Making Christmas Chinese: “a yellow Christmas for yellow skin”

Since so many of our Christmas traditions are only two or three generations old anyway, why not make Christmas yellow?

A yellow yellow yellow Christmas
A yellow yellow yellow miracle will appear
A yellow yellow yellow Christmas
Oh! A yellow Christmas for yellow skin

ChineseChristmasNativity

Could Christmas ever become Chinese? It’s complicated. For starters: What does that question even mean? And then there’s Christmas’ thorny and conflicted association with Western culture and imperialism, which this translated article lays it out well enough:

…we have a particularly strong feeling that Christianity is a foreign religion.

…sometimes Christmas faces an embarrassing situation in China nowadays. In the eyes of some Chinese, Christmas is like a white wedding dress, which is Western. When Christmas comes, the whole society is filled a with strong commercial atmosphere.

…Christmas is a symbol of Western cultural invasion. For the vast majority of non-Christians in China, Christianity is only related to Christianity and shopping. As a result, Christmas has been resisted in China several times in recent years. With the spread of the internet, the trend of resistance is intensifying.

Ten Ph.Ds from ten well-known China’s universities including Beijing University and Tsinghua University jointly published an article online on Dec 21, 2006, calling for resistance to Christmas.

The topic of celebrating Christmas seems to appear every year… the groups who boycott Christmas range from the ten left-wing cultural scholars to cultural conservatives. Laid-off workers, farmers, young students, and veterans are also included.
[…]
Christmas has become a symbol which stands for overseas culture. Even Chinese who celebrate the festival think so. Few people are concerned about how Chinese Christians should celebrate Christmas under their own cultural background…

But despite the kind of Christmas you’re most likely to witness in China, and the calls to reject Christmas outright, apparently some people are attempting to meaningfully Chinese-ify Christmas. And the attempts are… interesting, at least. The article I quoted above gives two examples. Here’s the first: Yellow Christmas by Huang Guolun (1999):

Yellow Christmas 黄色圣诞

Words & Music: Huang Guolun 词/曲:黄国伦
Performed by Huang Guolun, Zhu Yuexin, Mai Kelin 演唱:黄国伦、朱约信、苏郁修
(Listen: Youtube, Youtube, Xiami, Tudou)

When I was young I dreamed of a snowy Christmas
小的时候 我曾梦想下雪圣诞节
Waiting by my bed for Santa to appear
躲在床边等待圣诞老人的再现
The days went by year after year
日子过了一年又一年 我什麽也没看见
Oh! Childhood fantasies, a White Christmas
OH! 童年幻想 白色圣诞节
White White Christmas White White Christmas

That year I broke up with her in a rainy December
那年与她分手在那下雨十二月
Sitting in church with red-rimmed eyes singing Silent Night
红着眼眶坐在教堂唱着平安夜
The choir sang it again and again, I felt little comfort
诗班唱了一遍又遍 我觉得有点安慰
Oh! Lost love’s dejection, a blue Christmas
OH! 失恋忧鬱 蓝色圣诞节
Blue Blue Christmas Blue Blue Christmas

’til now, I can taste the flavour of Christmas
直到现在 我才尝到圣诞的滋味
The most beautiful gift that God gave to people
那是上帝赐给人间最美的礼物
In the grim reality of this world there’s sunshine shining in the door of my heart
在这冷酷现实的世界 有阳光照心扉
Oh! Golden warmth, a yellow Christmas
OH! 金黄温暖 黄色圣诞节

A yellow yellow yellow Christmas
Yellow Yellow 黄色圣诞节
A yellow yellow miracle will appear
Yellow Yellow 奇迹会出现
A yellow yellow yellow Christmas
Yellow Yellow 黄色圣诞节
A yellow Christmas for yellow skin
OH! 黄皮肤的黄色圣诞节

I want to celebrate Christmas, not just dance and spend money
我想庆祝圣诞不是跳舞和花钱
We can invest heartfelt concern into this suffering world
可以付出真心关怀苦难的世界
Just like Jesus without complaint or regret devoted His whole self
就像耶稣无怨无悔 奉献祂一切
Oh! The wonder of God’s love, a yellow Christmas!
OH! 主爱奇妙 黄色圣诞节

ChineseChristmasNativity_006b

That article’s second example appeared on the Chinese internet at the end of 2016 — a Henan folk opera that has Jesus being born in Zhumadian. I went searching and found it being passed around the chinternet as a joke:

“Three days after the winter solstice, little Jesus was born in Zhumadian. The Three Magi brought a box of apples, five jin of pork, and ten jin of flour. Mary had a red egg in her hand and Joseph was busy rolling the dumpling dough. The innkeeper brought a bowl of brown sugar and ginger drink, and called, “Elder Sister, you drink this so you don’t catch a cold.” The Party Secretary of Zhumadian village heard the news, rushed over and said, “Hallelujah! But you still have to get a Temporary Residence Permit.” Just as the sky outside the barn was turning late, everyone in the barn ate apples for peace. Red flags flutter at every home in Zhumadian, and they celebrated Christmas with firecrackers and the cry and clamour of gongs and drums.”
冬至过了那整整三天,小耶稣降生在俺驻马店。三博士送来了一箱苹果,还提着五斤猪肉十斤白面。玛丽亚手里拿着红鸡蛋,约瑟夫忙把饺子皮擀。店老板端来碗红糖姜水,喊一声大嫂你喝了不怕风寒。驻马店村支书闻讯赶来,道一声哈利路亚暂住证还是得办。只见那马棚外天色向晚,马棚里人人都吃苹果求个平安。驻马店家家户户红旗招展,庆圣诞鞭炮齐鸣锣鼓喧天。

Recently I just happened upon a third example, sort of: a creative Nativity rewrite by an ABC pastor in San Fransisco, which points out how the ancient culture in which the Christmas Story occurs resembles Chinese culture more than Western culture: What if Jesus were born in my ancestral village in China?

ChineseChristmasNativity_007b

More about Chinese racial talk and attempts to Sinicize Christmas:

The mysterious Chinese colour “qing”

The colour qīng 青, which we’ve encountered once before, popped up again recently in a story book our daughter’s preschool teacher was reading to her class. It made characters out of each colour, and showed what new colours were created when they touched. All the usual suspects were there — red, yellow, blue, green, black, etc. — plus “qīng.” See if you can figure out how to describe it.

This is “Little Black” 小黑 xiǎo hēi

heise_black

And this is “Little Qīng” 小青 xiǎo qīngqingse_qing

You can see on Little Qing’s fingers, the shirt near the fingers and the water drops, that they’ve tinged black with green and blue.

Our dictionaries aren’t super helpful, with entries like, “nature’s colour,” “green or blue,” “greenish black.” I wonder if the iridescent green of some beetles, for example, would be called qīng by my students, rather than green 绿 .

It’s curious that our daughters are growing up with a slightly different colourscape than we did.

There’s more about qīng here: Language, perception and the Chinese colour “qīng”

The Berenstain Bears & their Chinese Neighbours

Of course we have a bunch of Berenstain Bears books, which are full of quaint life lessons (Bully trouble at school? Learn self-defense and punch her in the face!), and feature the usually-wrong-but-never-in-doubt clueless man-child dad trope, which had a satirical purpose once a upon time in a galaxy far far away, as the foil for the unfailingly patient and composed Mama Bear, who gently directs the show from backstage with an endless reservoir of commonsense wisdom, propriety, and savvy wifely interventions. Still, we loved them as kids and our kids love them now (though I did permanently shelve one of the religious ones).

Turns out there are tons of new ones (“new” as in, written after I graduated from primary school, once upon a time in a galaxy far far etc.), and our Chinese preschool library even has some. This one would have made me laugh even if we’d never moved to China but it’s extra funny here, where we’re the foreign neighbours. The Bear family gets some Chinese Panda neighbours! And apparently Papa Bear has gone from picnic spots to prejudice!

Berenstain Bears Chinese Neighbours 0
So suspicious Papa Bear! Just because they’re short and their fur is different and they like to wear matching outfits… don’t you know that’s just how they do in China Pandaland?

Berenstain Bears Chinese Neighbours 02
“What do they think they’re doing? They’re not actually moving in, are they??”

Berenstain Bears Chinese Neighbours 03
“Putting up a fence? Who puts up a fence?? Bad people who have something to hide, that’s who!”

Berenstain Bears Chinese Neighbours 04
Well, thank goodness for bamboo juice and travel stories. (Just nobody tell Papa that pandas aren’t actually bears…)

Here’s some fun we’ve had as the foreign neighbours in China:

How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition

How to plant trees wrong in China: Days 1-3

One of the awesome things about our neighourhood is that you can plant trees pretty much wherever. No vegetable gardens, because then our neighbourhood would be nothing but parking spaces and fields of leeks. But trees, bushes and flowers? Knock yourselves out.

Last year I tried to plant a ton of magnolias (玉兰), but the guys at the market saw me coming a mile away and sold me every kind of tree but magnolias. Whatever; they’re trees, they’re growing.

This spring planting season, however, began with me planting a peach tree and a “Chinese toon” (香椿) tree in the last two available spots in the shared grass area around our building, and ended with me uprooting them at the earnest badgering of two anxious neighbours while one of them burned incense to the tree and flower god.

Incense to the tree and flower god

It gave me yet another opportunity to stumble down the rabbit hole of traditional Chinese taboos and superstitions (note: there are many such rabbit holes in China!). And it went something like this…

Planting Trees Wrong in China — Day 1
One of my neighbours told me today that I can’t plant 香椿 (“Chinese toon / fragrant cedar / Toona sinensis”?) on the back side of the house, which is apparently what I’ve done. I’ll defer to her knowledge about trees; she’s over 50 and grew up in a Chinese village. I asked if it was because the sun was no good there. Nope, nothing to do with sunlight. I kept asking why, and she just kept saying that in China you don’t plant 香椿s behind houses, especially according to the older people. (Never mind that what she calls “behind” is the front and only entrance to our stairwell. In China front/back orients to the sun, not the front door.).

So I asked on 微信 (aka WeChat aka Chinese Facebook), and got a lot of replies:

Folk culture. 民俗文化

It’s maybe a superstition. 可能是迷信

This is a superstitious saying. Because Chinese toon buds are edible, and tasty, so as soon as Chinese toons bloom people come an pick them and eat them, so people turn it into a metaphor for not ever getting out of a predicament, meaning the family’s days will never get better. The family members won’t succeed in whatever they do. 这是一种迷信说法。因为香椿芽可食用,味道鲜美。所以春天刚发芽,就被人摘下来吃了。有人就把这种现象比喻成永无出头之日。意思是家里的日子一直都不会好转。家里人做什么事也不会成功。

This is feudal superstition, don’t bother about her. Don’t plant willows in the front, don’t plant mulberries in the back — they’re all superstitions. We just believe in Jesus, not in whatever else. 这是封建迷信,别打理他,前不种柳树,后不种桑树,都是迷信,我们只信耶稣,别的什么都不信

She means you planting that tree in that place will bring bad luck. 他的意思是你把那个树种到那个位置会给你带来倒霉的事情

You also can’t plant mulberry trees, locust trees, willow trees, pine trees, cypress trees or banyan trees in the yard. 5000 years of history have not only given us glorious, splendid culture, but also innumerable superstitions and taboos. Although not many people can explain clearly why. 院子里不能种的树还有桑树,槐树,柳树,松树,柏树,榕树。五千年的历史不仅给了我们光辉灿烂的文化,还有数不清的迷信和禁忌。尽管没有几个人能说得清为什么。

Actually (I) don’t know this rule. Here we say in the front don’t plant mulberries, in the back don’t plant willows. 倒是不知道这种规定,我们这儿是说前不栽桑(桑树),后不栽柳(柳树)

I just Baidu’d it for you. The approximate meaning is: “A single tree is inauspicious. A single one is unfavourable for the propagation of later generations, generally they should all be planted in the front! Furthermore must not just plant one!” Chinese people are rather superstitious; us Christians don’t need to care about this. 刚帮你百度了一下,大概意思是“一颗就不吉利,单一,对子孙后代繁殖不利,一般都是栽在前面!而且要不要栽一颗!” 中国人比较迷信咱们基督徒是不是可以不用管这个

Nah, my mother-in-law’s yard has a Chinese toon. 不会吧,俺婆婆院子里就有颗香椿树

There’s no problem with Chinese toons. But apparently according to fēngshuǐ, you can’t plant mulberry trees. Chinese toons are not problem. But this one is too close to the house and might obstruct the windows. 香椿树没有问题吧。但是似乎依据风水,不能种桑树。香椿没问题。但是这一棵离着房子太近可能会挡住窗户。。

I also want to know… [awkward] 我也想知道…[尴尬]

So what about how the front and back of our house is full of peach and pear trees and also cherry trees? This is certainly some place’s special custom. Today I also heard a coworker say in his hometown you can’t plant mulberries in the yard because “mulberry” and “mourning/corpse/make funeral arrangements” sound the same. [sweat] 我们家房前屋后种满桃树和梨树还有樱桃树咋说?这肯定是哪里的很特别的风俗。今天还听同事说他们老家不能在院子里种桑树,因为“桑”和“丧”是一个音。[流汗]

This saying is Chinese older generation’s old thinking and old views. The previous age’s old people pay particular attention to this. 这种说法是中国老一辈的旧思想旧观念的说法,上了年纪的老人讲究这些。

Planting Trees Wrong in China — Day 2
rejected tree I just cannot win with trees in China this spring! Another neighbour (not the one from yesterday) just came down to 说说 about another tree, this time a peach tree (桃树). And she was in earnest. Turns out you can’t plant peach trees in the 院子 — like the “yard” of a house or courtyard; they’re supposed to go on mountains or public parks. Because something about husbands dying(!) and how it will bring bad luck and all the residents in our building will be affected. I couldn’t catch all her explanation because she’s a Qingdao 奶奶 (imagine a small-town Texan talking to an international student).

And then she went out and burned incense and paper money to the Tree & Flower god and everything (I am *not* making this up) before trying to uproot a bush (not mine) that was threatening to block her windows, telling it sorry and that she was going to move it to a new home (*not* true: she hacked it to pieces with an axe, poured toilet cleaner on the roots and threw the branches in the garbage. I’m assuming the Tree and Flower god is either not that bright, or very forgiving…).

Incense and bush-killing

So I asked on 微信 again, and got a whole nother pile of replies:

So painful. Just plant what you want to plant, so long as you don’t disturb others you’re OK. China has so many superstitious ideas, what can you do? 好痛苦,想种什么就种什么,只要不影响别人就ok了,中国那么多迷信思想,怎么办?

I’d be worried about offending the peach blossoms! [snicker] 担心犯桃花[偷笑]

Just plant whatever you like to plant [grin] 你喜欢种什么就种什么吧[呲牙]

Chinese superstitions 中国迷信

So many go in for superstitions!! 搞迷信的真多!!

Frankly, I’ve never heard of this, you should Baidu it and see if you can get an answer. 说实话,我都没听说过,你百度一下试试看能不能找到答案。

There’s a proverb that says: “Don’t plant mulberry in the front, don’t plant willow in the back, don’t plant ‘ghost clap’ (also called ‘executioner’) in the yard.” Can’t plant mulberry in the front because “mulberry” sounds like “mourning/corpse”, so it’s feared to be inauspicious if you go out your door and see “mulberry”(“mourning”). In the back can’t plant willow. The sayings differ. One says it has to do with funerals and interment of the dead. Because “mourning staffs” and “soul-beckoning banners” are made from willow, and behind the tomb willow trees are planted as “money trees” and “ghost trees”, it’s easy for willow to make people think of funerals, so it’s inauspicious. Another saying says that willows don’t bear fruit. If planted behind the house in the backyard, it’s feared to be harmful, and will cause the family to not have descendents. “Ghost clap” refers to poplars. When the wind blows, poplar leaves have a “hua-la-hua-la” crashing sound, like a ghost clapping. People fear planting poplar in the courtyard will attract demons; it’s hugely inauspicious. In Shandong province’s Linqing region there’s a similar folk belief. If you plant mulberry in the front and willow in the back, it’s equal to losing the population, can’t “preserve”(“willow”) the later generations. “Executioner” refers to peach trees because peach blossoms, peach branches, and peach fruit are all blood red, so demons and ghosts all want to live in peach trees, so people don’t dare plant them in the yard. In Jiao county, peach trees can only be planted behind the house because it’s believed peach trees have evil energy/influence. If planted in the front yard, the roots will run into the house, and the people’s lives will have sorrow. In Henan province’s Fangcheng county, people also dread to plant peach trees in the yard because it’s believed peach wood has magic power. Whichever family plants peach trees will have lots of evil and disaster. It’s also said that planting peach trees is to escape from famine, because “peach” and “escape” are homophones. Among the people there’s also a saying: “Before the door a peach stump, invites wind without end”. So peach wood helps avoid evil spirits, but definitely not peach trees.俗话说:”前不栽桑,后不栽柳,院中不栽”鬼拍手”(又说”刽子手”)。院前不栽桑树,是因”桑”与”丧”同音,出门见桑(丧),惟恐不吉。后不栽柳,说法不一,一说是与殡葬死人有关。因”丧杖”、”招魂幡”都是柳木做的,坟墓后边又要栽柳树作”摇钱树”、”墓树”。所以柳树也易被人想到丧事,不吉;另一说是讲柳树不结籽,若栽于房后、院后,还恐妨害,感应得这家人家也无子嗣后代了。”鬼拍手”是指杨树。风一刮,杨树叶哗啦哗啦地响,像是”鬼拍手”。院内栽上杨树,还恐招来鬼魅,大不吉利,山东临清一带也有类似的俗信。如果前栽桑后栽柳,就合丧(桑)失人口,留(柳)不住后代,”刽子手”指的是桃树。因为桃花、桃枝、桃实都是血红色的,妖魔鬼怪都愿意在桃树上住,所以不敢种在院里。胶县一带,桃树只能种在后院,禁忌栽到前院,俗以为桃树上有邪气。如果种到前院,树根扎到屋里,人就有性命之忧。河南方城一带也忌院内种桃树,俗以为桃木有法力。谁家种桃树,主邪灾多。也有说种桃树主逃荒要饭的。这是因”桃”与”逃”谐音的缘故,民间还有”门前一株桃,讨气讨不了”的说法。所以说,是桃木避邪,并不是桃树避邪。

This is related to superstition! It has nothing to do with you. 这和迷信有关!和你一点关系都没有。

Folkways and customs 民风民俗

Planting Trees Wrong in China — Day 3
So this afternoon I transplanted the fēngshuǐ-offending, superstitious-neighbour-triggering trees from our shared yard to the public park area beside the preschool, where the neighbourhood kids play, the elderly sit in the sun, and retirees do taiji and group exercise.

The students who peed on my treeTwo of my students ran over while I was planting the second one:

“Mr. Lu! Are you done planting? Mr. Lu! Are you done planting? Mr. Lu! Are you done planting? Mr. Lu! Are you done planting?”

“Hold on… uh, yep. I’m done now.”

“Good! I have to pee!”

These poor trees just cannot catch a break.

Here they are, hopefully in their final resting places:

Peach tree 桃树 Fragrant Cedar aka Chinese toon 香椿树

Dog food (the other kind) in Qingdao, China

Dog dish
A dog dish (as in, a dog *in* a dish), in case you ever wondered what an entire dog stewed and served as meat looks like.
Dog head for you!
The host offers the dog head to an especially honoured guest (the one guy who drank baijiu instead of beer all night). Every part of the dog was in there, and by every part, I mean whatever part you’re thinking of right now.
gym buddies dog food
Dinner with the gym dudes. I think there was as much meat around the table as there was on it. One of them owns the restaurant.
More dog-eating adventures: Don’t eat dog? We sure missed that memo…

On surviving China’s infamous drinking culture: Baijiu

Language, perception and the Chinese colour “qīng”

So there’s this thing going around about how supposedly no one could see the color blue until modern times. I’m not sure I buy that; it’s interesting, but sounds like all the other pseudo-science and “history” sloshing around my social media feeds. And I don’t have the time to investigate it well enough to form an opinion. The Chinese have a colour that we don’t. Does that mean we can’t see it? Are we missing out?

The relationship between language and culture (or language and perception) is fascinating. I suspect that if I could somehow perceive the world from a born-and-bred Mainland Chinese perspective, my mind would short-circuit within the first few minutes.

Anyway, that article reminded me of the Chinese colour (qīng), aka blue, green, black, blackish-green, and the color of nature. The coworker I just asked says qīng is “a little bit greener than green” (“绿色绿一点”)。 Our almost-6-year-old daughter, who’s spent the last three years in an all-Chinese preschool and with whom we’ve never discussed qīng, mentioned the other day (without prompting from us) that qīng is “in rainbows, it’s really pretty green.”

qing bubbles

One of the fun things about Anthropology 101 is discovering that there are different ways cultures categorize the world, including the color spectrum. Look at these less-than-helpful dictionary entries for the Chinese colour qīng:

In Chinese other words are usually used for blue ,green 绿, and black 。 If I ask my Chinese kindergarten students the colour of the sky or grass or coal, they’ll probably use one of those three, not qīng 青。 But qīng isn’t rare; our city is Qīngdǎo (青岛: “Qīng Island”), our street is Qīngshān Rd. (青山路: “Qīng Mountain Rd.”), and there’s a province called Qīnghǎi (青海: “Qīng Sea”). In these place names, islands, mountains, and oceans can all be qīng, but aside from that I’ve never heard someone refer to an object as qīng. Apparently the 1800-year-old dictionary 释名 defines qīng as “birth, like the color of things born” (物生)。

Interestingly enough, a Google image search for “青” (“qīng“) turned up entries for the colour, and shows mostly blue, while a Baidu image search (the Chinese Google equivalent) turned up entries for words that contain the 青 character, and shows mostly green.

qing image search screenshot

But searching for “青色” (“the colour qīng“) yields more similar results:


It’s almost like Chinese qīng belongs in Dr. Seuss:

He has something called qīng.
qīng is so hard to get,
You never saw anything
Like it, I bet.
[…]
Then the qīng
It went qīng!
And, oh boy! What a qīng!
Now, don’t ask me what qīng is.
I never will know.
But, boy! Let me tell you
It DOES clean up snow!

IMO, our differences between cultures are much more profound than we tend to realize, and they don’t get the respect they deserve. But even deeper than that runs what we have in common, and that transcends biological and cultural differences.

P.S. — All these images, aside from the dictionary and Baidu screenshots, came from a Google image search for 青。 Click the images for their source page. The giant qīng eyeball is here.

For more about qīng:

For more language and perception: