On Christmas Eve in 2018, media technology researcher Su Lun experienced a sense of depression while walking on the campus of Nanjing University. It was like walking into Narnia in the middle of a hundred-year-long winter “surrounded by few people and silence, and not feeling any semblance of a Christmas atmosphere.”
On the same day, he received a notice in a college students’ WeChat group that read, “Today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, it is forbidden to post pictures or words about Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or holiday celebrations in this group. We only celebrate Chinese holidays. We don’t need foreign holidays!”
That year, several Chinese universities and secondary schools banned students from celebrating or talking about Christmas on social media. And governments in several cities in the provinces of Hebei, Guizhou, and Guangxi issued bans on businesses putting up Christmas decorations. The Chinese government also implemented new regulations governing religion, kicking off a harsher round of persecution against Chinese house churches.
As Christmas approaches this year, just weeks after the Chinese government revised its pandemic policies, Christians feel the weight of suspicion and persecution. They wonder what the holiday—and the evangelistic outreach that typically goes with it—will look like in the changing political context.
For more than a decade, intellectuals have called for a boycott of Christmas because they view it as “a foreign holiday.” In 2006, ten scholars from Peking, Tsinghua, Nanjing, Wuhan, and other universities wrote an open letter advocating a boycott against Christmas and the “Christianization” of Chinese people. They called on Chinese people to “break out of the collective cultural unconsciousness and stand up for Chinese cultural sovereignty.”
Those who agreed with these intellectuals believed that it is self-abasing for a Chinese person who “does not read the Bible or go to church to celebrate the birth of a man he does not worship.” They claimed that such a “self-inferiority complex” indicated a “lack of faith and deviation from our own culture.”
But there were also many who disagreed. They argued that young Chinese people were celebrating Christmas for fun and that their observances had nothing to do with religious beliefs. In their view, it was “ridiculous” to boycott Christmas in the name of defending traditional Chinese culture and saving the traditional faiths (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) of the nation.
One fact that has been overlooked or deliberately avoided in the online commentary is that not all who celebrate Christmas in China are people who don’t “read the Bible or go to church.”
There are tens of millions of Bible-reading and churchgoing Christians in China today. They celebrate Christmas for the same reason and in the same way as the two billion other Christians around the world: to remember that Jesus Christ is the Word who “became flesh” and came into the world 2,000 years ago.
Some Christians responded online to the calls to boycott Christmas and explained the true meaning of the holiday, but their responses were largely deleted even before the new regulation of religious content on China’s Great Firewall-ed internet went into effect.
The continued calls to boycott Christmas correspond with the resurgence of nationalism in China over the past two decades.
The rationale for such a boycott “is taking advantage of the rising tide of nationalism by labeling people as ‘blindly worshiping Western things and pandering to foreign powers,’” said Ruth Lu (a pseudonym used by CT for safety reasons), a Christian returnee and multimedia creator in China.
Behind the proposed Christmas boycotts is “an atomized and monolithic mindset,” said Guo Yan, a theology graduate student in the United States who is originally from Beijing.
“China’s education system uses indoctrination and teaches subservient obedience. So, the reason behind the criticism of ‘worshiping’ Western culture and the promotion of cultural confidence is the rejection of multiculturalism,” she said.
Many Chinese Christians, like many scholars, realize that young people in China enjoy Christmas not because they identify with the Christian faith but because of pop culture and a consumerist mentality. Therefore, boycotting Christmas in the name of rejecting Western “cultural invasion” is suspected of being an attempt to create fear among Chinese people and incite a “culture war.”
“Christianity has been resisted at the political and cultural levels in modern China, so the material enjoyment of Christmas based on popular consumption may be the main reason why it has become a holiday in modern China,” said Shao Zhize, a professor of the School of Media and Culture at Zhejiang University.
“There is inherent contradiction in resisting its political, cultural, and spiritual connotations while at the same time gladly accepting its material benefits.”
Boycotting Christmas from a nationalistic perspective also brings up the question of the relationship between the Christian faith and traditional Chinese culture. Many Chinese Christians have pointed out the fallacy of viewing Christianity as a “foreign religion” and a “tool of Western cultural imperialism.”
Because there is no concept of absolute truth or “one true God” in traditional Chinese culture, Chinese people often distinguish between “national gods” and “foreign gods,” said Ran Yunfei, a researcher of Chinese culture who lives in Chengdu.
“The Chinese only think of God as a regional or tribal god. The god is either Chinese or foreign, either of Fujian or of Zhejiang—just like a street administration officer,” said Ran.
Aaron Zhao (a pseudonym for safety reasons), who pastors a house church in Hubei Province, said, “The contribution of Christianity to the advancement and renewal of civilization throughout the world is obvious. The true faith should also be universal, not some kind of tribal religion.”
Pastor Sean Long of Beijing Zion Church, who is now studying for a doctorate in theology in the United States, said that even Chinese nonbelievers who don’t read the Bible or go to church can admit the “epoch-making” significance of Christ’s birth. He noted that the Christian faith offers universal contributions to human civilization and to China in particular through mission efforts. (For example, translation of the Chinese Union Version of the Bible contributed to the modern Chinese vernacular movement.)
If the celebration of Christmas is boycotted and banned, how would that affect the evangelistic effort of the Chinese church?
For the last 30 years, the celebration of Christmas was a great opportunity for Chinese house churches to share the gospel at the end of each year. In some major cities, the official “Three-Self” churches were filled with people on Christmas Eve every year. House churches also typically rented hotels and other venues to hold Christmas parties and other evangelistic events.
“In a persecuted and closed environment, the Chinese house churches boldly turned Christmas into one evangelistic gathering after another,” said Guo Yan. “I vividly remember how we would invite strangers and nonbelievers to church to hear the gospel through small-group dinners, singing Christmas carols, and watching Christmas-related plays and movies. We would also go around handing out gospel tracts to people and inviting them to come to church meetings.”
Today, the Chinese house churches are not only suffering from harsher persecution but also facing a “new normal” with the pandemic. Guo said she feels that it is difficult for Chinese house churches to celebrate Christmas with as much openness as they did in the past.
“But God’s Word is not bound,” she said. Chinese Christians are still reaching out to their fellow citizens in every possible way. Guo gave one example: In the post-pandemic period, online gatherings have become a common way for churches to evangelize. Christians are using online communication tools to sing hymns, preach short sermons, celebrate Christmas, and spread the gospel during the Christmas season even if they can’t meet face to face.
Ruth Lu believes that the push to boycott Christmas and the persecution of the church may present an opportunity for Chinese Christians.
“When there was less persecution before, many Christians would actually be lazy and only start evangelizing at Christmas. And evangelism would just be bringing people to church and the task would be over,” she said.
“But in the face of the new restrictions, it is more important to see that evangelism is something that can and should be done every moment, and it is more than simply bringing people to church. If churches are no longer allowed to meet, then we go out into the crowds or invite people into our homes to reach them with the gospel.”
The recent challenges also raise questions about contextualization. Is it absolutely necessary for the Chinese church to celebrate Christmas on December 25 every year?
“Since this date was not chosen out of the Bible and is not a core element of the Christian faith, neither official nor intellectual boycotts of Christmas would have shaken the Chinese church’s faith in Christ,” said Hu Jixun, a Chinese historian studying at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
Given that people in Shanghai used to call Christmas a “foreign winter solstice” in the early 20th century, Hu suggested that Chinese Christians could promote a “Christian winter solstice” to remember the Incarnation, transforming Christmas into a contextualized Christian festival. (Winter solstice is one of the 24 solar terms that the Chinese people still observe today.)
For now, Pastor Long reminds Chinese Christians that although Christmas is facing nationalistic rejection, they need to transcend cultural conflict and persist in spreading the good news of “Joy to the World” with love.
“Christmas is not a holiday for Westerners only. Rather, it is a global holiday that is celebrated in the East and in the West. In terms of its historical origins and development, Christianity began in Asia, not in Europe or America, and has spread throughout the world,” Long said.
“The anti-Christian slogan that has been widely circulated in China—‘One more Christian, one less Chinese’—is wrong. The truth is just the opposite: One more Christian is one more Chinese who is set free by the truth to serve the Chinese people, one more Chinese who relies on Christ to, as the famous words of the Confucianist philosopher Zhang Zai (1020–1077) say, ‘ordain conscience for Heaven and Earth, secure life for the people, carry on lost teachings of past sages, and establish peace for all future generations.’”
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