Merry Christmas from China

by admin Posted on December 25, 2011

Mother and Child


AM in China this year.

I love China. Food, people, culture, history. Public toilets, not so much. When I was in America I loved “Chinese” food. Now I love Chinese food. There may be things to criticize about China, but on average, I think it’s one of the finest countries on earth. That is an opinion, not an assertion. Believe me, I know what counts against my opinion.

Once I thought that America was the best country on earth. Then I turned fifteen. Between John Kennedy and Barack Obama, forty five years if you’re counting, there isn’t much to brag about.

But America is no longer the finest country on earth.

That’s because Americans on average are becoming dumber and dumber. The political system has become the equivalent of a hamster’s treadmill: vote ‘em in on a whim, vote ‘em out on a notion. Then vote no confidence in the congress you just elected. It’s a system designed for a country of 2.5 million disgruntled colonials made nervous by authority and power, not a country of 300,000,000 unhappy taxpayers. On November 6, 2012, a new president will be elected. On November 7, 2012, the 2016 presidential race will begin. This is no way to run a democracy. It’s a way to run a trifecta.

The educational system is broken. Not just broken but as Rosanna Pittella has shown broken because it was legislated and reformed step by step to be the broken system it is. The question isn’t just, Where is the next generation of engineers going to come from? It’s can we maintain the sixth grade reading level of high school graduates or should we aim lower?

Higher education used to be the exception, especially graduate education. And while congress, looking for cold comfort, will always point to the American university system as a world-beater, that is not what most people mean by ‘education’ and more and more colleges and universities are following broken business models that ensure the mediocrity of their faculty and teaching programs. And (not to be cynical) it is possible that the best universities are the best because they are following better models: compare ‘recruitment budgets’ at Harvard, MIT, and Cal Tech to those at Mercy College or Meadville.

So don’t worry too much about the evils of a one-party state when the glories of a two party system are far from clear on this side of the Pacific. Some things are worse than limited choice.

HAD lunch with a qīn’ài de tóngshì (“dear colleague”) today in the linguistics faculty of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He has recently come back from two years in Boston. I had just had my first taste of duck feet and was, as instructed, spitting the extraneous bits (most) into the plate. The taste, and texture, needs getting used to, so we started talking about lobster, bad marriages, and then Christmas.

I’ll bet, he said, you’ve heard more Merry Christmases here in China than you ever would in America. I spat and thought.

Yes, I said. It’s true. My students have all wished me Merry Christmas. I have wassailed them back. I have watched their gentle, intelligent faces go from non-expressive to inexpressibly happy just at the sound of the phrase, like some supernal “Hello! Very glad to see you.” In notations to final exams, they have Merry Christmassed me, and in power points, often with angels, Santas, or nativity scenes as their last slide. No Happy Holidays, no Seasons Greetings, no Let your Light Shine this Solstice Season, no Axial Tilt is the Reason for the season (a joke that is both “in” and wrong at the same time) . While writing this, a third year doctoral student in animal ecology sent me a Merry Christmas showing two goitered gazelles in China’s far north. Beautiful creatures, beautiful gesture.

Yet another example of failed wit from Atheist America


My friend paid the tab, beamed “Merry Christmas,” and we parted. The shopping districts are festooned with lights; Christmas music is blaring from every speaker. At first I thought I was imagining that people seemed happier, friendlier, even kindlier–but No: Christmas in China is the real thing, and American merchants would kill to have a share of their shopping extravagance right now.



I have never been the kind of person who wanted non-Christians and atheists to feel uncomfortable at Christmas. But living in an “officially” atheist state has taught me a few things that atheists and even happy holiday inclusivists need to consider.

Prudence: China is a country of well over one billion people. Perhaps 30% regard themselves as belonging to a “traditional” or ethnic religion, though good statistics are hard to come by in this under-researched land. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism (prevalent among the Han) command general respect as conveyances of traditional Chinese values. These include “essentials” like filial piety, duty, honor and intellectual rigor–the primacy of knowledge and a respect for scholars.

Christians are at about 3% of the population (about 4,000,000), but the statistic is far from certain. At various points in Chinese history, Judaism and Islam, but not Christianity, enjoyed favoured status. Some Chinese worry that Tibetan Buddhism overstresses “holiness” the importance of doing without, and thus can’t be reconciled with the new Chinese economic program (the world’s second largest economy, after all). But other values, like harmony and proportion, are vigorously accepted by most Chinese, young and old.

Chinese indifference to religion is not an indifference to particular religious values that are regarded as markers of China’s civilization: filial piety is real piety, just as it was in the first-century Roman empire out of which religious hierarchy, with its stress on obedience, developed. Chinese concern about religion is a worry that religion can be used as an instrument of dissent and insurrection against these values and the (ever-changing) political status quo; accordingly, since 1949 missionary Christianity has been tightly controlled. (The evangelical house church movement–zhōngguó jiātíng jiàohuì–in my opinion an especially repugnant intrusion into the Chinese spiritual realm–has recently come under scrutiny.) Going back two thousand years, China’s approach to religion has been prudential and “indigenous” (what in religious terms is the good of China?) rather than arbitrary, while in the west it has been driven by a power struggle between the temporal and spiritual domains, and by necessity, protectivism and intrigue on both sides.

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Beijing

MATURITY : From a distance, American atheism’s war against Christmas looks puerile. I also happen to think it is puerile, driven by passionate collective intensity rather than by cool-headed logic. True enough, given the persistent failure of religion to mind its own business in political seasons, it is hard to believe that the First Amendment to the United State Constitution was designed to ‘fix’ potential encroachments by religion on the state. Some pushback, though not necessarily “atheism,” is needed to keep religion in its Constitutional place. But it’s also hard to imagine that anyone thinks “In God we Trust,” banal as the newly reiterated “national motto” is, or “One nation under God” in the Pledge are serious encroachments on the public good. –The latter should be excised because it breaks the rhetorical flow between nation and indivisible. (Frankly, I think indivisible should go too. It reminds me of arithmetic.)

Matteo Ricci’s Impossible Black Tulip Map; original 1584; copy (rice paper) 1602

China however has been around as a continuous civilization for four thousand years. It has had its dynastic wars and bloody rebellions, like the nationalist movements of the early twentieth century and the civil war ending in the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But in broad perspective, China’s encounter with Christianity is ancient, more than 1300 years old–as old as the earliest introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia. Christianity arrived in the 7th century with Nestorian missionaries to the Tang dynasty. It was banned by emperor Wuzong, along with Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, in the 9th century, re-established in the 13th by the Mongol emperors, some of whom were eclectically and some fiercely Christian themselves. Under the Ming emperors, western Christian influnces in China underwent an uneven patch until in 1582, the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci (Li Madou or Taixi to the Chinese) arrived in Macau and made his learned way slowly but steadily toward Beijing.

A linguist, cartographer, astronomer, musician and mathematician, Ricci was one of the first Europeans to master the Chinese language and classical script. He translated Euclid’s Geometry into Chinese and astonished the emperor by precisely predicting a solar eclipse. He became a paid scholarly adviser to the court of the Wanli emperor and was permitted to build a church (now, much modified over the centuries, a cathedral) near the Forbidden City. I will be in the cathedral on Christmas morning where every Sunday at 6 AM a Latin Mass is celebrated. China has never forgotten Ricci, perhaps the single greatest conduit for western learning to China before the colonial period.

ECAUSE it has a deeper and more holistic understanding of culture, China is not lost in the feckless secular versus religious divide that afflicts western discussion. There have been many enlightenments, not only one, and many of them were fueled by religious and philosophical movements, in a land where those two terms have a symbiotic relationship.

I have often tried to explain to Chinese academic friends that many American atheists and secularists deplore religion as being anti-learning, anti-science, and anti-education. They can’t quite understand this: It would be enough, they say, to point to the scholar-priests–the clerks, from (clerici=clergy)–of the Renaissance like Ricci, but the sharpest rejoinder is one I have been repeating for two years now on this site–something no Chinese or Indian professor would need to be reminded of: Where do you think the books came from? Even in China, with its rich literary history, the basis for both the Mongolian and Manchu alphabets was the Syriac alphabet of the Nestorian Christian teachers. Christianity did not invent the dark ages, but it did preserve, east and west, glimmers of intellectual light in its love for the word made flesh: the written text.

Nestorian Christian Stele (781) commemorating the spread of the “Luminous religion,” now in the Beilin Museum


OPENNESS: China now suffers from its economic miracle. The pace of development is too fast. The scope of construction (and thus demolition) is immense. In Beijing we suffer the consequences of dust and fumes every day, even inside our apartments. The air is not good. The traffic is terrible and likely to get worse, as China has moved from an “Everyone with his own bicycle”- policy only two generations ago to today’s “Every family with a car.”

Xidan shopping scene

To hop off the subway at Xidan or Fuxingmen station is to enter a world of Extreme Shopping so vast and crowded that it will send you running for the nearest corner of the nearest, ubiquitous, Starbucks for a little peace. Divorce is on the rise. Property prices are so high in Beijing that young workers and junior professionals can’t compete with nouveau riche executives and profiteers for space. The educational system is cramped. Competiton for jobs, as everywhere, is vicious. When in 1982 China officially opened its bronze doors to the outside world, it took a risk that few other countries have ever taken. ”Openness” is not organic to China’s development and some would say not a feature of the “Chinese personality,” a reality that is reflected in its control of information and news. Openness is the unavoidable consequence of its modern history, a concession to planet- sharing. At the same time, China’s openness is real: Mother China is a Chinese mother after all: she would never do anything she did not think she could do well, so she is determined to win at this game.

The Chinese therefore are open to western history, western ideas, and western values–especially open to learning English–any form of English. The teaching of English proceeds here at a frenetic pace, with every student from the streets of Shanghai to the plateaus of Tibet required to begin the study at age 10 and carry it through in high school, college, and graduate school. The practical effects are not entirely visible: the rationale for learning English is often presented in dominant-power terms (English is a world language so you’d better learn it if you want to get ahead). Officials do not seem to realize that this pretext combined with pervasive laments about threats to national culture and the rapacious designs of the West, especially America, do not provide a coherent incentive to learn a foreign tongue. The result is that English is often not pursued enthusiastically, taught well, or learned well.

By the same token, however, my impression is that Chinese students are eager to know the history of Europe and America, to make comparisons and chalk up differences. They find it remarkable that teachers in the west are considered low-status professionals, since teachers in China are revered and respected at all levels. The phrase “dear teacher” (Qīn’ài de lǎoshī) is virtually one word. Many are vaguely aware of differences in instructional methods in China and America, and many would like to see some elements–not all–of the famed “student centered” approach (as distinguished from the teacher-authority, rote memorization style) introduced to China.

As a result of its own long history, Chinese students could not accept–and would not understand–some of the parochial and special interest histories now occupying blog space in the United States. They would want to know about the Inquisition and the condemnation of Galileo, maybe the Scopes Trial–the festival dates on any atheist calendar. They are shocked to learn that some Americans in high places do not “believe” in evolution or know very much about cosmology, but believe that a sky god created the universe in six earth days.

But as the world is much bigger than America, they are looking for a comprehensive picture of how western values have been transmitted, and inevitably this is in part a history of classical civilization, Christendom, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Enlightenment and the modern period–a history of ideas. These are also periods that are not taught well by badly prepared and sometimes intellectually vacuous teachers, or known well by American students. In 2010, only 12% of American high school students scored at “proficiency” level on the history section of the National assessment of Educational Progress; only 2% could identify correctly what the significance of Brown vs the Board of Education was with the answer in front of them. America has become, in a word, a country of historical illiterates content to live in a monoculture of expanding technology and shrinking ideas.

For the Chinese student interested in western studies, no phase in the evolutionary history of western society becomes the whole picture. That is because the Chinese are used to dealing with puzzles and complexity, but they do not like oversimplification, a legacy of the Confucian tradition where appearance and reality occupy different levels of meaning but not different spheres.

The art of asking the right questions is as significant as getting the right answer, which may indeed be another question. Americans by contrast seem to be enthralled by either-or judgements and prefer black and white to the full palette of real history: religion or science, faith or reason, secular or sacred, liberal or conservative–a modal planetary view that almost requires oversimplification, a “bottom line.” The idea of many traditions thriving together has never been able to capture the American mind. Blame it on Abelard, or maybe Nietzsche

Three laughs at Tiger Brook (12th cent): Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are One

And roundabout this is also why no ground is to be gained, no heavenly powers offended or assuaged, and no political points scored here by saying “Happy Solstice!”–secular versus religious problem solved. It just makes no sense. It’s Christmas. It doesn’t matter what it was two thousand years ago: it’s been Christmas for a long time. It has a special meaning within a particular historical context. It is about peace, love, brotherhood, charity, generosity and new life–which are secular as well as religious values. If Christians see these symbolized in the birth of a child in some distant Roman province a little more than two millennia ago, the Chinese “get it.” What they might not understand is why a festival of joy and goodwill should have to be tiptoed around, apologized for, celebrated apart from the the cultural values it has embodied for at least 1800 years.

Musing in the year 110 or thereabouts, the Syrian bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Christians at Ephesus (Turkey),

Hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her child-bearing and likewise also the death of the Lord — three mysteries to be cried aloud — the which were wrought in the silence of God. How then were they made manifest to the ages? A star shone forth in the heaven above all the stars; and its light was unutterable, and its strangeness caused amazement; and all the rest of the constellations with the sun and moon formed themselves into a chorus about the star; but the star itself far outshone them all; and there was perplexity to know whence came this strange appearance which was so unlike them.

From that time forward every sorcery and every spell was dissolved, the ignorance of wickedness vanished away, the ancient kingdom was pulled down, when God appeared in the likeness of man unto newness of everlasting life; and that which had been perfected in the counsels of God began to take effect. Thence all things were perturbed, because the abolishing of death was taken in hand.

In 386 John Chrysostom (the ‘golden tongued’) preached as though seamlessly from Ignatius what is regarded as the first Christmas morning sermon. He said,

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle.

Unlike Santa Claus, this is powerful mythology, but its fundamental matrix is the belief that goodness and new life are horizontal possibilities for every one in this season of renewal and re-dedication. You can learn a little about this spirit in China.


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7 thoughts on “Merry Christmas from China

  1. Joe, Your essay was interestiing and informative. You might like to see what Neil Godfrey is doing with that letter I wrote you about TJP. Click on Ed Jones Dialogue – Vridar.

  2. Merry Christmas to you and your students and colleagues and thank you for a wonderful story of a real Chinese Christmas. The rest of the world could benefit greatly from Chinese culture. As Joseph S Wu writes, humanism, unlike Western ‘movement’ humanisms, is intrinsic to Chinese culture. He descibes it as an individual’s natural feeling toward his parents, humanistic feelings, because they are the product of purely human beings, not of gods. Confucius agreed: “Filial piety is the foundation of morality.” Chinese culture celebrates wisdom and learning, respecting parents first as teachers and then those who educate and pass on wisdom. Hsiao, filial piety, as you reflect, is at the heart of Chinese culture and way of life. The Chinese way of looking at life, appears artistic. A student will learn to cook by imitation of a master rather than a book of recipes. There is art in the making and drinking of tea. Man is the measure of everything, and the ancient traditional ‘religions’ Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism are from teachers – men of wisdom – not gods. And traditionally agricultural and naturalistic, rural culture is in harmony with the seasons. What a wonderful world China is. I’m not sure about duck feet. Chewy I imagine, like leather perhaps. Sort of intriguing but as a fruiterian I don’t know if I’d dare. I’d like to watch them being eaten and spat out. You’d need plenty of good local wine to moisten them. (Poor ducks).

  3. A wonderful view from the very core of our species. As you imply, the world’s eyes are not only moving away from America, but away from religious acrimony as well…the sure cure for Christian fundamentalism is any small course on Chinese civilisation. Merry Christmas in toto.

  4. Hi Joe. As usual, your Christmas essay is thought provoking. I have been meaning to reply to several of your essays, but Argie has been ill for many months and i have just not had the energy to write. Fortunately, she has recovered and we look forward to good health for the new year. The axial tilt button got a smile out of me and probably many others who are knowledgeable enough to get the joke, so I’m not sure why it fails as humor. The earths axial tilt causes the angle of the sun above the horizon to vary as the earth moves in its orbit. This is the primary cause of the seasons. In the 56 or 57 years since I took a geography course, reference to the angle of the earth to the plane of its orbit has been a shorthand way of referring to the whole process. So the joke is incomplete, not wrong. Poking a little gentle fun at people who break into hysterics at the persistently wrongheaded notion that humans have descended from apes seems to me a permissible activity even in a season supposedly dedicated to good will.

    Having been born and raised Jewish, I viewed Christmas as an outsider, even before I became an atheist (not my preferred personal description). I think that this gives me a bit of perspective. If Christmas in this country was mostly about the good things that you mention, I would probably appreciate it with some degree of enthusiasm, but it appears to me to have degenerated into a giant national potlatch upon which a significant portion of the economy depends. There is much preoccupation with whether the stores will beat last years numbers. The holiday is not yet entirely divorced from doing good. The Miami Herald features each day some poor person who needs special help and readers do respond to the call for generosity. Of course, the structural defects that prevent the need from being routinely ameliorated is ignored. Getting to the Chinese, I don’t see why they have to celebrate a holiday that in its current form was developed in the United States where it has now lost a good deal of its humane meaning. I hope that the current prosperity of a portion of the Chinese population does not lead them to ignore the meanings that you emphasize and magnify the gift giving.

    Anyway, a belated Merry Christmas to you.


    • Joe: Please give my best wishes to Argie. I’ve been thinking about her as I’ve noticed her absence and wondered how she was. She used to like the same art and poetry as me. I’m very sorry she’s been ill.

      Like many antipodeans your knowledge of America has been determined by post-World War II categories, which are unhelpful in the extreme for real background. Accordingly you tend to generalise everything going on as “American” as if that term had some mystical explanatory power. It doesn’t. It is beginning to show in your replies.

      I have a slightly different perspective. I’ve never been religious but where I come from pretty much everyone, whatever religion, including the non religious, greets each other with “Merry Christmas” and celebrates the day in some way. For some people it’s celebrated at the beach as it’s the middle of summer, for most it’s at home, and some people, mainly Christians, go to church. We all seem to do the Christmas tree thing, the food (or beach barbeque) and wine, making Christmas cards. But everyone knows, whether it’s believed to be true or not, that Christmas is about a Christian story. That story is what the carols sung by candlelight are about. But Christmas isn’t about a season, it’s about a story with a tradition.

      Chinese culture is far wiser than ours – or ‘Western’ culture. It has a far more mature attitude towards humanity, traditions, culture, and religion. They don’t have to celebrate Christmas. But they do. And they seem to celebrate the best part. The ‘spirit’ (metaphorically) – the ‘merry’ in the Christmas, without leaving the ‘Christmas’ out of Christmas, because it’s a tradition. I don’t even think they have the day off. It all flows, balance, refinement, etiquette, filial piety. They are intrinsically humanistic.

      But then compare P.Z. Myers, who is apparently a former “Humanist of the Year” and apparently has a doctorate in science. His blog post today is titled “Next year, we must wage the War on Christmas harder”.

      Peace love and goodwill to all, Merry Christmas.

    • Joe, I am not challenging the reality of axial tilt but the word “reason”. There is no reason for axial tilt. It’s what it is. But there is a historical reason for Christmas that has nothing to do with it. Last I knew, people in Perth are sweltering right now and still celebrate Christmas. What in the world does the slogan mean? That there is a solstice – that there were solstice celebrations among pagans? That early Christianity tapped into rituals that were familiar to the early adherents? This is not news. But the fact remains that Christmas is the sum and total of a story–and that story is not given a date in the NT. I happen to think that no religion has a more profound story than an angelic message of peace and goodwill. Not Judaism (sorry, Joe), and certainly not Islam. I am not a Christian triumphalist, but I do think best story wins. What if a guy named John Dawson wrote a play in 1589 called the Sad Tale of Mirabelle and Jason in which two families went to war over the love affair of their children and utterly destroyed each other. A few years later, some one named Shakespeare comes along and writes something called Romeo and Juliet: the families survive to reap their folly, but the children die. Get my point? I’m sorry the nativity story is so offensive–really–but there you are.

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