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.)chinesejesusshrine.png A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?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:

guanggongshrine1 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?guanggongshrine1 detail A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?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
guangongshrine1 detail2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

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:

jesusshrine1 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
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
jesusshrine1 detail A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

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.

jesusshrine2detail A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
(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).

ThaiChristianincense A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
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.

jesusshrine2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
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.”

worshipservice A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Singing hymns… in the middle of the road.

jesusshrine3 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
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.)

jesusguangongcomic A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Guan Gong: “You’re here, too?”
Jesus: “Had no choice, Carrie Lam made me.”
jesusguangongthreeposters A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
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.

mao temple A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?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.

gods2mao A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Our local traditional market has more than one place selling Mao alongside Buddhist, Daoist and even Hindu gods.
maocaishenposter A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
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.

mao temple2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?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.

shrinebloomberg A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

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.guangongcleanup1 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
guangongcleanup2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

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.

Anti-bribery signage at our hospital in Huangdao, China

Health is one of the biggest worldview disconnects between Chinese and Western cultures. Another is ethics. Putting it simplistically: To us, their stark pragmatism sounds amoral and selfish. To them, our abstract principles sound naive and heartless. It’s mutually appalling, and mutual understanding is nigh impossible. (Parenting has gotta be in the top 5.)

We’re halfway through a week in the hospital, and I thought this anti-“hongbao” signage was interesting. “Hongbao” (红包) is an ingrained aspect of Chinese culture where the patient’s family slips extra money to the surgeon in a “red envelope” to encourage better treatment. It’s illegal in Chinese countries, but that doesn’t stop it.

Front and center on the nurses’ station:

hongbaosign Anti bribery signage at our hospital in Huangdao, China
Honest medical treatment; Refuse to accept hongbao
诚信医疗拒收红包

Despite this, the translator assigned to us (she’s helpful, but her English is harder for us to understand than the doctor’s Chinese) says, “Sometimes, it still happens.”

Apparently there are a lot more ways than hongbao for doctors to earn extra ethically-suspect income. This poster is at the entrance to our floor:

To Strengthen Medical Treatment Clean Behaviour Customs, Construct “The Nine Forbiddens”
加强医疗卫生行风建设“九不准”

    hongbaoposter Anti bribery signage at our hospital in Huangdao, China
  1. It’s forbidden for health care personnel personal income to be connected to medication or medical examination income.
    不准将医疗卫生人员个人收入与药品和医学检查收入挂钩
  2. It’s forbidden to take a commission.
    不准开单提成
  3. It’s forbidden to receive payment against the rules.
    不准违规收费
  4. It’s forbidden to illegally accept social welfare subsidies.
    不准违规接受社会捐赠资助
  5. It’s forbidden to participate in marketing activities or distribute medical advertising against the rules.
    不准参与推销活动和违规发布医疗广告
  6. It’s forbidden to fill prescriptions for business purposes.
    不准为商业目的统方
  7. It’s forbidden to use illegally and selfishly procured medical products.
    不准违规自私采购使用医药产品
  8. It’s forbidden to accept kickbacks.
    不准收受回扣
  9. It’s forbidden to accept patient “hongbao”.
    不准收受患者“红包”

I don’t think hongbao is good despite what the authors linked below argue. But simplistically dismissing it as a bribe without first understanding it isn’t that helpful either. Looking more closely at the reasons and dynamics of this old practice also provides a helpful window into Chinese culture and common ethics. Here’s a bit from an American hongbao apologist:
From China, With Pragmatism

It is very common for a Chinese family to give hongbao to a surgeon who is about to perform a procedure on a family member. Everyone knows to do this, and everyone does it to the extent that they are able. The Americans in our group thought this practice was unethical bribery, because it sought to bias the doctor in one’s favor. The Chinese people at the table replied, “Of course it biases the doctor. That’s why we do it.” Not only were they mystified by the censure, but the Chinese were prompted to ask if the Americans had any children — for every parent surely uses any means necessary to protect loved ones.

When one embassy officer (working his best “hearts-and-minds diplomacy”) suggested that the Chinese switch the giving of hongbao to after the successful operation, rather than before, the Chinese were struck dumb with astonishment. Of course, you have to give the hongbao beforehand because it motivates the doctor. The gift tells the doctor: (a) to take special care with our child (b) we respect your surgical skills/education and “give face” accordingly (c) we are devoted to our child, will hold you responsible and have the means to do so. The fact that not everyone can afford to influence their doctor with hongbao is not grounds for withholding it, since we’re trying to protect my child here and now. The parent, according to the Chinese, should never weigh the child’s well-being against something so arcane as an abstract principle.

And here’s another piece that spreads the blame around:
Bribery serves as life-support for Chinese hospitals

Bribery is the lubricant that helps keep China’s public hospitals running, and the health system would struggle to function without illegal payments to poorly paid doctors and administrators, say medical practitioners and industry experts.
[…]
A doctor fresh out of medical school in Beijing earns about 3,000 yuan ($490) a month including bonuses — roughly the same as a taxi driver. A doctor with 10 years experience makes around 10,000 yuan a month, according to Peter Chen, chief executive of privately run Oasis International Hospital in Beijing.

“Without the grey income, doctors would not have the incentive to practice,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Dealing with the problem is not so easy:
Should Doctors Be Rewarded for Refusing Bribes?

hongbao is adding to the financial pressure most patients are already under, at a time when medical and health cost is very high. The public has long expressed their dissatisfaction with this accepted practice. The government has already taken a number of measures to save the deteriorating patient-doctor relationship resulting from hongbao by announcing that doctors who take bribes will be struck off the doctor roll. In some parts of China, it is announced that those who report this practice to the government can receive a reward worth thousands of yuan, while the doctors concerned will be dismissed. However, despite these kinds of measures, it seems the hongbao tradition is entrenched and likely to die a very slow death in China.

Here’s a little larger, current context for the hongbao practice:
Under the Knife — Why Chinese patients are turning against their doctors

Violence against doctors in China has become a familiar occurrence. In September, 2011, a calligrapher in Beijing, dissatisfied with his throat-cancer treatment, stabbed a doctor seventeen times. In May, 2012, a woman attacked a young nurse in Nanjing with a knife because of complications from an operation performed sixteen years earlier. In a two-week period this February, angry patients paralyzed a nurse in Nanjing, cut the throat of a doctor in Hebei, and beat a Heilongjiang doctor to death with a lead pipe. A survey by the China Hospital Management Association found that violence against medical personnel rose an average of twenty-three per cent each year between 2002 and 2012. By then, Chinese hospitals were reporting an average of twenty-seven attacks a year, per hospital.

When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach…

…this happens. It doesn’t always happen exactly the same way, but what happened this past weekend is pretty typical:


(Language students! Listen for these key words:
洋娃娃可爱眼睛漂亮美女姐姐玩儿。)

I know we’re not the only foreigners in China that regularly attract this kind of attention from total strangers. How do you handle it?

In North America, if some stranger started taking pictures of little kids at the beach or wherever I would automatically interfere and probably call the police. Because that behaviour is outside our norms; chances are too high the person is a creep.

oooyangwawa When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach...
Our two-year-old, with… I don’t know who.

But what about in China, when photographing, talking to, and even trying to pick up a stranger’s kid isn’t considered odd? I don’t mean that Mainlanders are always running around posing with each other’s toddlers; other Chinese toddlers aren’t exotic to them. And I don’t mean that China doesn’t have its fair share of perverts. I mean that this behaviour isn’t seen as violating anyone’s privacy or personal space. When it does happen, the idea that the person’s a pedophile doesn’t even enter people’s minds. 99% of the time, they really are just being friendly and curious in a socially acceptable way. (They don’t perceive an ever-present pedophile threat like North Americans do; their society just hasn’t caught up to ours, apparently…)

pantslessbro When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach...
“Wa! The foreign doll is so cute!” “Wa! The Chinese boy has no pants!”

It is stupid to respond coldly or meanly to a Chinese person because they don’t behave according to North American norms. Actually, that’s being an ethnocentric jerk. You’ve got to understand what their behaviour means within their social context, because that’s where you are. If you’re going to treat people like they’re doing something wrong when they genuinely don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, then you’d better be able to articulate a really good reason (or have a good reason why you have to treat them that way regardless — but “It’s so annoying!” is not a good reason).

usualsuspects When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach...
A typical crowd for our family, from two weekends ago. Compare to the next photo below.

But feeling annoyed is totally understandable and natural. And not all friendly and curious attention is the same, because Mainland China is not a monolithic society:

  • The more cosmopolitan Chinese are more likely to ask you before taking pictures of your kids. Bonus points for them!
  • Typical 2nd-tier city urbanites with leisure time on a Saturday behave like in the above video: form a crowd, take photos, try to hold hands, touch your kid’s face, pick up or otherwise pose with your kid — like the kid’s part-human, part-tourist attraction. If often starts with some mom or grandma trying to get their kid to make friendly and pose with your kid. Collecting photos is a thing here. These are the majority in our experience in Qingdao and Tianjin. I understand getting annoyed with this, and I understand looking for ways to counter it, but I can’t see how it’s right to respond to them like they’re doing something wrong.
  • Peasants (people from the countryside or inland cities) either hang way back, seemingly intimidated, or do like the urbanites but louder, coarser, more blunt. Like yelling at your kid from a few feet away so they’ll turn for a picture, as if they’re a zoo animal: “Hey! Look at me! Look over here! Hey!”
  • The worst (in our experience) are those who don’t attempt to communicate with you or your kid and won’t acknowledge you even if you address them in Chinese. One day I was playing with our youngest in the waves, and a middle-aged countryside woman runs over, grabs our youngest while yelling to her friend to come take a picture, oblivious to our daughter’s efforts to get away — as if she’d just caught a big fish! — and to me yelling at her. I grabbed my daughter back while giving the woman an earful, but she never looked me in the face. This kind of thing almost never happens.

The problem is that for the most part they aren’t doing anything wrong, but to us foreigners it feels wrong, like we have a right to be annoyed or offended or alarmed (and in our own countries we would). So our default tendency is to respond negatively because to us their behaviour is inappropriate. And some days you just want to relax at the beach without having to deal with it! Some days, you feel like doing this:

moatfull When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach...
I have mixed feelings about the moat; it just seems so… anti-social:
“Take a hint, people!”

Bad China Days and fits of anti-social sandcastle-building aside, here’s what we aim for:

  1. Kids’ physical safety does not get compromised. We are there, fully alert, creep radar running on Chinese and Western dual frequencies, ready to wield those shovels if necessary. And call me ethnocentric or whatever, but you are not sticking your finger in my kid’s mouth (yes I have batted fingers away.)
  2. If our kids indicate (verbally or non-verbally), or we suspect, that they don’t want the attention, then we fend people off immediately/preemptively. You can still do this politely and with finesse, though sometimes in the moment I’m more blunt than I should be. And this only applies to “special” attention; we expect our kids to be nominally decent to people (respond to normal greetings, say thank-you, etc).
  3. Plan ahead. If you’ve got an option where unwanted attention is less likely, then take it. When we go to the beach, we always aim for the least crowded areas.

Or you can send subtle, anti-social messages by doing things like making a moat around your picnic blanket:

moateffective When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach...
It works! See? (Though it’s not 100% effective — such subtlety is lost on most domestic tourists and āyís over 45.)

Maybe that sounds kind of stringent. But in practice it translates into our kids getting a lot more interaction than the average foreigner family, I suspect.

Basically, we protect our kids, but (try to) remember that most of these “overly-friendly” (by paranoid North American standards) Chinese strangers aren’t doing anything wrong. They aren’t breaking their social rules, and if you respond to them like they’re being inappropriate, your response simply won’t communicate. And you’ll come off like a jerk. Which is understandable, since expecting local Chinese to behave like Euro-Americans is just dumb.

Some related stuff:

P.S. - Though sometimes I have to admit, I do wonder…

igoticeland1 When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach...

P.P.S. – Not actually recommending the sandcastle “spite fence”, though I’m definitely tempted to use it again. :)

Doing Christmas 2013 in China?

For your Christmas 2013 in China, here’s some Chinese Christmas music, art, vocab, memories, trouble and soapboxes.

chinesechristmasnativity 008 Doing Christmas 2013 in China?

Chinese Christmas Music

Chinese Christmas Art

Chinese Christmas Vocab

chinesechristmasnativity 010 Doing Christmas 2013 in China?

Posts of Chinese Christmas Past

Chinese Christmas Trouble

Christmas Soapboxes

chinesechristmasnativity 017 Doing Christmas 2013 in China?

Patriotic Chinese Kindergarten Kungfu — lyrics & video for 精忠报国 by 屠洪纲

kindergartenkungfu01crop.PNG Patriotic Chinese Kindergarten Kungfu    lyrics & video for 精忠报国 by 屠洪纲

Our 4-year-old goes to an all-Chinese preschool, where I also teach. We’re the only foreigners. The 5 and 6-year-olds do this as a regular exercise routine:

It’s a song about complete devotion and loyalty to China, which in English could be “Dedication and Loyalty to the Country” or “Serve the Country with Utmost Loyalty”. The title is a reference to famous historical-mythical General Yue Fei’s tattoo. He was traitorously executed and posthumously has come to epitomize loyalty to China. The Wikipedia article is worth a read, as this song has all kinds of historical/cultural associations.

Here’s the mp3 and Chinese lyrics (mouseover for pronunciation!) with English translation (mostly someone else’s). Music videos here (youtube) and here (youku).

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

报国 by 洪纲

狼烟江山
The fire beacon rises, look toward the rivers and mountains of the north

Dragons’ puffs and horses’ neighs are like blows of a frosted sword
黄河茫茫
Hearts as boundless as the water of the Yellow River
二十纵横
Who defies the length and breadth of the past twenty years?

Wild hatred where my sword points
多少手足
Countless brothers, loyal souls, bones buried in unfamiliar lands

What regret is it to die a hundred times protecting family and country?
叹惜无语血泪
Enduring sighs of regret, speechless, tears of blood fill the eyes
马蹄
Horses’ hooves go south, the people look toward the north
青黄飞扬
Toward the north the grass yellows, dust flying up
守土开疆
I’m willing to guard this territory and re-claim the land
堂堂中国四方
Grand China will make all sides bring tribute

Some interesting notes on this song here:

Many people in the west believe that Chinese are in general motivated by an irrational nationalism cultivated by the communist party to secure its political hold on the country. This is why some of the protests by Chinese nationals overseas have been labeled as “rebirth of the red guards”. Personally, I think this misunderstanding reflects a lack of knowledge about Chinese history, which in the thousand years past have been filled with foreign invasions and civil wars. We Chinese are peace lovers, but our own history has taught us that unification as a country, especially in the face of foreign threats has always been the prerequisite for a peaceful life.

This music video is by the singer Tu HongGang, who was trained as a Beijing opera singer, but turned into a pop singer in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The song is entitled 精忠报国, which translates to ‘dedication and loyalty to the country,’ or ‘serve the country with the utmost loyalty.’ The phrase by itself originates from the story of Yue Fei, “a famous Chinese patriot and military general who fought for the Southern Song Dynasty against the Jurchen armies of the Jin Dynasty. Since his political execution by the traitor Qin Hui, Yue Fei has evolved into the standard model of loyalty in Chinese culture.” According to legends, his mother tattooed these four characters across his back before he left home to join the army in 1122. More on his story can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yue_Fei

Note the first picture on the right, which shows the statue of Yue Fei, from the Yue Fei Mausoleum in Hangzhou. The four characters on his banner say, Huan Wo He Shan , or “Give back my rivers and mountains”.

I love the song (and the singer!) very much, I feel it echoes much of the patriotism which Chinese holds as part of our cultural identity.

kindergartenkungfu02crop Patriotic Chinese Kindergarten Kungfu    lyrics & video for 精忠报国 by 屠洪纲

More Chinese music (many with lyrics & guitar chords!):

Chinese New Year:

Christmas:

KTV!

Chairman Mao the good luck god

Walked out to the street market at the entrance to our neighbourhood to get some bǐng before dinner yesterday. The late afternoon sun was sparkling brightly off the superstitious dashboard ornaments of the cars that clog our complex. First a Guānyīn,

IMG 6526guanyin Chairman Mao the good luck god

then a prayer wheel,

IMG 6527prayerwheel Chairman Mao the good luck god

and then a…

IMG 6531maobust Chairman Mao the good luck god

…Chairman Mao.

Mao as a part of Chinese folk beliefs isn’t anything new, of course. But I thought it was funny the way it just fell across my path today. For more about Mao’s current status in China’s popular spiritual imagination:

Cross-cultural food: the feeling’s mutual

applepiesmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualWe’re at a church lunch in Taipei. It’s Thanksgiving in America so Jessica’s baked an apple pie. They aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving but we figure an apple pie would be fun to share. Mrs. Xie’s around 50 years old and the first to take a bite. She chews twice, then suddenly yells, “Ròu guì!” as she reflexively spits out her mouthful of our quintessentially American potluck contribution into her hand.

I remember it clearly; she sort of jumps back a bit when she yells and catches the mouthful of pie. Heads turn. Everyone laughs, including us once we understand what’s just happened. Mrs. Xie was genuinely surprised and had reacted on reflex. We had no clue and never would have guessed that Chinese use cinnamon in traditional medicine but not sweets. And Mrs. Xie apparently never expected to find one of TCM‘s 50 fundamental herbs in a foreign dessert on the church potluck table. “We eat this in lots of stuff in North America, it’s really common…” You can imagine the impression this is making. So much for iconic American cuisine!

It’s Mutual

That wasn’t the first or the last time we’ve accidentally grossed-out Chinese acquaintances with our Western food. There’re more stories below, but first here’s an idea. Between any two cultures is a shared category called FOOD where individuals’ feelings range range from Yum! to Ok to No thanks to Yuck!. The preferences within one culture tend toward relative similarity. But the more different two cultures are, the greater the chance that each culture will also have stuff in their FOOD category that the other culture doesn’t — people from the other side categorize it as NOT FOOD and so have never considered eating it. Sometimes presenting NOT FOOD as FOOD triggers such visceral disgust that the very thought of eating it makes them physically uncomfortable. It’s not just NOT FOOD, it’s literally sickening.

This especially applies to China and Euro-America because of the extremes. Not only is there plenty of common food in each culture that people from the other culture typically find unappetizing, there’s quite a bit that’s entirely outside the other’s FOOD category. I think that’s funny. And interesting. It illustrates how strong and arbitrary our culturally-conditioned, visceral reactions and preferences can be.

It’s Arbitrary

dogfood2small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualThink about it: Barbaric accurately expresses what the average Anglo-American feels inside when they think about Chinese eating dogs, even if they won’t say it out loud. But why should dog meat be any more disgusting than pig meat? Can you think of any even partially-objective reason? Are shrimp any cleaner than water roaches? Think about eating a crab: actually cracking open a shell, pulling legs off… Why are we unwilling to eat insects but pay big bucks to eat crustaceans — the relatively huge, exoskeletonned garbage-suckers of the ocean? We call one disgusting and the other delicacy.

But it doesn’t have to be “gross” to simply not be considered food. What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you see this:

starfish20130430 502embed Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Most North Americans, I’d wager, at first glance would think “souvenirs” (or “beach”, “tide pool”, etc.). We’ve seen starfish just like those in buckets just like that at seaside souvenir shops in Canada and the U.S. But (and you knew this was coming) it’s actually a seafood restaurant in Qingdao, waiting for you to order so they can do this:

starfish20130531 397embed Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Turns out that Chinese and Anglo-Americans tend to populate their respective FOOD / NOT FOOD categories with slightly (ha!) different things. And that’s where the fun comes in.

Fringe vs. Mainstream Food

One last thing before the examples: It’s easy to go to another country, search out the most exotic food you can find, something that most locals won’t even touch, and then go, “Holy cow! Look what they eat!” But it’s just not that interesting; it doesn’t well represent that culture or human diversity because it’s comparing one culture’s novelty food with another culture’s mainstream. For example, we could use prairie oysters and say,

Canadians eat bull testicles!
prairieoysters Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Technically that’s true, I guess, though it’s a safe bet that 99% of the Canadians I know think that’s sick and wrong. For China I’d call 3-squeak mice, urine eggs, and Taipei’s “snake alleynovelty food, along with exotic traditional Chinese medicine ingredients like tiger penis. So for our purposes here that stuff doesn’t count.

The novelty and shock value of fringe food wears off quickly. What’s more interesting, I think, is stuff that’s normal to most locals but not even within the category of “food” to most outsiders. So here’s some examples (finally!) from our own experiences that go both ways between China and North America.

Examples!

1. Pig feet 猪蹄 vs. perogies & sour cream 酸奶油

We lived with a Taiwanese family for two weeks while volunteering at a Hurricane Katrina shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Their favourite dish was pig feet 猪蹄, so that’s what we had our first night. And for lunch the next day. And several more times while we were there. Microwaved pig feet at work. I remember sucking the gelatinous flesh off bones and spitting out what I guess were the knuckles. It wasn’t anywhere near appetizing for us, though that wasn’t a problem because our education had drilled into us that when you’re someone’s guest, you eat it — period (our rural East Africa internships offered much greater mealtime challenges than some sticky pig feet). Plus, we got revenge.

Perogiesmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualOne night while we were with them we planned to share our own cultural food. My heritage is Ukrainian; every Christmas mom makes perogies and cabbage rolls. Since perogies (we figured) were more or less Western 饺子 they ought to go down well with our Taiwanese hosts. Now I don’t know about in Ukraine, but Canadians cover their perogies in tons of sour cream (or maybe that’s just my family). Anyway, I remember the mom as we opened the sour cream container in the middle of the table and plopped a huge shiny white blob on top of our perogies — her face said something like: “Wow. They can’t be serious…” It’s the exact same face I made countless times during our first two years in Taipei and Tianjin. They took a couple token licks before eating their perogies plain. I was like, hey, more sour cream for me!

2. Pig blood cake 猪血糕

Probably the best example from our own lives of how taste in food is in your head more than your tongue comes from our first week in Taipei. We’d arrived right in time for the start of Chinese New Year. That meant almost everything was closed. Every night for dinner we would just wander outside and eat whatever we could find, which usually came from random lonely street vendors. Some nights we had to search for several blocks.

On one such night we found a push cart vendor selling these rectangular things on sticks, which he coated in… crushed peanuts? With some cilantro? We had no clue what it was and not enough language to ask, but it was our only option so we ate some for dinner. And honestly, it tasted alright. A day or two later we found out what it was when we asked our English-speaking employers during a work dinner: “pig blood cake猪血糕. Then I felt sick to my stomach. Holy cow. Part of me didn’t believe them; I’d never imagined pig blood cake was in the realm of possible dinner options.

Turns out that blood, in various forms, is not uncommon in Chinese food.

3. Our Qingdao

scorpionIMG 4657small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Literally down the street and around the corner from our place in Qingdao there’s a guy with buckets of live scorpions 蝎子, sorted by size, and a little pot to fry them in. He sits directly across from the “pig head meat猪头肉 seller (which means pig parts, not just head pieces). Within a 20 minute walk from our place I can get: dog meat 狗肉 (at over a dozen places), duck blood soup 鸭血汤, hair eggs 毛蛋, silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹, starfish 海星, more scorpions, sheep heads 羊头, 3-penis liquor 三鞭酒, sea cucumber 海参, bullfrogs 牛蛙… Click the words for a picture! :)

This isn’t a list of all the most-gross-to-the-average-Anglo-American Chinese food that I’ve ever seen in China. It’s a representative sampling of a long list of edibles outside the typical Anglo-American’s “food” category that I routinely stumble upon within a half-hour walking radius of our apartment in Qingdao. None of it is considered terribly exotic and it’s not connected to tourism. It’s at regular, daily markets and average restaurants. Sure, it’d be easy to find some Chinese who don’t like to eat this stuff, but most of the locals around here don’t think anything of it.

maodan20130519 092small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

And if we remove the “routinely” clause: donkey heads 驴头, donkey penis 驴鞭, cow penis soup 牛鞭汤, dog penis 狗鞭 (hot pot) — yes, I’m going with a theme here — and snake penis 蛇鞭 (liquor tonic 补酒 ingredient) represent a long list of things I come across around here but don’t see every week.

scorpionIMG 4658small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

4. Cheese 奶酪

Chinese people not liking cheese 奶酪 is a cliché food anecdote, especially (but not only) for Chinese 50 years and older, but we still see it. It makes sense: think of all the Chinese food you like to eat, and then imagine melting cheese on it. Ew. When our daughter’s all-Chinese preschool has “pizza” for “Western food day”, it’s cheese-less. I forget which memoir it was, but one Chinese author I’ve read wrote of moving to New Zealand and her mom coming to visit. They had dinner at some local Kiwi’s where a fancy cheese plate was served. Her very polite mom dutifully at some… and barfed afterward.

5. Mexican food 墨西哥

Mexican food 墨西哥 is, according to our fully-bilingual, internationally-traveling former boss in Taipei, the strangest-tasting-to-him of all the foreign food he’s tried, on account of the spices. And as every American expat in Mainland China knows, the lack of Mexican food is at emergency levels. We’ve never lived in Beijing but we know the one place to get decent Tex-Mex — it’s practically a religious pilgrimage every time we have to visit the Capitol.

6. Stinky Tofu 臭豆腐

choudofukeelungschodofusmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

People can have pretty strong feelings about their favourite food, of course, especially if it’s connected to their heritage. Our Taipei friends love stinky tofu 臭豆腐 and they joked about it being their national food. One of them told us how angry it made her when she saw a foreigner on a TV show say, “It tastes like sh–!” Their feelings are understandable but so are that foreigner’s, even if he was rude about it. The first time we encountered stinky tofu, we were far enough down the street from the vendor that we didn’t even know he was there. My throat was suddenly seized by this pungent cloud; I literally thought something must be dead nearby, some juicy and exceptionally spicy roadkill in the hot, humid Taiwan sun. A resident foreigner had told us about stinky tofu, but what I smelled was so strong I’d assumed it was something else. I couldn’t believe it when we eventually walked past the push cart. (Not all varieties of stinky tofu are this powerful.)

6. Silkworm chrysalis蚕蛹

canyong20130531 396small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

I used to think silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹 were just for tourists and adventure eaters until I started seeing them in local restaurants and markets. Our friend Rob in Tianjin had dinner with a classmates’ family, and they served a big plate of them. He said their young daughter chowed down on them like nobody’s business. We’ve had them at local sidewalk BBQs (though I opted out of the sheep penis). The picture above is from a market I pass through twice a week.

7. Duck tongues 鸭舌

 Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

During our first month in Taipei our new friends took us to the Shilin nightmarket. We made a deal: we’d eat everything they picked out so long as they didn’t tell us what it was first. Yay duck tongues 鸭舌! Maybe that counts as adventure eating, but they ate them just like any occasional snack.

8. Breakfast 早餐

Whether you’re Chinese or Anglo-American, breakfast is one of the hardest adjustments to make when crossing these two cultures. Maybe because people are cranky in the morning, I don’t know. In our home in China we eat with chopsticks at least one meal a day and often two (not intentionally, that’s just how it happens). But breakfast is always Western; no trace of China on table. We even have a cinnamon shaker for oatmeal and coffee. And we have Chinese friends who feel the same in reverse.

youtiaoIMG 6057small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualOne Chinese friend from Tianjin married a Michigan girl and they recently moved to the States. In the past when he was just visiting, he made his own breakfasts (instant noodles) every morning. This time, realizing it was a move and not just a visit, he was psychologically preparing himself before they left, trying to work up the right attitude toward adjusting to, rather than avoiding, American-style breakfast. He knew what he was getting into and needed to psych himself up.

With Chinese breakfast there’s no mercifully gentle easing into the warm embrace of a consoling cup of coffee that says, “There there, I know getting out of bed is hard…” Our first Chinese breakfast surprise was when staying a weekend with friends in Beijing. We had hot, spicy noodles and pickled shredded vegetables. I promise it sounds a lot worse when you’ve just woken up. But a bowl of cereal is at least as unappetizing to the average Mainlander. If you’ve ever stayed at a Chinese hotel, you’ve maybe been surprised at how there can be so little you want to eat in such a big breakfast spread.

Adventure eating is for amateurs

I’ve done my share of made-for-clueless-tourists adventure eating — there’s a certain time in every almost-man’s life when you want to challenge yourself just for fun, to see what you can handle. But more interesting to me is the food that locals think is normal, or a special treat, that I wouldn’t even think of as food if they hadn’t identified it as such.

If there’s a point to this, I guess it’s that we can and should be honest about cultural differences, not just because it builds healthy communication and mutual understanding, but it’s also interesting and funny in its own right. Of course we should be sensitive about how we communicate — different levels of bluntness are appropriate to different contexts. At dinner in someone’s home we smile and nod and eat whatever we’re served (octopus heads, recently). But with friends out in the street, or on the blog? That’s different. Gagging on one another’s food can be fun and enlightening among cross-cultural friends.

P.S. — I’m sure there’s a better list to be made of common Western food that weirds out the average Mainlander. If you’ve got stories please share!

P.P.S. — Every image here is ours except for the American pie, the perogies and the prairie oysters (click for sources).

P.P.P.S — About cross-cultural negativity:

P.P.P.P.S - Was just walking to the school and found this huge caterpillar(?) on the way, so I brought it and asked the gate guard what it was and if it would bite my kids (they like to play with bugs). One of the teachers, my coworker, was leaving out the gate, glanced at it as she passed and said, “Oh, you can eat those!”

douchongsmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual