are spent with fewer and fewer tunes?  Otherwise why, when the fun and relaxing foreign holidays such as Halloween, Valentine's Day, and Christmas are introduced,  do we progress from fascination to enthusiastic talk  to glad acceptance?  As to why Halloween involves masks, where Valentine's originated or whose birth Christmas is celebrating, no one cares as long as there are big meals to eat, discount goods to buy and colorful decorations to see.

But let's cut the cackle. On Christmas day, real Christians go to church to hear sermons, sing hymns, and read the Bible. There you will again run into situations between laughter and tears.  At the gate of the following church, for example, a bunch of Henanese sit there begging—

On Christmas Day, beggers at a Shanghai church

Even beggers in Shanghai know today is Christmas. That adds some tunes. They must have their simple logic – merciful Christians probably won't refuse to give charity on this special day.  That is why they deploy the most primitive ruse of bodily suffering:  on a frigid winter day, sitting on icy cement ground, wearing patched clothing and a faint smile, they languidly chant to the church goers: Please do something kind, bosses, please do something kind!

The foreigners pass by unfazed, but how can the fellow Chinese bear it? One digs into his pocket and hands money to a begging woman.  The woman takes the bills and says loudly, Thank you, you the good heart! You really are a living Buddha!

The Good Heart sighs looking up to the heavens, Oh my Lord!


闲话少说,真正的基督徒会去教堂听听布道、唱唱赞歌、读读圣经,过一个真正意义上的圣诞。不曾想,在教堂,你仍然会碰到啼笑皆非的场面, 例如一帮河南人坐在教堂门前乞讨。


Joel said...

Thanks for posting these translated pieces!

Some quick comments about beggars outside Chinese churches.

In our city, beggars are at the church gates every Sunday; they know when the churches are holding events.

The article seems to imply that local Chinese feel more compelled than foreigners to help the beggars (or something), and maybe that's true I don't know, but there's an interesting twist to that situation. The foreign Christians in our city do do stuff with the beggars, but they have to be careful. Only foreigners of Asian ethnicity are able to be directly involved with the beggars, because white people being seen helping the beggars looks bad to the 'people of consequence'. So if we (laowais) want to do more than drop a few kuai in their cups on our way in and out of church, we had to give through our ethnically Asian friends, who are able to more easily directly interact with the beggars.

Xujun said...

Joel, what you said is interesting. Do you mean the government would interfere with white people who help beggers?

Anonymous said...

It's only slightly related but your post, about the meaning of Christmas in China, reminds me of a very, very good short story I once read called "Christmas in China", included in the (at the time) red-hot literary magazine McSweeney's. It was about a Chinese immigrant taxi driver in New York at Christmas time.

I spent three Christmas in Shanghai and they are antiseptic, but not without a sort of charm. Merriment without the familial warmth, ad hoc celebrations without any time off from work - unlike real holidays like those domestic Chinese holidays and Asian New Year - and the weird need to consume, but why? Nanjing West Road, with the decorations and lights, and so many Chinese people expressing sympathy for my being so far away from home during my country's most earnest and charitable moment. Now I am back in the U.S. and in my workplace there are many Jews and Russians, yet the spirit is still solidly "there". As crazy as this sounds, in the U.S. it's a big mistake to limit Christmas to Christians. No one in my family is Christian and I have very little familiarity with Christianity outside of (having grown up here) American pop culture norms and practices, but I get it entirely, to the point of aching nostalgia and enveloping sentiment. It's entirely cultural rather than religious, the going to church seems to me to be part of a ritual practiced out of solemness rather than faith.

Real holidays are marked with sacrifices by the state, companies, and the common man. This is true in every country in the world. Time off from work. Company parties. closed schools. Expressions of concern that seem real enough when uttered. Nevermind red bows or seasonal songs; I don't say this to be flip or dismissive of Christmas celebrations in China, but really it's just not possible, and the disjointed gesticulations do help a bit, but they also serve to highlight the oddity. For me, I would much, much rather that foreigners in China could somehow be able to experience what Chinese people must feel during the more sacred domestic holidays. I remember reading an article in the Shanghai paper about a group of white collar workers, all from the same area of Shanxi(?) who hired a plane to fly them home for national week. That is the stuff of holidays.

Finally, most foreigners are too damn snarky and snide to enjoy Chinese attempts at celebrating Christmas. Maybe this applies to me too, IDK. Lazy bloggers and drunken yahoos guffawing and snickering about the attempts by Chinese to participate in the most un-Chinese holiday... tended to make the situation worse.

Thank goodness for New Years! Something we can all agree on.