Is Bill Clinton responsible for China’s saxophone Santas?

December 25, 2012

Then-candidate Bill Clinton, left, performs on the Arsenio Hall show in 1992. Right, one of China's ubiquitous sax-playing Santas that quickly spread throughout the country. (YouTube, Getty Images)

Christmas is enormously popular in Chinese cities. It's also a fascinating lens into how China can absorb Western culture and make those foreign customs its own. One of the smaller but quirkier aspects of Christmas in China is the ubiquitous depiction of Santa Claus that very often has him playing a saxophone.

I wrote on China's saxophone Santas yesterday, soliciting theories on how this practice got started. Amazingly, even many Chinese seem baffled by this: When the article was translated into Mandarin for Chinese Web portal Sina.com, it attracted thousands of comments trying to puzzle it out. The most popular theory seems to be that Santa is perceived as Western, cool, and a bit romantic, so the saxophone fits. Christmas in China is more about having fun with friends or a romantic date than it is about reverence and family as in the Western world.

I would like to add the theory that President Bill Clinton may be partly to blame for this trend. Christmas became popular in China in large part because the government — as it liberalized the economy and some social restrictions against religion in the early 1990s — tolerated its spread. Christianity was and still is restricted, but the version of Christmas popular in China is more about shopping and fun Western culture. Those are two things that Beijing allowed to flourish in Chinese cities, particularly after former leader Deng Xiaoping's 1992 "southern tour" to open up some southern cities to the world. And what could have been a better symbol of hip Western culture, circa 1992 and the immediate years after, than presidential candidate Bill Clinton's June 1992 appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show," where he played Heartbreak Hotel on a tenor sax while wearing sunglasses. That moment, of course, was a cultural touchstone of the early 1990s. As Chinese culture started to open up to the West and Chinese consumers started to buy up Western stuff, it certainly seems possible that the sax-playing Clinton, still in the zeitgeist, could have gotten mixed up with the Santa depictions.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that China deliberately copied Clinton's Arsenio Hall appearance in its Santa depictions. If there even is a connection, probably what happened is that someone somewhere in China in the early 1990s, as Christmas became popular, put out a saxophone-playing Santa. The depiction might have resonated with perceptions of the saxophone as particularly Western and cool, which would have been heightened in part by Clinton's much-broadcast appearance. The tradition was brand new to many Chinese, after all, so it would have been especially easy for the association of Santa and saxophone to form.

Or maybe there was no connection, and the saxophone spread simply by coincidence, or because some early importer in Shanghai or Beijing liked it, or some other theory. But the mere possibility is a reminder of how recently China opened itself to Western culture, and of how those customs can change and shape beyond prediction in their first year.

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Max Fisher · December 25, 2012