The 5 Immortals vs. Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the Wise Men and the Shepherds

When I was in East Africa, I heard the joke that Swahili was born in Tanzania, died in Kenya and was buried in Uganda. Even in Western countries where ‘Christmas’ is the biggest holiday on the calendar, I’d argue that Christmas is pretty lost-in-translation. But by the time Christmas gets to China it’s totally mangled, like Ugandan Swahili dead-and-buried mangled. Along the same lines as Frosty’s recent ascension to the Daoist/Buddhist/Chinese folk religion prosperity charm pantheon, here’s something Jessica found on the Chinese version of eBay/Amazon/Etsy while looking for Chinese-y Nativity scenes:

Never mind that Mary’s blond. (All foreigners are blond. Didn’t you know? We just are.) What caught Jessica’s eye was its description in Chinese:

五神仙牧羊工艺品 阿拉伯人物装饰品 耶稣降世摆设

“Five Immortal Shepherds handicraft, Arabian character ornament, Jesus’ birth display”

Not sure why there are five shepherds or if there are other uses for 神仙 that would make this make more sense, or which of the figures is Joseph and which are shepherds and wisemen. Maybe I should start collecting blond Chinese Marys. (To be fair, this is the only manger scene we’ve seen that calls them the 5 Immortals. And even if everyone in China misunderstood the Nativity this way, I don’t think it’d be totally their fault.)

The Western god

We joke in North America about people who think Jesus spoke King James-style English, but in China that’s less a joke and more a reality. Today in class I was making them practice “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, and explained to their Chinese teacher that “Good tidings we bring” has to do with general good news and well-wishes from friends and family, and that in the context of the Christmas story the good tidings could be understood as the news of Jesus’ birth. She nods immediately like she understands, and begins explaining to the class: “You remember who the Western god is? Who’s the god in the West? Right, Jesus. Christmas is about…” That’s the second time this week I’ve encountered someone who assumes that Christianity is just as much an ethnic thing as Islam or Sikhism or Judaism.

More about Christmas, China-style:

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