Another Christmas in China

December 27, 2003

Another Christmas in China

Christmas in Chengdu has reached great proportions. Shopkeepers have seen the frenzy with which people shop during the holidays and they therefore adorn their storefronts with Christmas trees, snowflakes and white-lettered exhortations to enjoy and buy.

I even saw a Chinese version of the nativity scene at a noodle shop near my house – Styrofoam snow, a barn, a horse and a small Santa figure in a sleigh. Restaurants usually have two or three girls in traditional dress at the front door looking good and doing nothing – the past week its been a bored skinny young man in a Santa suit – with beard – dejectedly ringing a bell and muttering something about the specials going on.

But the big event here every Christmas – dating back at least two years – is the inflatable bat battle royale in Tian Fu Square in the center of the city. Thousands of people gather at the square at around 8pm and then somebody shouts "it’s on!" and the whole place erupts in the sound of plastic on noggin till roughly 10pm. Then everybody walks home, bonking random passersby and ganging up on bicyclists. All this happens under the protective gaze and calm wave of the Chairman – one of the last big Mao Statues in China, at the north end of the square.

On the way home, I stopped in at a an opera theater and watched as three rock bands, a hip-hop troupe and a punk band rocked the house of roughly 200 high school kids and their parents. The punk group looked like a crew of Robert Smith wannabees and the hip-hop group had all the right clothes and jewelry. A girl in the front row had binoculars and the kids created a small mosh-pit around her.

There was a rave in the 20th Century Computer City.

As I walked and swatted away with my bat I fell in with a group of kids heading to a karaoke bar. They wanted to know if we celebrate Christmas like the Chinese do. Do we throw concerts, gather in squares for melees and generally party it up in honor of Baby Jesus?

I mentioned caroling and pork roast and leaving milk and cookies out for the fat guy. I mentioned gift giving and stockings and church.

"That doesn’t sound like any fun." And then they were off.

Later an older man fell in with me and told me how just five years earlier nobody in China celebrated Christmas and that he still wasn’t sure what it was all about. Jesus and Santa didn’t ring a bell.

"Now we Chinese also celebrate your holiday and we do it in our own way."

Sinocize it

This seems to be the case with a great many things: Oreos, Pringles, soda, cars, jump-start batteries, fashion, shoes, highways, spaceships …

In China it seems quite natural to absorb elements of the outside world and make them Chinese. Whereas copying might be looked down upon in the US, where innovation, creativity and such are considered quite important, in China the ability to master a skill demonstrates versatility and cleverness.

The Chinese education system stresses rote memory and tests and the traditional essays that led to official appointment in the past were evaluated not based on originality but on how well they brought in phrases and wisdom from the ancients.

Chinese calligraphy and water color have a certain set of subjects and rules: mountains, bamboo and birds are standard water color subjects for example, while calligraphy is written with one stroke, from memory, emulating the millions and millions strokes that came before.

The rigid "learn by memory" system is still very much alive, but like most hallowed traditions in China, it is slowly dissolving. The further China integrates with the rest of the world, the more adaptation and innovation is needed from the vast pool of optimistic and energetic young Chinese.

Repeating 5000 year old mantras are met with a swift "what have you done for me lately?" in today’s world. So now one notices such things as green tea and Chivas Regal mixed together (very tasty) and Christmas celebrations with bats and raves and confused notions of who the fat guy is and who the skinny guy is.

So what if Chinese artists are trying to figure out oil, architects are trying to find the elusive "modern style, peasants are trying to match a western suit with Liberation shoes and Sichuan girls are trying to match every color and style they can possibly think of together and then top it off with fur and big pointy boots?

Give it five years or so and New Yorkers will be beating each other down with inflatables during Valentines Day, the Scots will start importing green tea and France will usher in the new Spring fashion, straight out of Chengdu, with big fur hats, pointy boots and painted-on eyebrows.

Read more by Sascha Matuszak