In China, Feeling Snowed Under by Christmas

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 23, 2006

BEIJING, Dec. 22 -- Scrooge is not a familiar character in China, and "Bah, humbug" does not easily translate to Chinese. But a group of graduate students set off a spirited debate here Friday with a crotchety screed condemning Chinese people for their growing tendency to celebrate Christmas.

The students, from such elite institutions as Tsinghua, Peking and People's universities, wrote a weighty-sounding open letter complaining that Christmas is a Christian holiday imported from the West and suggesting that Chinese should stick to the traditions and festivals observed in their own culture.

"We 10 doctoral students from different universities and research institutes solemnly call on our countrymen to be cautious about Christmas, to wake from their collective cultural coma and give Chinese culture the dominant role," they wrote in a letter posted Thursday on the government-controlled China Daily Web site.

In some ways, the students' sentiments harked back to former policies of China's Communist Party, when foreigners were regarded with suspicion and Chinese who fraternized with them were warned of the dangers of "spiritual pollution." But more broadly, the students took issue with the pervasive influence of Western culture since China opened to the world 25 years ago. They also resent the willingness of many Chinese to embrace foreign goods and fashions as superior to their own.

"Western culture has been changing from a breeze and a drizzle into a wild wind and a heavy storm," they declared. "This is vividly embodied in the rising popularity of Christmas."

To counter the trend, the students suggested Chinese stop sending Christmas cards, decorating their homes and businesses, and buying gifts for their children. Rather, they said, Chinese should focus on the traditional beliefs of Buddhism and Daoism and revitalize the Confucian philosophy that has underpinned mainstream Chinese culture for centuries.

As soon as the anti-Christmas letter was posted, the debate erupted online. One popular site, www.sina.com, reported that more than 43,000 people had weighed in with opinions by Friday, and more were pouring in.

Many writers defended the observance of Christmas as harmless fun or an example of the intercultural exchanges Beijing will be promoting during the Olympic Games in 2008 with the motto "One World, One Dream."

"It might not be a bad thing for traditional Chinese culture to make some changes under Western influence," wrote an Internet user who called himself TAIBAI. "There should be competition among different cultures."

He Liangliang, a well-known commentator on the Hong Kong-based Phoenix television station, said it is "absurd" to suggest that China's 5,000-year-old culture is suffering under Western attack. "As a matter of fact, Chinese culture has developed a lot while embracing other cultures," he said. "It is not necessary to boycott Western culture. You just can't."

Others, however, agreed with the students, lamenting a fashion that they said tends to play down the value of China's own traditions in favor of Western-style commercialism. "I will applaud those doctoral students who advocate boycotting Christmas this Christmas season," said Yin Jianguang, an editorial writer at Huashang newspaper in the central province of Shaanxi. "Chinese people don't understand Christmas, yet they celebrate Christmas. I think the reason is that they worship foreign things and fawn on foreign powers."

Web watchers did a quick survey and found that about 60 percent of those commenting backed the complaints. Although use of the Internet limited the debate to an educated slice of China's 1.3 billion inhabitants, it revealed unease over the penetration of Western culture among the same people who often are most prone to embrace it: urban college graduates and professionals.

But Shi Yong, a social commentator, said there is little they or anyone else can do about it. "Everybody, no matter whether he is a religious believer or not, is a consumer," he said.

And so as the debate raged on in computer-land, many Chinese went about their Christmas shopping blissfully unaware. A woman selling perfume at the upscale Sai Te department store on Chang An Avenue said she had a rush of customers buying expensive scents for Christmas presents, including a Bulgari cologne spray bottle accompanied by fish-shaped soap bars labeled: "For mama and the little ones."

The store was decorated with real Christmas trees at the entrance, plastic trees of all sizes scattered around the counters and peonies along the corridors. Gift wrappers were busy enveloping boxes in gift paper pinned closed with plastic Santas.

In an underground street crossing leading to Sai Te, Tibetan migrants who usually sell bracelets were replaced by other migrants selling plastic miniature Christmas trees and Santa Claus hats.

Even among Chinese who celebrate Christmas, the holiday has little connection to the birth of Jesus. As in other Asian countries, except for the relatively few Christians, the celebration centers on secular traditions of gift-giving, decorating and feasting. As a result, stores and restaurants in big cities have been among the most energetic in promoting Christmas observances.

But St. Joseph's Catholic Cathedral in central Beijing reported that its 800 seats for Christmas Eve midnight Mass were all reserved. The Mass has become a sought-after ticket in Beijing for worshipers, but also for college students who regard it as a trendy date.

Su Ran, an 18-year-old studying to be a travel agent, said the fashion is fine with her but she prefers another holiday: "Valentine's Day," she said, "because it is more private."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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