CHINA is by some estimates on track to surpass the United States and become the world’s largest Protestant Christian nation by 2021. Even if that doesn’t happen, the celebration of Christmas will remain one of the most important cultural and religious dates on the calendar for tens of millions of Chinese Christians. Beyond its spiritual significance in the country, the holiday has growing commercial appeal.
But regardless of whether we’re talking religion or consumerism, Christmas remains a prickly issue for the Chinese Communist Party. As Gary Sigley, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia, wrote in 2007, Christmas is problematic for the CCP “because its sheer visibility in the urban landscape simply reinforces the fact that the monopoly the party-state once had over public space has long since eroded.”
In December 2014, as international media reported that crosses were being torn from Chinese churches, Chinese media debated whether or not Christmas was a threat to Chinese culture. Students at the Modern College of Northwest University in Xi’an called the celebration of Christmas “a serious blind worship of foreign things.” The students were apparently encouraged by the college itself, which had arranged a mandatory Christmas Eve screening of a three-hour official documentary on traditional culture during which students were told by teaching staff that “anyone celebrating Christmas would be disciplined.”
Meanwhile, in the city of Wenzhou, the epicentre of ongoing cross removals, the local education department issued a text message demanding primary and secondary schools “not hold activities on school campuses related in any way to Christmas.”
Some Chinese expressed solidarity with these actions, ostensibly taken to protect traditional culture. Others found them foolish and unnecessary. At the Information Times, commentator Liang Yunfeng argued that Christmas-related restrictions were anachronistic — unsuited, he said, to “our era of diversity.” “Sure, citizens can choose not to celebrate Christmas, and they can also choose to make their views known to others as they opt for traditional holidays. But as to whether or not others observe the holiday, they don’t have any right to intrude!”
In the spirit of Christmas ambivalence, we should recall that Xi Jinping paid a visit to Finland’s Santa Claus Village in March 2010, two and half years before he became China’s top leader and a hardened champion of traditional culture from the commanding heights. There, in a homey arctic cabin, he sat for a photograph with Father Christmas, that jolliest of symbols of Western imperialism.
As a ubiquitous consumer phenomenon, Christmas is a relative newcomer to the People’s Republic of China, a product of the opening and reform era. How, then, was Christmas treated and talked about before that critical December in 1978, when China officially charted its reform path?
To answer this question, I reached deep down into that bottomless red stocking of historical and political tidbits — the People’s Daily newspaper.
THE ADVENT of Christmas in the People’s Daily came on October 18, 1946, just days after the suicide of Nazi war criminal and Gestapo founder Hermann Göring. It was gift-wrapped in a jeremiad from Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg about America and its “poisonous newspapers,” which spoke incessantly, he said, of an impending Third World War.
By the fall of 1946, peace negotiations between Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Party and the Communists had failed, and China was in the midst of a blood civil war. At the time that it ran Ehrenburg’s piece, the People’s Daily, just five months old, was the official organ of the Shanxi-Hebei-Shandong-Henan Military Region, led by Lo Bocheng and Deng Xiaoping, and not yet the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party — as it would become on June 15, 1948.
Ehrenburg’s essay, “Blood and Ink,” sharply criticised American correspondents who moaned that “there is nothing to see in Russia.” “We can say more accurately,” wrote Ehrenburg, “that they cannot see anything to make for flashy headlines in American newspapers. What they see is routine daily work, and yet they hunger for the sensational.”
I can tell them many things that excite us. When we see that the factories once making bombers are now manufacturing baby cradles, we become excited. When we see that the factories once making tanks are now manufacturing jugs of milk. This also excites us.
Ehrenburg voiced concern that the idea of a Third World War — which the capitalist press, he said, had “planted deep in the hearts of many Americans” — would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “There is an old saying in France,” he wrote, “That if you talk about Christmas, Christmas comes.”
Christmas cropped up again several weeks later, as a conference of the foreign ministers of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France was held in New York to work out peace treaties among the nations that had achieved victory over Nazi Germany. On December 3, the People’s Daily reported that “a treaty was possible before Christmas.” Two days later the paper reported that “Christmas this year will perhaps pass with an atmosphere of harmony among the big four powers.”
Harmony between China and the United States was shattered the following year with the chilling case of Shen Chong (沈崇), a co-ed at the prestigious Peking University who was raped by an American soldier on Christmas Eve. The People’s Daily, whose account differed slightly from that given in U.S. newspapers, reported:
On Christmas Eve (the night of December 24) at eight o’clock, a freshman Peking University student surnamed Shen emerged from a movie theatre and was followed by two American soldiers, one on her left and one on her right. They forced her into the trees of the Peiping Polo Field near Chang’an Street, where they raped her.
According to the newspaper, the crime was witnessed by another man, apparently a soldier, who notified police. It was later reported that men overhearing the struggle had tried to stop the two soldiers, US Marine Corporal William Gaither Pierson and Private Warren T Pritchard, but had been driven away.
Pierson and a U.S. consular official tried to claim that the victim was a prostitute, but she was in fact the granddaughter of Qing dynasty official Lin Zexu. Shen Chong took the stand during a court-martial hearing on January 18, 1947, and identified Pierson as her attacker, saying she had struggled with the soldier for three and a half hours.
The Chicago Tribune reported that a police physician, Dr. Kang Ho-cheng, had testified that “a healthy girl would have suffered more injuries if she resisted the attack.” Shen, the newspaper reported, had recounted her ordeal in “a soft voice”:
“My predicament was that of a mouse caught by a cat. I could not possibly injure him because a mouse cannot injure a cat. I could do nothing but cry just as a mouse shudders when caught in a cat’s claws.”
Later known as the Peiping rape case, the Shen Chong case sparked widespread anger in China and helped marshal resistance to the presence of American troops in the country. On January 8, 1947, the People’s Daily reported that “patriotic students” across the city had launched a petition campaign against the “savage acts perpetrated by the U.S. Army.”
As high-level Kuomintang officials in Beiping [Beijing] busied themselves discussing how they could ensure that the U.S. Army passed a pleasant Christmas holiday, a horrific rape was committed by American soldiers, and it occurred right on the eve of Christmas.
“A Wave of Fury,” read the article’s headline.
ON DECEMBER 22, 1949, the People’s Daily, by this time the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, made its first reference to Christmas since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The mention came in a poem honouring Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on his 70th birthday. Stalin was painted as a proletarian Santa Claus bearing gifts for the downtrodden of the world.
Is the day you were born,
And for all the people of the world it is “Christmas.”
You deliver precious gifts to the world,
You offer wheat and warm coats to the hungry and cold,
You call the exiles home,
You give culture to the benighted,
You liberate those who have lost their freedom!
If the Soviet Christmas invited expressions of warmth and comradeship, the American Christmas was a convenient symbol of capitalistic greed and the misery it wrought.
On December 15, 1950, poet and essayist Fang Lingru (方令孺), who had studied in the 1920s at both Washington State University and the University of Wisconsin, wrote a reflection in the People’s Daily called “How I Witnessed ‘The American Way of Life.’” Fang recalled feeling, as her steamer pulled slowly away upon her departure from America, that she would never visit the wretched country again.
Why did I have no feelings whatsoever for America? It was not without reason. For six years the American life I had seen was vulgar, prejudiced, cold, callous and apathetic, a frail soap bubble that might burst with a puff of breeze, a vast emptiness dazzling with its pretence.
In New York, Fang wrote, even the sun and air were controlled by the capitalists. Those who were wealthy could afford ample space with decent light. The poor, meanwhile, endured dark and cramped conditions.
She wrote of neighbours “wasting away from hunger” and struggling to find work. “At Christmas, their most important holiday, they can’t even return home to gather as a family,” she said.
In the 1950s, as China became mired in the conflict on the Korean peninsula, Christmas came to represent the humanity of China’s fighting force, the People’s Volunteer Army, against the cold mass of “the invading American forces” and their capitalist masters.
On December 30, 1950, the People’s Daily reported that the People’s Volunteer Army had arranged a Christmas party for American and British prisoners of war:
Even though China’s People’s Volunteer Army doesn’t believe in Christianity, the [soldiers] decorated the scene according to Christian custom. As soon as the POWs entered the venue, they were awed by the English banners, and by a pair of “Christmas trees” adorned with red candles and silver alarm bells symbolising freedom.
A “42 year-old” prisoner identified as Olsen was quoted by the People’s Daily as saying that his treatment as a captive by the Chinese was far better than he had experienced in Germany during the Second World War. “The Germans are Christians,” Olsen reportedly said, “but they didn’t allow us to have a merry Christmas.”
This, in fact, was Master Sergeant William Olsen, the soldier later put on trial in the United States for collaborating with “the Reds.” Olsen’s words in the People’s Daily, which he later disavowed, were critical of capitalism and American imperialism. “When I return home this time, I’ll no longer serve as a soldier. If the big shots insist on going to war again, I’ll tell them to take up arms and go themselves!”
When news around Christmas involved members of the Soviet Bloc, the general themes in the People’s Daily centred on peace, unity and friendship. On Christmas Day in 1956, the newspaper reported that “children in Beijing” had planned a lavish Christmas celebration for visiting children from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany in the Beijing Children’s Palace.
A large Christmas tree in the lobby was festooned with coloured lights. The curtains were decorated with fairytale deer, rabbits and bears. The lights went down, and the children were treated to a private screening of the animation film Thank You Little Cat as they feasted on roasted peanuts and chestnuts.
In America, meanwhile, Christmas kept its patina of gloom. On January 16, 1957, as a violent backlash against the Hundred Flowers Movement was brewing and China was quietly careening toward the disastrous Great Leap Forward, the People’s Daily rejoiced in a grim story from the New York Times.
According to a report in the “New York Times” on December 27 last year, 883 people died in American during the Christmas holiday through various accidents. Among these, there were 705 deaths attributed to car accidents, 54 to fires, and 123 deaths from other accidents. The report said this was the highest number of deaths in the history of the Christmas holiday.
American economic miseries were chronicled again on Christmas day in 1957, as the People’s Daily reported on the 1956 tour through the Soviet Union of the Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess. The tour, which had performed in Leningrad and Kiev, was by many accounts an outstanding success, but the CCP’s newspaper focused on the tough lives cast members found upon their return to the United States. “[Their] livelihoods were unassured, they were completely frustrated,” the People’s Daily reported, “and they spent Christmas in despair.”
It’s not clear where the People’s Daily obtained its information about the miserable cast members of Porgy and Bess, but one of the chroniclers of the tour itself was the writer Truman Capote, who had joined the trip at the expense of The New Yorker alongside Leonore Gershwin, the wife of the composer.
In any case, the hypocrisy of American elites was on full display. Here were artists, lauded during their tour of the Soviet Union, returning to lives of squalor in the world’s richest nation. “And yet,” the People’s Daily reported, “the American president, his eyes open and staring, said in his Christmas message that the people of America led ‘prosperous,’ ‘peaceful’ and ‘joyful’ lives.”
In a 1950s Communist forerunner of the mic drop, the newspaper added with a vehemence: “Eisenhower’s so-called ‘Christmas message’ should be called an April Fool’s Day message.”
By Christmas of 1957, nearly 300,000 artists and other intellectuals in China, including the writer Ding Ling, had been swept up in the persecution of the Anti-Rightist Movement.
THROUGHOUT the 1960s and 1970s, the constant Christmas themes in the People’s Daily seemed to be war, chaos and misery. In December 1960, keeping to its seasonal interest in the macabre vagaries of capitalist life, the paper reported that more than 600 people in Chicago had been killed in accidents during the Christmas holiday.
As the conflict in Vietnam escalated in the 1960s, and as China suffered through its own bloody political struggle in the form of the Cultural Revolution, there was a fresh edge of animosity toward both the West and the Soviet Union. One of the most chilling Christmas stories ever to appear in the pages of the People’s Daily came in 1966. It was a first-hand account of war with America from a member of the People’s Volunteer Army who had fought in Korea in 1952:
Just as the American devils were busy celebrating Christmas, our commanders ordered our artillery unit to send them a little ‘gift.’ The unit suddenly sprang to action, our gunners so excited they leapt three feet straight into the air. Everyone said: This time we’ll give the Americans a taste of what we can do. . . . On Christmas morning, as our enemies were assembled on the drill ground, an artillery shell flowered over their heads. Thick smoke billowed from the enemy position, and flesh and blood soared through the air. An entire camp of our enemies went bewildered to see “God.”
When messages of peace were exchanged during the Christmas truce in Vietnam in 1966, this was reported in the People’s Daily as confirmation of Soviet hypocrisy and cowardice.
The “American invaders,” the newspaper reported, had dispatched a Christmas greeting to their counterparts on a Soviet warship. The Soviets had responded: “We wish you a Merry Christmas, and all the best for 1967. May 1967 become a year of peace.”
The People’s Daily fumed:
This sort of message again shows us that these modern revisionists of the Soviet Union, so eager for “US-Soviet cooperation,” are always overwhelmed by the flattery of the American imperialist murderers who pat them on the back.
In the 1970s, economic stagnation offered another opportunity to contrast sugar-plum visions of Christmas in the West with accounts of real suffering under the yoke of capitalism.
The recession that began in 1973 certainly did mark the end of the boom that had begun in the post-war years, and as 1974 dawned, the People’s Daily remarked with an unmistakable whiff of schadenfreude that trouble was brewing in the West:
The political, economic and social crises in the capitalist world, the mounting problem of inflation, and other ills inherent in the capitalist system, are all flaring up. The oil crisis has intensified the chaos. People everywhere are enduring a “dark and cold” Christmas and New Year.
I AM HAPPY to report that the final piece mentioning Christmas in the pre-reform era, before China imported capitalism and its inherent ills, offers a respite from the gloom.
The article, published on November 13, 1978, returns us, along with readers of the People’s Daily, to icy Finland. There, in the land of Santa Claus, where the festival of Midsummer is “just as revered as Christmas,” the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party finds peace and beauty in the “white night” of the arctic, and in the northern lights swirling on the horizon.