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:

Happy Christmas Eve! Here’s your apple…

Christmas Eve, known as “Peaceful Night平安夜 (from the Chinese translation of “Silent Night”), is a big, loud, young people’s shopping/date night. There are stage shows in the pedestrian shopping streets, with a New Year’s Eve style countdown to midnight. It’s anything but peaceful, and very rènao 热闹. Churches are packed to overflowing as they try to capitalize on the attention with programs and performances for multiple nights in a row.

pinganping_santa

It doesn’t bother me that China does its own thing with Christmas. Once you know that what they call Christmas and what you call Christmas are totally different things, then you can stop trying to get the Christmas you grew up with from China. Still, being unable to make the holiday like you would in your home country, and being so far from family or anyone at all who does Christmas similar to the way you did growing up can be a little sad. But you can learn to make new traditions — some borrowed from China, some creative adaptations — to make the holiday meaningful for you and your family. At least that’s what we’re doing.

Christmas_eve_applesOne of the very Chinese things that China’s done to Christmas is associate Christmas Eve with apples. “Peaceful Night” is píngān yè 平安夜 in Chinese; “píng” is a homonym for the first syllable in apple (píngguǒ 苹果), and so people give fancy apples, either wrapped in fancy paper or with Christmas or romantic candy-heart style messages sunned into the skins.

chinese_christmas_apples

So happy Christmas Eve from China! Now go eat a pretty apple…

loveapples

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year 2015!

Some Christmas-y photos from our final month of 2015 in China.

Chinese_sundayschool_Christmas_song
Chinese Sunday school kids sing at the annual Christmas party/show.

Chinese_Christmas_tree_ornament
We’ve appropriated traditional Chinese decorations as Christmas tree ornaments.

mulledwine
Mulled wine, 2015.

Chinese_door_couplets
Every year we put up new door couplets and a new at Christmas/New Year’s, right around the time people start thinking about getting ready for Chinese New Year. It’s actually a little early for this, as these are CNY decorations, but our family basically has a giant long winter holiday season from Advent through Chinese New Year each year.

Christmas_cookie_gifts
We played Santa around the neighbourhood this year with over 60 Christmas cookie packages.

Christmas_market_cookies4
Christmas_cookie_market
Christmas_cookies_caishichang
market_Christmas_cookies
In exchange for the cookies, he gave our daughter a live octopus.

Chinese_Christmas_card_star
Merry_Christmas_Joseph_and_Mary

Labor of Love by Andrew Peterson in Chinese

Have you never wondered: No room at the inn? Why are they even looking for a place? Mary and Joseph would have traveled with a pile of other relatives to Bethlehem where they had even more relatives because it’s Joseph’s hometown. Yet they can’t find a place to stay? No one in Joseph’s extended family has room for a relative who’s ready to go into labour at any moment?

Chinese_no_room_at_the_inn

The scandal of Mary getting pregnant while she was still unmarried, and Joseph deciding to marry her anyway, is more than his family is willing to take. Joseph’s family has shunned them.

That’s one of two main ways to understand the story — that Mary gave birth to Jesus much like this song suggests: on the cold ground of a dark cave where a stranger kept livestock, alone except for her (helpless) carpenter husband because his family wouldn’t take them in. (The other understanding is that they weren’t alone at all, relatives were taking care of them, but due to the overcrowding the best they could do was the family room which the animals were brought into at night. “Inn” is a poor translation.)

圣诞贺卡2015

We’re perennially desperate for Christmas music that isn’t awful. A few weeks ago friends recommended the album Behold the Lamb of God. Although I’m not a huge fan of the CCM genre or familiar with the music of singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson, I thought his song Labor of Love was worth translating into Chinese. It doesn’t attempt any great feats of lyricism; it simply but vividly connects people to the experience of Mary and Joseph the night she gave birth to Jesus in a way that Silent Night, with its tender and mild baby that doesn’t cry, doesn’t even try to do.

This is just a starter translation. It needs native speaker polishing before anyone really tries to sing it. But I want to put this out there and see if I can get some helpful suggestions. More notes on the translation below.

Hear it on Youtube here, here (live performance), and here (set to Nativity movie clips). Artist’s website: Andrew-Peterson.com

It was not a silent night 那夜并不平安
There was blood on the ground 鲜血洒在地面
You could hear a woman cry 女人的哭泣声声
In the alleyways that night 在这漆黑夜晚
On the streets of David’s town 在大卫城中回荡

And the stable was not clean 马厩也并不洁净
And the cobblestones were cold 鹅卵石冷冷冰冰
And little Mary full of grace 玛利亚恩典满满
With tears upon her face 泪水滑落脸庞
Had no mother’s hand to hold 没母亲握手相伴 [*]

It was a labor of pain 那是多么的痛
It was a cold sky above 在这寒冷夜空下
But for the girl on the ground in the dark 黑夜中躺着地上的女孩 [*]
With every beat of her beautiful heart 她的每一次心跳
It was a labor of love 都是爱的跳动 [**]

Noble Joseph at her side 忠实约瑟在身旁
Callused hands and weary eyes 粗糙的双手疲惫的双眼 [*]
There were no midwives to be found 在深夜里遍寻街头
In the streets of David’s town 却找不到一位
In the middle of the night 一位助产的人

So he held her and he prayed 抱着玛利亚祷告
Shafts of moonlight on his face 月光洒向他脸庞
But the baby in her womb 但她腹中的宝贝
He was the maker of the moon 就是月的创造者
He was the Author of the faith 就是有移山信心 [***]
That could make the mountains move 的的始创者

It was a labor of pain 那是多么的痛
It was a cold sky above 在这寒冷夜空下
But for the girl on the ground in the dark 但黑夜中这女孩
With every beat of her beautiful heart 她的每一次心跳
It was a labor of love 都是爱的跳动

For little Mary full of grace 恩典满满的玛利亚
With the tears upon her face 尽管泪水滑落脸庞
It was a labor of love 却是爱的劳作

TRANSLATION NOTES

[*] Details & Syllables:
The few people I bounced this off of struggled to squeeze all of the vivid details into the allotted syllables. In some cases they revised details out to make a better rhythmic fit. So “no mother’s hand to hold” became “no mother by her side” (妈妈却不在身边); Mary “the girl on the ground in the dark” became “the girl in the dark night” (黑夜中这女孩); and Joseph’s “callused hands and weary eyes” became “utterly exhausted” (早已疲惫不堪). I opted to retain the details above even though it’s not as smooth, because those details evoke imagery that powerfully conveys a lot of the story.

[**] The “labour of love” wordplay:
A Chinese friend recommended switching my literal translation of the “labour of love” wordplay (referencing the pain and effort of childbirth) for, “Her every single heartbeat is the beat of love” (她的每一次心跳 / 都是爱的跳动). To me that’s even cheesier than the original, but that’s also par for the course in China. And each person I talked to wasn’t satisfied with using 劳作 for “labor”, but no one had a better alternative.

[***] Everyone had trouble translating “the Author of the faith that can make the mountains move”.

More Chinese Christmas songs:

More English Christmas songs: Merry Christmas Music!

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:

Cross-cultural Incarnation — your identity across cultures

Some Christmastime thoughts on trying to live authentically and meaningfully in a culture not your own. Because the Incarnation (God being born human as baby Jesus), whether you think it’s true or not, is an interesting way to think about living cross-culturally.


(Chinese shepherds visit Chinese baby Jesus)

It’s one thing to study the transmission and transformation of ideas and behaviours across cultural contexts. Those are issues that anyone working cross-culturally has to deal with no matter what field they’re in, whether they realize it or not. But what about how crossing cultures affects your personal identity?

As the outsiders

Here’s a bit from God Spares Not the Branches, an insightful (understatement!) exploration of cross-cultural and development work issues via the story of an American post-grad who volunteers with a local anti-AIDS NGO in Ghana. Emphases mine:

“Bryce,” his father told him, “when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them. No matter how well you seem to become part of the people and their ways, you are not them. No matter how well they receive you and befriend you, your distinction is your reason for being there. When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface. That’s life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

As a lǎowài I automatically identify with Bryce; we’re the outsiders trying to fit in and the Chinese are “them”. Even when we’re feeling good about how well we’re fitting in, even if to the point that we could momentarily forget how different we are, they wouldn’t let us forget, because they remind us every single day. We’re routinely hit with a myriad of largely ignorant-but-understandable expectations of who we are and what we’re like. I wonder what receiving these “identity prescriptions” every day is like for expats who don’t have a strong understanding of who they are and what they’re about. I suspect I’ve maybe seen that show a couple times over our five years in Mainland China.

As the insiders

But the Christmas holidays have made me re-read the above excerpt in light of the Incarnation. In Chinese Bibles it says, “The Dao became flesh and lived among us.” The idea being that the Creator, the Ultimate Being, became a human being. That’s a major living-standard downgrade, in what we could call the ultimate cross-cultural move:

He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges… [From Philippians 2:5-8]

This reverses the roles: God is the outsider and we are the “them”.

I’m not assuming Dan was thinking Incarnation when he wrote that section, but it’s an interesting angle to consider: Jesus as the ultimate model of cross-cultural identification and authenticity: leaving his home and completely taking on the language, culture and ethnicity of his host nation, while refusing to compromise who he is and what he’s about, even though he knows it will eventually result in rejection.

“…when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them . . . When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface . . . You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

Maybe Dan was thinking Incarnation; so much of that paragraph relates to not just the Incarnation but also to how we treated Jesus when he refused to conform to our expectations of what he should be. But I’ll save that for a “Resurrection Festival” post (复活), because I like to keep the meanings of my historically re-appropriated holidays clearly sorted (no crosses at Christmas!). ;)

More about culture & personal identity:

More about Christmas:

P.S. — About God Spares Not the Branches

God Spares Not the Branches gives an intimate look at the complexities of post-colonial West Africa. The events, places and people are so realistically detailed you can’t help but believe this fictional story is actually a collection of real first-hand accounts — and that’s because it pretty much is. Author Dan McVey lived in Ghana for over 20 years, raised his family there, and still spends half of every year there, mostly on his farm. He applies an insight born of first-hand, long-term cultural intimacy to a deep exploration of several interrelated issues (many of which are relevant to China) by embodying them in his characters and their experiences. If you’re more than a little interested in any of the following, I think this book is worth your time:

  • The legacy of colonialism
  • African corruption
  • Problems with international aid and development (like priorities set not by need but by the politics of the donor nations, dependency, etc).
  • Drastic societal change affecting behaviour norms and values
  • The impact on sexuality of economic and gender inequality
  • The influence of the internet, media and Western culture — esp. entertainment and consumerism
  • The cultural hurdles in addressing HIV/AIDS
  • African identity and spirituality, Christianity, Evangelicalism, Islam
  • Muslim/Christian interaction

Two things in particular stand out to me:

  1. Intimate detail and nuance — Dan has lived into this culture and society and conveys a much richer and more empathetic picture of the people and challenges they face than what the best journalists can deliver.
  2. Challenging all around — This is not merely a liberal scolding of conservative Western worldviews, dragging a fictional character through a Western culture war conversion experience in a world of stereotyped stock characters (like in The Help). There’s plenty that will make Western political conservatives squirm, but Dan’s allegiances aren’t dictated by the Western culture wars. His compellingly detailed, uncompromising portrayal of African reality refuses to flinch in the face of events that Westerners, right or left, have difficulty processing. Like a shocking exorcism account, written in the same finely detailed, eye-witness-sounding delivery with which he describes farms. He doesn’t insist the reader accept the account at face value, but he also makes it difficult to casually brush off.