“Silent Night” in China

During the 1980s, Christmas in China was a quiet affair, celebrated only by foreigners, as the atheist Communist Party did not endorse such celebrations. But much has changed for the factory to the world: China not only manufactures about 80 percent of all Christmas paraphernalia, but also purchases the items as well. Authors Peter Kwong and Dušanka Miščević point out that if orders on Christmas products don’t materialize during any one year, as has been the case in recent years, Chinese consumers can pick up the slack. Celebrating the Christmas holiday – with Santa Claus, caroling and decorated trees – has caught on in the world’s largest nation. The revels in China, with a tiny minority of Christians, lack any obvious religious bent. But the celebrations have raised hackles among some Chinese intellectuals, with one student group questioning waste and materialism associated with the Western holiday. The government, keen on encouraging factories to produce jobs and export goods, has not moved to end the season’s spirit. Still, retail and manufacturing success alone do not make for a good holiday. Holiday spirit travels quickly with the tides of globalization. It’s in human nature to discover good reason to celebrate. – YaleGlobal

“Silent Night” in China

China – home to factories that make world’s Christmas decorations – embraces the holiday
Peter Kwong
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Joy to the World: China manufactures most Christmas merchandise, and the Chinese have adopted the celebration, complete with decorated trees, storefront Santas and carolers

NEW YORK: During December, visitors to China might think they were entering a Christian country – giant Christmas trees twinkle in subtropical Guangzhou, artificial snowflakes fall on street revelers in Nanjing to the sound of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and Santa Clauses smile from storefronts on every commercial thoroughfare of every major city.

Globalization has brought all the forces of Christmas to bear on China: The country manufactures the bulk of the world’s Christmas paraphernalia, Chinese are encouraged to shop ’til they drop to help the local economy, there are those who make merry and their critics who decry holiday commercialization. China’s Christian community is steadily growing, almost as impressively as its economy, but public celebrations of the birth of Christ, like those in the western world, are more about conspicuous consumption than about religion.

Retailers in the West rely on the holiday for profits, extending the Christmas shopping season well before Thanksgiving in the US and before Halloween in Canada and the United Kingdom. Some department stores begin the “Christmas creep” in August, and some boutiques feature Christmas themes year-round.

For Christmas shoppers of all seasons, China has the perfect answer. About 80 percent of the world’s Christmas toys and decorations – Santas, tinsel, mistletoe, artificial trees of every shape and hue – are produced by factory workers in three coastal provinces and exported through Yiwu City’s year-round International Commodities Fair in central Zhejiang. Once a sleepy town 300 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, Yiwu annually exports more than US $1 billion worth of the stuff Christmas dreams are made of.

Migrant workers who make the stuff don’t see Christmas as much beyond a job producing trinkets for the rest of the world. Local businessmen are often perplexed by the tastes of their foreign customers. “They like white trees,” muses one Christmas tree manufacturer, “which is a funeral color around here and doesn’t seem appropriate in this happy season.” But they try to learn quickly because, with competition from other low-wage countries, China’s Christmas exports have been declining since 2003. Another drop is expected this year because of increasing product-quality concerns. Fortunately for Yiwu, domestic demand is picking up.

Since the liberalization of the 1980s, China has become the primary target for Christian missionaries backed by all manner of Western denominations. Even evangelical preachers Billy Graham and Pat Robertson visited China, intent on spreading their faith in the world’s most populated country.

The government’s new religious tolerance stems from high-profile western pressure. President George W. Bush attended one of Beijing's five officially recognized Protestant churches during his 2005 Asia tour to underscore the point. China’s relationship with Rome remains tense because the government refuses to accept Vatican-appointed bishops, and Vatican refuses to recognize bishops ordained by the independent Chinese Catholic Church. But by and large, Christian denominations that follow government registration rules are given relatively free reign denied the so-called “evil cult” Falun Gong.

In 1949, China had 2.7 million Roman Catholics and 750,000 Protestants out of the population of 540 million. Today, China has 1.3 billion people, and its Christian community has grown well over the current government figure of 16 million. Protestant groups speculate that the number of Protestant believers alone may exceed 70 million, compared with the Catholics’ 13 million. The numbers vary widely because many recently converted evangelical Chinese belong to unregistered churches.

Regardless, the “Christian world view” at Christmastime is swallowed by the Jingle Bells culture in China as much as it is in the West. Christmas commercials flood China’s internet, newspapers, television and radio programs. And, though Christmas is not an official holiday, intellectuals and young hip urbanites have discovered it as an occasion to make merry. They jam the nation’s telecommunications networks with hundreds of millions of cell-phone text messages and emails as they exchange Christmas greetings and make arrangements to meet friends for what has already become a traditional Christmas Eve revel.

A typical celebration starts with a sumptuous Christmas buffet, followed by a raffle and dancing into the wee hours. Hotels in Shanghai and Beijing offer free sparkling wine and throw in fashion shows, masquerades or even Miss Christmas contests to draw crowds. In Guiyang, the capital of China’s poorest province, the drink that flows freely is the fiery local “erguotou,” and the main attraction is the Midnight Mass at the only Catholic Church. Revelers hang out on the church steps, peeking at what goes on inside, getting drunk and then taking off for the city center, caroling and cavorting with friends. Last year’s Christmas Eve in Guangzhou “was more like a mix of Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve and Halloween,” observed a frustrated American stuck in the jam-packed downtown. “It was a little disconcerting seeing people wearing halos and devil’s horns and waving glow sticks with the sound of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ in the background.”

Most gleeful hipsters who celebrate the holiday in China have only a vague idea about the holiday’s religious meaning. Random canvassing by one television show last year revealed that many Beijing residents think of it as the Santa Claus Day. Most Chinese simply enjoy Christmas, with its mutual gift giving and universal message of peace, as a novelty.

By comparison, the Chinese New Year’s emphasis on family reunions requiring ritualistic displays of respect for the elders seems old-fashioned and dull. For young Chinese, Christmas is a holiday without traditional constraints, open to their own spin. “We don’t really care what Christmas means in other places,” a Beijing performing artist confided during celebrations last year. “We love Christmas because it gives us an opportunity to keep in touch with friends and relax a little.”

The enthusiasm with which China has embraced Christmas led a group of PhD students from China’s top universities to post a petition on the internet last year, demanding boycott of this foreign import – a symbol of Western culture’s “soft power” – which could lead their fellow citizens to see “things Chinese as inferior, everything Western as excellent.”

The students’ call for restoration of traditional beliefs of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism could have easily been mistaken for an attack on encroaching Christian values. But it was really an assault on wasteful customs of sending Christmas cards, decorating homes and buying gifts – in line with ongoing criticism of the prevailing materialism of Christmas celebrations in the West. With their petition posted just before Christmas 2006, blaming the Chinese government for singular interest in economic growth at the expense of tradition, China’s idealists joined the international war on materialism and secularism of Christmas celebrations.

Last year, in response to criticism spurred by the petition, the Chinese government ordered that newscasts include no Christmas content. Still, the Grinch could not squash enthusiasm for the holiday. Reporters resorted to substituting the word “Silent Night,” and conspicuous consumption soared. Tyra Guo, an editor at Netease, called China during the Christmas season “a retailer’s paradise.”

This year too, because of slumping exports, China’s Communist Party will refrain from discouraging public celebrations as a way to increase domestic spending and keep China’s economy engine well oiled. After all, it is giddy consumerism that has made China the global powerhouse that it is and will propel it into the year of the Beijing Olympics as the envy of the world.

Peter Kwong is a professor in the Asian American Studies Program of Hunter College and professor of sociology with the City University of New York. Dušanka Miščević is a writer and historian of China. The two are co-authors of “Chinese America: The Untold Story of America’s Oldest New Community,” published by the New Press in 2006.

© 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization