Every Lunar New Year, Calvin Qin’s children receive hongbaos, or red envelopes, at church. In Chinese culture, hongbaos symbolize good luck and blessings. But the Qin family’s don’t hold crisp new banknotes, which most children typically receive. Instead, the red packets hold Bible verses printed on slips of paper.
“If they memorize the Bible verses correctly, they get prizes like candy or chocolate coins from their Sunday school teacher,” said Qin, who moved from China to the United States eight years ago and currently pastors the Chinese Community Church of Indianapolis Northwest in Indiana.
Until now, Qin’s children have been (blissfully) unaware that the kind of red envelopes they receive are the exception, not the norm. But their ignorance has an expiration date.
The Lunar New Year, which begins on January 22 this year, comes with many traditions and customs that articulate a desire for prosperity in the form of greater affluence and material abundance. (Different versions of the holiday are celebrated across Asia: It is known as chun jie or Spring Festival among the Chinese diaspora, Tết in Vietnam, and Seollal in South Korea.)
But to equate prosperity with monetary gain or to regard it solely in terms of increasing one’s material possessions both diminishes and corrupts its full meaning as revealed in Scripture, Asian theologians and pastors told CT. They believe that this festive period offers a propitious time for deeper theological reflection on what the Bible says about true prosperity.
Semantic linkages in Scripture
The Chinese character for prosperity, pronounced in Mandarin as fu (福), abounds in Chinese translations of Scripture, including the popular Chinese Union Version (CUV).
A BibleGateway search shows that fu occurs 593 times in the CUV’s simplified Chinese translation. (In comparison, a search for prosperity in the NIV yields only 33 results.)
Fu recurs throughout the Old Testament, such as when God blesses humankind in Genesis 1:28. It shows up in the rest of the Pentateuch, the Wisdom Literature, and the Prophets. In the New Testament, fu is in well-known passages like the Beatitudes (Matt. 5) and is also present in the Gospels, the Epistles, and Revelation.
Professional Bible translator Jost Zetzsche, however, cautions against the assumption that fu simply means “prosperity.” Other expressions, such as “have more” (有 馀) or “all things prosper” (诸 事 亨 通 ), also connote the idea of fu.
“Aside from that, the [Chinese] Union Version was translated between 1890 and 1919, at a time when the prosperity gospel was not in existence,” Zetzsche said.
Still, the strong linguistic connection between fu and prosperity in Mandarin facilitates a “prosperity-oriented understanding” of the Word, said Jerry Hwang, Singapore Bible College’s academic dean and associate professor of Old Testament.
In fact, the characters for gospel (福音) incorporate the character fu, and this resonates with ethnic Chinese people in a way that the English word does not.
Seeing fu in Scripture helps to create a built-in contextualization for the gospel in Mandarin. Psalm 1, for example, describes the person who is blessed as “having prosperity” (有福). “When someone has fu, it’s prosperity and fullness of life,” Hwang said.
“The notion of ‘blessing’ is always a religious category in English, but in Chinese it’s an everyday category.”
Accordingly, fu is used to translate English words like bless or blessed (蒙 福, 赐 福, or 祝 福), said Zetzsche.
At the same time, in the Chinese psyche, the proliferation of fu in Scripture may also generate a tendency to unconsciously associate the gaining of wealth with a reflection of God’s blessings.
This causality between wealth and divine blessing is also present in how certain auxiliary words in biblical Hebrew, such as will and shall, are translated in English, Hwang said.
“These words in the Hebrew language denote prediction and promise, but because their meanings have shifted and the word shall has become archaic, predictions have now come to sound like promises,” he said.
Certain passages in the Old Testament consequently “suffer from the dual linguistic problems of archaism and language shift,” where what God will do in response to human obedience sounds like a promise.
For instance, the phrase “he will make your paths straight” in Proverbs 3:5–6 may be interpreted as a promise when reading it in Mandarin because of the usage of the word bi (必), which conveys a stronger sense of certainty akin to the English word must.
Such a reading gives rise to the notion that piety leads to prosperity, and Chinese Christians may find “pseudo-biblical warrant” for the latter as a result, said Hwang.
This perceived equation between acquiring wealth and receiving God’s blessings often leads Chinese people to draw conclusions about what blessings must indicate about God’s favor.
“That, coupled with the upper mobility of the diaspora, who are disproportionately wealthy, [means that] people begin to associate wealth with God’s blessing, whether that gain is righteously accomplished or not,” said Hwang.
The Chinese diaspora comprise a significant portion of the ultra-rich in countries like Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Christianity is “disproportionately a religion of the upper class” in Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, because missionaries from the West played an “important role in creating a middle-class and English-speaking elite [to serve as] a group of loyal locals,” said Hwang.
Believers are wrestling with this so-called privilege in a few ways, says Hwang. In Singapore’s case, it arises through a missional impulse in which Singaporeans view their country as the Antioch of Asia. Such a Christian understanding of “chosenness,” however, also engenders a “Singaporean exceptionalism” in which the country sees itself as better than surrounding nations.
A cultural preoccupation
Apart from its frequent occurrences in Chinese translations of Scripture, fu also appears everywhere during the Lunar New Year. Signs or paper cuttings emblazoned with the Chinese character are often placed on doors, windows, or furniture in homes and displayed upside down to signify that good fortune has arrived.
Other Lunar New Year practices also reference fu. People often exchange greetings such as gong xi fa cai in Mandarin or gong hey fatt choy in Cantonese to wish each other good luck and more wealth in the year ahead.
Special dishes that people whip up or partake of also allude to prosperity. Those of Chinese descent in Singapore and Malaysia have a popular tradition called lo hei. This is often a raucous affair where families toss the ingredients for yusheng, a raw fish salad, high in the air while shouting Mandarin idioms for blessing and success over all areas of life.
For James Hwang (no relation to Jerry), former executive director of Chinese ministries at Far East Broadcasting Corporation (FEBC), the Shanghainese fried egg rolls he prepared with his grandmother as a child were a fond festive treat. Made to resemble “gold nuggets,” these egg rolls were often shared with neighbors as a symbolic gesture of sharing their “wealth.”
The festival also includes less lighthearted nods to prosperity.
This may manifest as superstitious behavior, such as not wearing inauspicious colors like black and not cleaning the home for fear of “sweeping” wealth away.
In the Philippines, where up to 25 percent of the population is Chinese, many ethnic Filipinos assume that the Chinese are rich, said Juliet Lee Uytanlet, author of The Hybrid Tsinoys: Challenges of Hybridity and Homogeneity as Sociocultural Constructs among the Chinese in the Philippines.
Some Filipino Catholics want to emulate the Chinese in reaping wealth and success to the point that they will visit Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown district, to buy lucky trinkets and amulets to ward off evil spirits.
Desiring prosperity may also become problematic when it provokes relational conflict—a phenomenon that transcends geographical and cultural lines in Asia.
Lunar New Year is typically a time when families gather to have reunion dinners and visit relatives’ homes, but too often loved ones end up fighting over money during the festive period, says Clive Lim, the Singaporean coauthor of Money Matters: Faith, Life, and Wealth.
Lim attributes prevailing cultural perceptions of prosperity to a “pragmatic reciprocity” in Chinese culture that likely arose out of the Buddhist notion of karma.
The Chinese will often view a very prosperous person as someone with good karma who has done a lot of good deeds in his or her previous life, says Lim. “Therefore, in order to get good things, I must do good things. Then it will amplify and magnify into [receiving] a lot of good things in my life.”
Being a recipient of “good karma” makes flaunting one’s wealth a permissible act in the East, while doing so is perceived as socially unacceptable in the West, Lim added.
This disparate approach in displaying one’s riches also arises because hierarchy is acceptable in Chinese contexts. “The day you are born, there is a pecking order,” Lim said. “Wealth shows your social standing.”
The hierarchical mindset that many Chinese people adhere to results in the festival becoming a time where people show off how prosperous they are, such as counting the amount of money in one’s red envelopes (traditionally given to children and single adults) and comparing it with others.
This invisible drive or burden to accumulate money and improve one’s social stature stood out starkly to Qin when he served as a pastor in China.
“A lot of young people, including Christians, do not want to go home during Chinese New Year because their families and communities would ask them how much money they earned this year,” he shared.
People in China—even one’s own family members—will treat you differently if you are rich, and less respect is afforded to people who are not as wealthy, said Qin.
In a holiday so overtly predicated on hungering for and glorifying material gain, it may seem difficult for Christians to celebrate prosperity in godly ways during the Lunar New Year.
A valuable starting point is recognizing that prosperity is not confined to the material sphere but is defined biblically as shalom, Asian theologians and pastors say.
Shalom is communal, relational, and creational, said Jerry Hwang, the academic dean. It is “life with God and harmony with the land and people, which challenges consumeristic understandings of prosperity and psychological understandings of prosperity as inner peace.
“It also challenges both the individualistic West and the pragmatic East. You need God in the picture for there to be real shalom.”
Apart from Old Testament exemplars Abraham, Job, and Joseph, who were wealthy and prosperous because they were right with God and obedient to him, we can look to New Testament figures like Lydia and Joseph, who used their wealth to help others, said Uytanlet.
Cultivating an awareness of the spiritual dangers of wealth is also important, Lim warned.
“Jesus calls money ‘mammon’ in the New Testament. Proverbs 30:8 (‘Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread’) also tells us to be very careful not to occupy either extreme and forget about God.”
Daewon Moon, who serves as senior pastor of Daegu Dongshin Church in South Korea, preaches regularly against the love of money (1 Tim. 6:10) in his church. He is acutely aware that he is in an increasingly secularized and individualistic society where half of the population are nonreligious.
While some preachers deliver sermons against gaining any kind of wealth and some pursue poverty as championed by minjung theology (a liberation theology of the poor), Moon says that most Korean pastors occupy a middle ground between these extreme positions. In his Presbyterian church, he often emphasizes stewardship, where everything one has is God’s gift to be used to serve the world.
Reconceptualizing certain customs during Lunar New Year may also help others understand that true abundance is found only in a life with Christ.
Instead of placing traditional “spring couplets” or red banners emblazoned with conventional Lunar New Year blessings over one’s door, Christians can write poetry couplets that reflect their faith, such as “God is the source of all blessings,” says James Hwang, the FEBC executive director. In Singapore, several stores have created Christian versions of Lunar New Year décor, ranging from cross-shaped paper cuttings to red-envelope designs drawn from Scripture.
Rather than reciting slogans about luck and wealth during lo hei, Christians can choose to proclaim statements about receiving God’s blessings or trusting in God to construct a broader view of what prosperity entails, says Jerry Hwang.
“In theological terms, we can replace the liturgy of prosperity with the liturgy of what real blessing is from God’s point of view, which includes suffering, if needed.”
For other Christians, breaking away from cultural traditions is necessary.
Qin does not say gong xi fa cai during Lunar New Year because he does not want to relate the celebration of the festival with money too closely. And when intrusive questions about income arise during family reunions in China, he exhorts Christians there to respond by sharing about lessons they’ve learned in their spiritual or professional growth.
Uttering pronouncements of good health is commonplace during this time as well. But believers who want to foster a sense of biblical shalom in the world can recognize that wishing for physical well-being alone is insufficient.
“The greatest spiritual health [to seek during Lunar New Year] is forgiveness,” said Lim. “Are we willing to make a pledge to love our enemies, forgive one another, and meet with our elders to show them love and respect?”
Isabel Ong is CT's associate Asia editor. She is from Singapore and currently lives in Canada.