Why are Chinese versions of Santa Claus almost always playing a saxophone?

December 25, 2012

A life-size Santa Claus doll plays saxophone in Beijing. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Christmas in China is one of my favorite topics for talking about the role of foreign culture in the world's most populous nation. China, as it has done with outside ideas for centuries, long resisted Christmas (and Christianity with it) until the day when the country absorbed the holiday and began remaking it as newly Chinese.

The nature of Christmas in China is fascinating, as I explored in an article yesterday, but it can also be baffling. In my post on eight fascinating facts about Christmas in China, number six was a trend that has long puzzled me: Chinese depictions of Santa Claus, of which there are a great many, very often portray him as playing the saxophone. There are posters of sax-playing Santa, cardboard cut-outs, plastic figurines, mall mannequins, all jamming on the sax.

It turns out that I'm not the only one curious about this trend: it also seems to puzzle a number of Chinese. Beijing-based journalist Helen Gao (who authored a fantastic Atlantic article on Christmas in China) emailed that Sina.com, a widely-read Chinese news website, had translated my article into Chinese, changing the headline to "Foreign Media Looks at China: Confusions on Why Santa Plays Saxophone." Sina also deleted a sentence where I had noted China's persecution of Christians and an entire section on the Taiping Rebellion. Perhaps even worse, they did not provide their many readers a link back to the Washington Post site.

The Sina.com translation of my article received 400 responses, many of them debating the question of why Chinese Santas so often carry saxophones. Out of all those, Helen writes, "no one seems to know the answer." When she emailed again, 30 minutes later, the number of responses had almost doubled to 700. By contrast, the original Washington Post blog item has received seven comments.

Helen's theory echoes one of my commenters, mlouisa70394, who suggests it may have to do with Chinese perceptions of the saxophone as romantic and cool. Helen writes, "My guess is that it perhaps has to do with the fact that saxophone is obviously an instrument with a Western origin, which fits Santa's image, and is portable so Santa can make Christmas music anywhere he goes. Sound like enough reason for Chinese to lump the two together?" One of the Sina.com commenters, according to Helen's translation, joked that it could be worse: "At least our Santa isn't playing erhu!"


Update: Is Bill Clinton responsible for China's saxophone Santas?


A child cries near a Santa Claus at the Chaotianmen Wholesale Market in Chongqing. (China Photos/Getty Images))
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