Have yourself an even Chinesier little Christmas…

To read the Christmas story in Chinese, click here. But to listen to it dramatized in Chinese, download the mp3s below! (Hint: mouseover the dotted underlined names.)

1. 预言耶稣降生 Jesus’ Birth Foretold
The kids gather for family story time with Grandpa Xīmiàn, who tells them about Yǐsàiyà‘s promised Mísàiyà who could arrive any time. The kids think “Yǐmǎnèilì” is a weird-sounding name.

2. 马利亚订婚天使报信 Mary’s Engagement & the Angel’s Announcement
Xīmiàn awakes in the night from a dream, which he thinks was more than just a dream. Meanwhile Mǎlìyà‘s parents arrange her marriage to Yuēsè. And then the angel Jiābǎiliè surprises Mǎlìyà with some surprising news.

3. 起名耶稣 Name Him Jesus
Old geezers Sājiālìyà and Yīlìshābái wheeze their way through some expository dialogue. Sājiālìyà gets the shock of his (long) life when an angel appears to him in the temple and tells him some news. He just can’t believe it, but it comes true regardless. Meanwhile Yuēsè finds out Mǎlìyà is pregnant (and not by him!). He’s not buying all this pregnant virgin Holy Spirit business and makes up his mind to divorce her (though quietly, to help her save face). But before he can act, an angel intervenes.

4. 耶稣降生 Jesus’ Birth
Yuēsè and Mǎlìyà find out they must travel over 100 miles to Bólìhéng because of the mandated census. When they finally get there, Yuēsè has a heck of a time finding somewhere for them to stay. They finally find a place, and the sweet baby Yēsū is born!

5. 牧羊人 Shepherds Hear the Joyous News
Some lowly shepherds chat idly about how it’s actually not that bad to be shepherds; after all, many legendary Hebrew patriarchs were shepherds! They doze off talking about what they expect the long-awaited Mísàiyà to do when he finally arrives. Then they’re awoken by angels, who send them into Bólìhéng to find their infant Mísàiyà.

6. 西面祝福婴孩耶稣 Simeon Blesses Baby Jesus
Yuēsè and Mǎlìyà can’t understand why God sent the Mísàiyà to them, of all people, in a stable, of all places, and only told some stinking shepherds about it, rather than making it a huge deal for their entire nation. But when they bring Yēsū to the temple, Xīmiàn and the prophetess Yàná are there, and they each have some special things to say. Yuēsè and Mǎlìyà don’t understand it all, though, especially the parts about how the Mísàiyà is not just for the Israelites alone.

7. 博士来访 The Wisemen Visit
Scribes in the temple discuss the rumours of a newborn Jewish Mísàiyà, but the High Priest is having none of it. As they’re speaking scholars from the East arrive, claiming their study of the stars led them to Yēlùsālěng to seek the newborn Mísàiyà. But they’re told there is no such Mísàiyà and sent away. Meanwhile King Xīlǜ hears the rumours of a newborn king and begins plotting to preserve his reign. He sends the scholars from the East to find him in Bólìhéng, the Mísàiyà’s birthplace as indicated by their scriptures.

8. 逃亡埃及 Flee to Egypt
King Xīlǜ is ticked that the scholars from the East somehow were warned not to report back to him the Mísàiyà’s location. He orders the execution of all the infants in Bólìhéng. Yuēsè and Mǎlìyà sneak off during night to Āijí.

The download links are from the Chinese site 基督徒的家园, where they have the entire Bible dramatized and available for free download, one story at a time. Or you can download the entire OT or NT at one go from John at Sinosplice, Bible Stories in Chinese:

…they injected a healthy dose of Chinese culture. Just listen to the way Mary talks to baby Jesus, or the way the Israelites argue with Aaron over creating the golden calf. And then of course, there’s the fun of hearing the voice of God in Chinese, or Abraham sounding like an old Chinese man.

If the above download links down work try this: ChineseChristmasStorymp3s.zip

P.S. — We also have Chinese Christmas art and Chinese Christmas carols.

P.P.S. — Your Christmas still not Chinesey enough yet?

Have yourself a Chinese little Advent…

For students of Chinese, here’s something to read during Advent 降临节: text from the four Gospels mashed together into a single Christmas narrative, then divided into four readings. If that doesn’t make you cringe, then you obviously weren’t paying attention in Intro to Exegesis. But we’re not doing exegesis here, we’re reading the Christmas story in Chinese! (Five different Chinese translations!)

Download: 圣诞节1.pdf / 圣诞节2.pdf / 圣诞节3.pdf / 圣诞节4.pdf

I read one per week during December. The hard copy is nice, but I also drop the text into my Pleco. It’s the same deal as we did with the Resurrection Festival 复活节 (a.k.a. “Easter”) readings. Download the PDFs below or read online by clicking the BibleGateway.com links.

Download: 圣诞节1.pdf

Zechariah is going about his priestly duties when an angel appears to him, saying that his barren and aged wife Elizabeth will have a son. Zechariah doesn’t believe it and loses his ability to speak. Elizabeth gets pregnant. Meanwhile an angel appears to Mary and Joseph separately, saying Mary will conceive. It’s awkward, as they aren’t married, but Joseph chooses not to break their engagement. Pregnant Mary visits pregnant Elizabeth and sings a song praising God.


(Read Chinese or English parallel online: 路1:5-38; 太1:18-25a; 路1:39-56)

Download: 圣诞节2.pdf

Elizabeth’s child is born, and the name him John. Zechariah, no longer mute, speaks a prophecy over John about John’s future role and the coming of the Messiah.


(Read Chinese or English parallel online: 路1:57-80)

Download: 圣诞节3.pdf

Joseph and very-pregnant Mary travel to Bethlehem for the census. They settle in a stable since there’s nowhere else to go. Jesus is born. Angels appear to shepherds, and the shepherds go visit Jesus.


(Read Chinese or English parallel online: 路2:1-20、25-35)

Download: 圣诞节4.pdf

Wisemen from the East come looking for Jesus and inadvertently alert King Herod. They visit Jesus but avoid telling Herod Jesus’ location. Jesus’ family flees to Egypt, Herod orders the Massacre of the Infants. After Herod’s death, Jesus’ family returns and settles in Nazareth in Galilee.


(Read Chinese or English parallel online: 太2:1-23)

Lots more Christmas-in-China fun on this blog. You can start with these:

Happy November 15th, North China!

It’s November 15th in northern China, and I only got one thing to say:


(You’ll need your VPN for this.)

P.S. – Most apartment blocks in northern China (north of the Yangtze 长江) depend on centralized heating, meaning you pay a ton of money and the government determines the day the heat gets pumped through the pipes, and the day it gets shut off. It’s always coldest the week before the heat gets turned on.


The coal stack from the local heating plant near our first home in Tianjin, China.

SCA’s all-female sailing team in the Volvo Ocean Race

I was sent this cool Chinese-language video about SCA’s all-female ocean racing team in the Volvo Ocean Race:

爱生雅女子帆船队扬帆出征
ài shēng yǎ nǚzǐ fānchuán duì yángfān chūzhēng
SCA Female Sailing Team Sets Sail for Battle

Here’s a translation of the Chinese characters that appear in the video:

旅程 Journey
平衡 Equilibrium
勇气 Courage
专注 Devotion
力量 Power
战略 Strategy
关爱 Care
灵感 Inspiration
责任 Responsibility
敏捷 Agility
尊重 Respect
扬帆出征 Setting sail for battle

They’ll be in Sanya, Hainan at the end of January. This is the first all-female team to enter the race in more than a decade. Check out the team’s official page and their English-language videos:

P.S. - The English video has a slightly different list of values: teamwork, vision, empowerment, respect, efficiency, responsibility, performance, excellence.

Chinese-as-a-Second-Language, Episode 6: Coffee enemas

Maybe you think writing about coffee enemas is… in poor taste. Well, this isn’t about coffee enemas; it’s about the crazy stuff that floats through our daily conversations in China and the deliciously odd experience of encountering it in a second language. Like last week’s little exchange:

“Hey, Dajiang! I sent you a Weixin message for Jessica, to help her recovery.” (Jessica recently had surgery, and our Chinese friends have been super supportive.)

“Oh, yeah? What is it?”

“It’s about a treatment that’s really popular right now: coffee guàncháng. It’s helping lots of cancer patients recover.”

(I’ve never heard the word guàncháng before, so I just ignore it. You can usually get through a conversation without understanding every single word.) “Ha, if I tell Jessica she has to drink more coffee to get better she’ll be very happy.”

“No, Dajiang. It’s coffee *guàncháng*.”

I think it’s interesting how our brains handle this kind of Chinese-as-a-language situation. All within a split-second, your brain realizes that this word does matter and searches out your best guess from within the Chinese you have. Our brains are wondrously quick and powerful, but not foolproof (as I’m about to discover).

Context is extra important in Chinese, with its relatively small number of syllables and incredible number of homophones. Every syllable is a character, and a single word can be one or more syllables (“big” + “learn” = university 大学). Guàn-cháng is two Chinese syllables, which my brain takes one at a time, starting with the most familiar:

  1. Cháng is easy. We’re talking about health so I assume it’s the cháng for intestines 肠, a character we see all the time in the market and on restaurant menus, rather than the cháng for “often” 常, “long” 长, “taste” 尝, “big flat open space” 场 or the surname 常.
  2. Guàn — Ok, medical and health topic, something about intestines, medicine that you don’t drink… guàn guàn guàn… the only guàn that comes to mind is this thing we occasionally ate for lunch in Tianjin called jīdàn guànbǐng, not very much like an oily Chinese egg McMuffin, where they slice open one side of the biscuit and crack an egg into it before frying it. I’d never paid attention to the literal meaning of the name: egg (jīdàn) + enclose? + Chinese biscuit (bǐng).

So the train of thought goes like this:

  1. “cháng”
  2. + medical treatment context
  3. = intestines.
  4. “guàn”
  5. jīdàn guànbǐng?
  6. “egg” + “enclosed”? + “biscuit”
  7. “guàn-cháng” = “enclose” + “intestines”
  8. + medicine association
  9. = “enclose” in the “intestines”?
  10. = …suppository?
  11. “kāfēi guàncháng” = “coffee suppository”?

So I’m going with coffee suppositories and the conversation doesn’t miss a beat; that whole thought process takes just a split second. But I do whip out my Pleco dictionary as we’re talking to make sure. And according to Pleco, indispensable lifeline of Chinese language students everywhere, guàncháng = enema. (Turns out guàn means “pour” or “irrigate”, not “enclose”; “egg-poured biscuit” makes more sense, too). So we’re talking about coffee enemas – “coffee-poured intestines” — not coffee suppositories. Or maybe I should think of it as “coffee-irrigated intestines”? This conversation just keeps getting better and better.

“You believe it?”

“Yeah, look! It’s not just in Hunan province — that’s just the TV station that aired the program. Lots of places are doing this!”

“Well thanks! I’ll definitely tell her!”

If you’re curious about the health benefits of multiple daily coffee enemas aka 咖啡灌肠, you can drop this link‘s text into Google translate.

You can also browse lots more Chinese health, language learning and cross-cultural fun:

P.S. — Just to be fair, this is a China blog so I write about China stuff. If I were writing a North America blog, I could mention the trendy North American health advice I received last year from an American friend who e-mailed me suggesting I use garlic as a suppository to help beat a lingering cold.

P.P.S. — For the good kind of North American health advice, see Wellness With Joanna (though as far as I know, she has not yet commented on garlic or coffee as suppositories or enemas).

A Chinese shrine to… Jesus?

Hong Kongers erected two shrines at different locations on their barricades in their battle against police and thugs: one to Guan Gong 关公 (aka 关羽 and 关帝, a ubiquitous Chinese folk deity especially worshiped by police, triads and restaurant owners), and one to Jesus.

(None of the HK images below are mine; click each for its source.)Comparing these shrines provides a fantastic little opportunity to explore contextualization and syncretism — big words for talking about how ideas, practices and objects are adopted by a culture, and whether or not their core meanings survive intact. But first, the pictures.

A Tale of Two Shrines: Jesus & Guan Gong

The Guan Gong shrine has all the images, statues, fruit, booze and incense offerings you’d expect in a typical Guan Gong shrine, the setting notwithstanding:

The signs say:
[White, far right & left] — 关帝绝不保佑助纣为虐香港警察
Absolutely no way Emperor Guan will bless and protect Hong Kong police who are accomplices of evil-doers
[Pink, right] — 忠义神武
The Mighty Divine is quick to benevolently protect those who are loyal and righteous
[White, middle] — 亵渎神灵
Those who profane the gods will surely suffer the wrath of heaven
[Pink, left] — 威显
Bravely and powerfully protect the nation and the people

It’s not really all that remarkable in itself, though it is kind of funny the way it’s being used against police and organized crime thugs. Supposedly one can often find shrines to Guan Gong in Hong Kong police stations, where they worship him for protection. Destroying the shrine invites a curse on oneself and one’s family.

Tsang says demonstrators built the shrine to the general to send a message to their antagonists: Guan Gong is on our side.

“We want this god to punish whoever tries to hurt unarmed citizens,” says Tsang

A Chinese shrine to Jesus understandably raises a few eyebrows (and opens a few shutters); it’s not like you see one of these everyday:


The vertical writing says (right to left):
上主正义[xx] The Lord manifests justice & dim0cr@sy
基督平安自由 Christ bestows peace & freedom

Turns out there’re at least two Jesus shrines, though in this case it seems shrine isn’t a terribly accurate descriptor. Key details suggest that there are much bigger differences between these two shrines than merely the name and picture of the deity involved.

The Jesus shrine has swapped out the incense, food and booze for flowers, pretty candles and an open Bible. It’s seems the Christians have ditched the offerings — gifts intended to predispose Guan Gong to look favorably upon his worshipers and act for their protection and fortune more than he would otherwise (a bit like giving a doctor a hongbao?) — for decorations and worship aids (Bible, icons), meant to look nice, inspire other Christians and help them focus when worshiping, rather than somehow elicit protection and fortune.

I can’t know for sure just from these photos what exactly is going on here because I’m not there to see how each of these “shrines” actually function in practice. But just from what we can see in the pictures it looks like an interesting contextualization of Christianity rather than syncretism, where Christianity appropriates an aspect of Chinese culture (they’ve made their ‘shrine’ conform to Christianity) rather than Jesus being treated like he’s just another traditional Chinese deity.


(Personal pet peeve: images of pasty British Jesus in Asian churches.)

These two shrines physically display a core distinction between Christianity and traditional Chinese religion: the way in which one relates to God/the gods.

Christians relate to God as the children of a perfect, loving, authoritative parent, or the subjects of a just and benevolent king. It’s in God’s character to always act for the good of his people; gifts can’t make God love more. Prayer is as much to influence the Christian as it is to influence God’s behaviour, who listens like a loving parent listens to a child and may or may not act in response to the child’s request.

With Guan Gong and other traditional Chinese deities it’s more like currying favour (but not seen in a negative way); gifts that show reverence make the deity more predisposed to provide protection or fortune. It doesn’t mean that Christians can’t use incense, for example, but when they do it means something different (if they’re being faithful to a broadly defined, international Christian orthodoxy).


An interesting attempt at contextualization in Thailand, where Thai Christians have incorporated some Thai/Buddhist forms into their worship practices while trying to maintain distinctly Christian meanings.

You can’t influence (or manipulate) Jesus, according to Christianity, in all the same ways that you can traditional Chinese deities according to traditional Chinese religion.


Reading the Bible… in the middle of the road.

That’s not the only fundamental difference between following Jesus and appealing to Guan Gong, of course. And it’s no surprise that each shrine’s respective signage conveys mutually distinct messages.

“There is this Christian spirit,” says Cheng, who wears a yellow ribbon pinned to his shirt pocket — a symbol of the movement. “You are more willing to suffer. Social justice means more to you.”


Singing hymns… in the middle of the road.


Praying at an altar… outside government headquarters.

Contextualization & Syncretism

Simply put: Syncretism changes the essence of the thing; contextualization allows the essence of that thing to be accurately expressed within the cultural context. Contextualization is concerned primarily with meaning; preserving the meaning of a thing in a new cultural context often requires significant changes to form.

(In the images above some unnecessary cultural ‘forms’ that have been directly imported, like British Jesus and ancient iconography. Direct cultural importing is not contextualization; contextualization uses local, rather than foreign, physical or intellectual forms to express meaning.)


Guan Gong: “You’re here, too?”
Jesus: “Had no choice, Carrie Lam made me.”

The text above Jesus says:
“People who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, because they will be satisfied.”

If the essential meaning of the thing being adopted stays more or less intact, then it’s contextualized. But when the core meaning of the thing is damaged or “lost in translation” due to it’s cultural incorporation, it’s called syncretism. Even though in reality the line between the two is not always crystal clear, and it’s maybe more accurate to think about degrees of syncretism rather than purely either/or, the difference between them is huge.

One curious example of syncretism is the way Chairman Mao is becoming a Chinese folk deity. When average Zhou Chinese Mainlanders take Mao Zedong — who I assume enjoyed being treated like a god but was nevertheless violently anti-religion, anti-traditional-Chinese-culture and anti-capitalism — and turn him into a Chinese folk deity, it’s syncretism because it’s not faithful or compatible with what Mao was about. Atheism was mandatory. You can’t get much more un-Maoist than selling Mao folk deity figurines on the open market.

As a god he’s not as popular as Guanyin 观音, Laughing Buddha 笑佛, Cai Shen 财神 (the money god) or Guan Gong but you can buy him in the god shops, and you occasionally find him occupying spaces usually reserved for Laughing Buddha. It’s “Maoist” in the sense that it involves a lot of Mao — his image and name and greatness — but it’s not Maoist when it comes to the actual teachings of Maoism.


Our local traditional market has more than one place selling Mao alongside Buddhist, Daoist and even Hindu gods.

Mao with Cai Shen, the god of wealth, on the walls of our neighbourhood baozi shop. According to the stories, Mao supposedly refused to even touch money.

Syncretism is misleading because the integrity of the central meaning is lost while superficial elements are still adopted. The new idea gets swapped out for an old one, but the old idea dresses up as if it were the new idea.

Promoting Mao as a folk deity is not promoting Maoism; Maoism is against folk deities. Sticking a BMW logo on a Flying Pigeon bike doesn’t change the quality or nature of the vehicle, no matter how many people you convince to speak and act as if that bike was a luxury car. Swapping out a Chinese restaurant’s prosperity god statue for a Jesus figurine won’t make the shrine Christian; it just creates a new Chinese folk deity who looks like Jesus and is called “Jesus” but in any way that actually matters (according to Jesus) isn’t Jesus.

Doing that is bad — i.e. inaccurate — because the Jesus of Christianity and the deities of Chinese traditional religion are two different kinds of thing. And they each have a different kind of relationship to people; the way people relate to Jesus (according to Christianity) is different from the way people relate to Chinese folk deities (according to traditional Chinese religion). “Prayer” in the Christian sense of the word, as Jesus presents it, is a different kind of thing from “prayer” in a Chinese folk religion sense of the word. (Now if we swapped a God of Wealth statue for a Santa Claus figurine…I could get behind that. ;) )

The examples above are not awesome because they’re too obvious. In reality, syncretism is usually more subtle. The people doing it often don’t realize it, and if they care at all then they’d probably be offended and scandalized if they found out (not everyone cares). What people think they’re doing or say they’re doing is one thing, but their actual behaviour and the function of their language (rather than the surface meanings of their words) is another. What are they actually doing? Or what are they actually communicating by making those statements in those contexts? Are they, for example, really trying to promote and realize Maoism in their society, or just creating a Mao-themed object towards which they can express the worries of life and wish for prosperity and health? Or are they (second example) really trying to become the kind of people and live the kind of life to which Jesus invites them, or are they weekly participants in a religious-themed, self-help-dispensing, cultural values-affirming, family-friendly weekly social club? When it comes to Christians, if they’re the latter they probably still imagine they’re the former, and you’d have a heck of a time trying to make them see a difference.

There are four ubiquitous Chinese deities we routinely see in Qingdao: Cai Shen 财神 (prosperity god) and Guan Gong 关公 in the restaurants, Guanyin 观音 on necklace talismans, and Laughing Buddhas 笑佛 on business counters and dashboards. Lots more about Chinese deities and Mao below.

Mao as a god (literally & figuratively) in contemporary China:

Peruse the Chinese deities for sale:

How Christmas and traditional Chinese religion could so easily get along:

P.S. — It took a little while, but it seems at least some mainstream news media has finally discovered that Christianity is a significant factor in the Ongoing Event Which Must Not Be Named. See more from Bloomberg, NPR, FP, SCMP and CDT.

P.P.S. — A pre-dawn police raid on Oct. 17 has resulted in the unceremonious departure of Guan Gong. The Jesus shrine has apparently met a similar fate.

P.P.P.S. — Feel free to offer input/corrections on Guan Gong worship and traditional Chinese religion in general. Obviously I’m not as familiar with that as I am with Christianity. And since traditional Chinese religion isn’t formally theologized, details can be hard to nail down.

Why we use SunVPN in China

When we first came to China in 2007, the average expat didn’t need a VPN. But a lot has changed since then.

For example, I use:

  • Gmail for e-mail;
  • Google for search and translation;
  • Facebook and Instagram to stay in touch with family and friends, and share pictures of our kids with their aunties, uncles, grandpas and grandmas;
  • Twitter for news;
  • YouTube to make music playlists for our family;

And in China, I need to VPN to access every single one of those. So without a VPN, I lose my first or only options for English-language e-mail, search, translation, news and social networking, and a lot of music.

微信 is great, but it’s not like all my North American friends and relatives are all going to ditch Facebook for WeChat any time soon.

And that’s why we’re starting our third year with SunVPN. We use it at home on our computers and everywhere on our phones. With so many server locations to choose from, it means we can access stuff that’s country restricted — like NBC’s Olympics videos, Netflix movies or Comedy Central clips. It’s easy to install and use (we are not techie people at all), and on the rare occasion that something goes wrong (like when I clicked “Run” instead of “Run as Administrator” and didn’t know why it wasn’t working) their 24-hour support is really prompt. They support OpenVPN, L2TP and PPTP connections, and have multiple servers in North America, Europe and East Asia.

Check them out:
If you’re inside China and not on a VPN, trying clicking here. Otherwise click here.