This year I attended the 8pm Christmas Eve mass at the St. Ignatius cathedral in Xujiahui, Shanghai. It reminded me why I normally don’t go to Christmas Eve masses in China. In short, it’s a zoo.
The reason is that Christmas Eve has become a popular holiday in Shanghai, although it’s mainly a date holiday. Traffic was horrible that evening, as couples all went out in search of a romantic winter evening. Many of them went to churches out of curiosity, to see how Christmas is celebrated there.
I imagine the “Christmas tourists” that wound up at Catholic churches were a little bored. Yes, there’s a choir singing Christmas music, but it’s still a Catholic mass, and not a Christmas program. (As I understand it, some other denominations do special Christmas programs to cater to the seasonal tourists.)
For the Catholic Church, it’s certainly a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the church has a rare opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience actively seeking out what it has to offer. (Christian churches are not allowed to actively evangelize in China, so if it’s done at all, it’s normally done quite subtly.) On the other hand, the Catholic Church is there for the faithful, and the Christmas tourists really are a bit of an obstacle to normal worship.
Some examples of how the Christmas tourist disrupt the mass:
– The tourists wander all throughout the church throughout the mass, often talking in loud voices
– The tourists take photos (with flash) and video all throughout the mass, often holding the device up high, distracting everyone
– The tourists take up good seats in a standing-room-only situation, but then try to leave the packed church after 20 minutes when they get bored
– The tourists outnumber the believers, so the priest tends to direct the sermon at them, capitalizing on the opportunity
– The tourists try to receive Holy Communion, even though the priest patiently and politely explains that it’s not for visitors, requiring the priest and eucharistic ministers to do a sort of mini-interrogation to anyone in the communion line that looks suspicious (and they’re surprisingly good at spotting the faking faithful!)
It’s the last one that bothers me the most. In China there’s a serious lack of respect for religion. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given China’s history, but it’s quite startling to be presented with the fact in this way. It also makes me reflect on modern foreigners’ behavior in Buddhist temples (how bad are we?), but I honestly can’t think of anything I’ve ever seen that feels as bad as trying to receive Holy Communion after being specifically asked not to (in one’s native tongue).
Here’s one tourist’s account (from Weibo), which offers a nice (more respectful) perspective:
> A busy day eventually ended peacefully… My second Christmas Eve at a church. The Xujiahui Catholic Church is really beautiful, with classic gothic architecture, really magnificent, lovely hymns, and a holy ceremony… But there were just too many people; it was super crowded. Faith is indeed a powerful force. Following along in the mass, the priest nodded at me several times, but didn’t give me the Eucharist to eat. But those Christians chewing on the Eucharist were filled with some kind of reverent emotion. Peace.
I assume the priest “nodding” at her was him giving her a blessing. Any non-Catholic can go up in the Communion line and get a blessing, but they’re supposed to cross their arms to signal that they’re not there to receive the Eucharist.
Anyway, lesson learned… next year I won’t be going on Christmas Eve again!
Every year around Christmastime, my “Christmas Songs in Chinese” blog post from 2006 gets a lot of action. I’ve been seeing a lot of requests there for lyrics, and I tried to help out with that, but I found the Chinese versions of these Christmas songs’ lyrics surprisingly difficult to track down. If anyone can offer links to those lyrics, it would be appreciated by many.
Anyway, you may enjoy these Sinosplice Christmas music posts from the archive:
It’s Euro Cup time, and as soccer fans, the Chinese are loving it. This punny headline caught my eye: “欧，MY GOD！” 欧 is a character most often used to mean “Europe,” but it sounds like the English interjection “oh.” “Euro Cup” in Chinese is 欧洲杯.
This headline took me back to my English teaching days and an issue I faced frequently back then. It bothered me when my Chinese students said “oh my God” in English. It’s not an uncommon expression, and as a fair translation of the Chinese exclamation “（我的）天哪!” its use came to them easily. So what was the problem?
Well, raised in a traditional Catholic family, I had been taught not to use God’s name in vain. There was a commandment expressly forbidding this linguistic behavior, and it wasn’t even #10, but #2, way ahead of more obvious sins like stealing and killing.
I learned pretty quickly that most people (Christian or not) didn’t adhere to this commandment. I always thought it was interesting… it was a habit that was pretty easy not to get into, but almost everyone did, ostensibly because it was defined as a sin by Judeo-Christian dogma. And then the people that didn’t openly violate the second commandment still used obvious substitutes, like “geez” and “gosh.” This kind of behavior struck me as very similar to adolescent rebellion (in both its strong and weak forms), but on a sociolinguistic scale. It was also interesting to me as an example of a chicken-egg cultural phenomenon.
So I had perspective on the whole “taking God’s name in vain” thing, and I had no real problem with other English-speakers’ “my God” exclamations. I never imposed my own beliefs on other people; I just didn’t use the expression myself.
With my Chinese students, however, it was different. These were students with no Judeo-Christian cultural background. They weren’t willfully violating a commandment of a foreign god; they were simply using the language they had learned in a textbook. I recognized this, but I felt they should be aware of the cultural implications. I never told them not to say “oh my God,” but I taught them what the Judeo-Christian second commandment taught, and pointed out that they would never hear me use that expression. They needed to know this, because while I was perhaps not representative of the average native English speaker, I was not a total anomaly. Some people are actually offended by the phrase “oh my God,” and I didn’t want my students to be completely confounded if it ever happened to them. More important, I wanted my students to appreciate this real-life example of culture’s grip on language which their education up to that point had never touched upon.
Unsurprisingly, some students took my point to heart as a significant cultural issue, while others brushed it off.
This “oh my God” issue led me to consider its parallel in Chinese: is saying天哪in Chinese a violation of the second commandment? I asked a devout Catholic Chinese friend about this. She gave me a pained look, revealing that I had just opened a can of worms with which she was well acquainted. My Chinese wasn’t good enough at the time to understand everything that she said, but the answer she gave me was something like, “maybe, sometimes.”
Ah, there are times when questions of religion and language make one long for simpler pursuits… Like watching a soccer game.
Matthew provides plenty more photos, observations, and insight into Tianjin in each entry. Just follow the links above.
I intend to blog more on religion in China, but I’ve been putting it off. It’s extremely complex, and as such I find it an intimidating topic to approach. I think Matthew has handled pretty well what he’s tackled so far.