Alice Wu is an Anglican writer based in Hong Kong
Last month, “China’s war on Christmas” made international headlines, sparking outrage across the globe. Some, not all, local municipal authorities and higher education institutions have banned party members and students from celebrating Christmas. Among the widely circulated bans was a code of conduct members of The Communist Party’s Youth League at the University of South China in Hunan province were asked to sign. Members were told not to participate in Christmas-related celebrations and “not allowed to have superstitions and blindly follow the opium of Western spirits.” The question to ask isn’t whether this is religious persecution of Christians. The better question to ponder is what lies beneath the fourteen centuries of cultural tensions and conflicts when it comes to Christian encounters in China.
This wasn’t the first time there have been calls for Christmas to be banned in China. Perhaps an open letter urging the boycott of Christmas, which was put out by a group of post-doctoral Confucian students — “Walk Out of Cultural Collective Unconciousness and Strengthen Chinese Cultural Dominance” — in 2006, sheds light on the “culture clash”, as it was more of an expression of these Confucian scholars’ anxiety, still, over Western cultural hegemony. Chinese and Christians who have come to China since the seventh century had been grappling with this.
That anxiety is not entirely unfounded. Understanding conversion to Christianity to be a transfer from a “heathen” world into a Christian one had been the prevailing perception for a long time. Francis C. M. Wei, one of China’s most influential Anglican theologians of the twentieth century, spent his life reconciling Christian and Chinese traditions, and fought against the notion that Christianity is to be seen as replacing or superseding Chinese culture. Seeking to work the middle road, Wei saw the complex religiosity of the Chinese people as an asset, not an enemy to missionary work. He believed that Christianity needed to seek expression in different cultures. And it is only through this that missionary movement “will no longer be regarded as Western arrogance and presumptuousness” (Francis C. M. Wei, Spirit of Chinese Culture, New York: Charles Scribner’s Press 1947).
Whether the recent Christmas bans reflect anxiety or the lack of confidence in the Chinese culture by those who impose the bans or whether there remains reasons to believe that Western cultural hegemony is a threat are issues today’s Anglicans must think deeply and hard about.
Dr. Philip L. Wickeri is advisor to the archbishop of Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui on theological and historical students and professor of the history of Christianity at Ming Hua Theological College. In the introduction of Christian Encounters with Chinese Culture: Essays on Anglican and Episcopal History in China, he wrote “the problems associated with the adaptability (or contextualisation) and otherness (or foreignness) of Christianity have not gone away, although they have been expressed in different ways.” The text is an excellent resource for anyone interested in understanding more about the work of the Church in China.
The annual debate over Chinese Tradition and Christianity is taking place now over Christians participating in the celebration of the Chinese lunar New Year, arguably the most important Chinese festival celebrated by not only Chinese, but many others around the world. There has never been a shortage of articles on why and how Christians should reject the celebration of the lunar New Year, without any regard for its cultural and spiritual importance to the people. In fact, for as long as I can remember, Christians have “banned” other Christians, complete with Biblical references and reasons why, from celebrating Lunar New Year.
Lunar New Year often coincides with Lent. Both commemorate the “spring season” yet seem to involve polar opposite practices. Lenten practices of fasting, penance, repentance and, self-denial clash with the very festive, loud and extravagant feasts and rituals involved in celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year. Even so, the tradition of celebrating family, giving thanks for the past year and praying for the year ahead aren’t in conflict with Christian values. The penitential spirit of the season of Lent that requires the acts of self examination, charity and penance can be carried out as we remember and give thanks to the blessings and abundance the Lord has gifted us. In fact, the traditional Lunar New Year custom of settling debts before the new Spring and the Lenten acts of mercy and charity are more complimentary than we often realise.