In what has to be one of the most fascinating lenses through which to observe history and societal change, this short film chronicles recent Chinese history by looking at the different things Chinese people have lined up for over the years. It was posted to the BBC website under the title “China’s History as Told Through Its Unbelievable Queues.” Here’s what the photographer has to say about the queues:
“Times have changed. Lives have changed. The reasons people queue have also changed. We are a huge country — 1.3 billion people — the biggest in the world. There will always be queues here; the reasons will be different. Who knows what we will be queueing for next?”
My most common experience with queues in China was on Sunday mornings, standing in line to get into church. People would begin lining up 30-45 minutes in advance to be sure to get a seat inside the sanctuary as opposed to the overflow room or stools in the courtyard.
And the most amazing queue I saw was on Christmas Eve, 2009, outside Gangwashi Church in Beijing. The church had Christmas Eve services scheduled every hour from 5pm to 11pm. Those wanting to attend had to line up.
When the sanctuary was full, the would close the gates to the church courtyard and those still in line would have to wait until the next service. I talked to one lady in line and asked her how long she’d been waiting.
“An hour and half,” she said happily, despite the bitter cold.
Behind her the queue wound its way down the block and around the corner.
What was most interesting, though, was the police presence — not to prevent people from getting into church, but to make sure everything was safe and orderly so that people could get in.
I just wish the photographer had included church queues in his film.
My first Christmas in China was in 1984. Wanting to do something nice for the motley crew of foreigners who were working in Henan Province, the Provincial Foreign Affairs Office decided to take us all on a trip to Xi’an, Shaanxi, about 12 hours away by train.
On Christmas Day, we saw all of the sites — the city wall, the Big Goose Pagoda, and the Terra-cotta Warriors. For lunch they took us to the city’s most famous jiaozi (dumpling) restaurant.
All of us would have preferred a quiet Christmas back at our schools, but the officials were adamant that we make the trip, so we just made the best of it.
And it was cold in Xi’an that weekend; in fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever been so cold in my life, which is saying something since I’m from Minnesota!
Here’s a picture of the cold and motley crew on Christmas Day!
Here are a few recent stories out of China about Christmas:
Christmas is becoming increasingly popular in China, fuelled both by rising consumerism and the swelling ranks of the country’s 60-100 million Christians. Giant snowflakes, Christmas trees and animatronic Santas can be found in abundance on the streets of Beijing in late December. Yet the trend hasn’t come without controversy, with some calling for a boycott of Christmas and other Western holidays in recent years.
With the number of Christians estimated at over 70 million and rising, China is set to house the world’s largest Christian population. This means it’s that time of year when many will brighten their homes with paper lanterns, decorate the Christmas tree, and wait for Santa. But, for many, Christmas is still a relatively alien concept.
Worldwide, there are two kinds of Christmas. While both are a time of joy, one is relatively secular; its trappings are Christmas trees, gifts, reindeer, and the jolly, red, fat version of Saint Nick (going by 圣诞老人, or Christmas Elderly Person in China).
Here is an an al-acarte of stories and posts related to Christmas in China. And as we say in Chinese, Shengdan Kuai le (圣诞快乐), which means, well Merry Christmas. The Chinese word for Christmas is Shengdan Jie (圣诞节), which literally translated means Holy Birth Festival.
Cities across China blink with fairy lights, fancy hotels flaunt trees and tinsel, and glossy magazine covers display festive recipes and table settings. “Joy up!” reads a sign (in English) on three illuminated trees by a shopping mall in Beijing. The Chinese are doing just that.
There’s a joke going around: “Santa Claus was descending into China from the sky. Due to the heavy smog, he fell to the ground, but no one dared help him up. While he was still lying in the snow, his bag was ransacked for presents, and his reindeer and sleigh taken away by the chengguan. Therefore, no Christmas this year.”
While some of the humor needs context—there are digs at China’s notorious bystander effect and much-despised urban-management officials, chengguan—the larger meaning is clear. Ironic jokes about Santa’s routine being disrupted with uniquely Chinese characteristics are a sure sign that, yes, they do know it’s Christmas time in communist China.
Christened “China’s Christmas village”, Yiwu is home to 600 factories that collectively churn out over 60% of all the world’s Christmas decorations and accessories, from glowing fibre-optic trees to felt Santa hats. The “elves” that staff these factories are mainly migrant labourers, working 12 hours a day for a maximum of £200 to £300 a month – and it turns out they’re not entirely sure what Christmas is.
And a reminder of my previous posts on Christmas in China:
“Welcome to Qiqihar,” they said in one accord. “There’s been an outbreak of bubonic plague.”
That ominous greeting notwithstanding, we were overjoyed to see our friends at the station in the middle of the night as we got off the train. We had spent the better part of 12 hours trundling across the Manchurian Plain, or what locals used to call The Great Northern Wilderness on an unheated train with outside temperatures in the double digits below zero.
Qiqihar is a small city in Heilongjiang Province — a midnight stop on the Trans-Siberian Railroad that runs from Harbin to Moscow. A few more hours up the line would have landed us on the Siberian border. We gained a new appreciation for the expression “middle of nowhere.” I and two classmates (Liz and Kristin) from language school in Changchun had arrived to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Dennis, Rose, and Vangie. It ended up being a trip for the ages.
To start with, our train going north from Changchun seemed to date back to imperial times. It had obviously been very ornate at one time, but was now a shadow of its former self. Furthermore, the wood-burning stove that was supposed to provide heat was broken, giving us a winter camping experience. We were a motley-looking threesome of foreigners (who are odd no matter what we are wearing or doing), made more so by the fact that Liz had a frying pan strapped onto the back of her backpack that nearly turned into a weapon of mass destruction as we made our way through the crowds in the station. One of the items on our Christmas agenda was to enjoy Dennis’ famous pancakes, and since he didn’t have a frying pan, Liz brought hers along. Not being able to fit it insider her pack, she strapped it on the back!
The first stop on our journey north was Harbin, where we had 3 hours to wait before catching our train to Qiqihar. We were frozen stiff, and the only way we could think of to get warm was to go to a ‘beauty parlor’ to get our hair washed. At least the water would be hot (we hoped).
The heat on our second train was a bit better, which was a good thing because by the time we arrived in Qiqihar it was close to 30 below F.On
Christmas Eve Day, we set out to do some last minute shopping. Even though it was minus 30, the bus had no heat and all the windows were open. Wouldn’t want to miss out on all that fresh air!
Our destination was the only department store in town. This was Christmas 1990, before the jump-starting of economic reforms that happened in early 1992. Politically and economically China was on hold as the government dealt with the aftermath of 1989. Consumerism was nascent, and commercialism still non-existent. There were no private stores or malls; only the state-run stores which sold what the government had determined the people needed. Red thermos, blue spittoons, plastic basins, and drab clothing were the staples.
Based on who needed to buy what for whom, we split up into pairs. I went with Dennis; Liz went with Rose, and Kristin went with Vangie. We wandered around, trying not to bump into one another. I had no idea what to get for Kristin, and just wasn’t seeing anything that looked interesting, much less nice–until we got to a counter that was selling scarves (which were definitely ‘in’ back then). Suddenly, things looked promising. They had 2 scarves that weren’t ugly to death, a red one and a blue one. I liked the blue one, but Dennis tried his best to convince me that Kristin would prefer the red one. He failed; I bought the blue one. What he wasn’t telling me was that he had already bought the blue one for Rose, his wife. With my insistence on purchasing the blue one, he now knew that both Kristin and Rose were going to open the exact same present on Christmas. “Well, this should be pretty funny,” he thought.
When we got back to their apartments, I decided to show Rose what I had gotten for Kristin. I proudly showed her the scarf. Dennis was there too and took note of the fact that Rose thought the scarf was beautiful. What Rose didn’t tell me was that Liz had just purchased the same scarf for me! “Well this should be pretty funny, she thought.”
We spent Christmas Day cooking up a storm: roast beef in a rice cooker; mashed potatoes; green beans; carmelized carrots; and I think an apple pie. It was comfort food heaven.
After dinner it was time for the gift exchange. For some reason, I went first, opening the gift Liz had gotten for me: a blue scarf. Dennis, having been prepared for the humor of seeing two of us get the exact same scarf suddenly realizes that there are three scarves in circulation not two, and proceeds to fall off the couch laughing. Rose and I are laughing too, but we still think there are only 2 scarves.
Rose was up next, opening the present from her husband — the blue scarf. Having just recovered from our laughing fit at the thought of 2 scarves, Rose and I now realize that there is a third one in circulation — the one for Kristin — and we proceed to descend into uncontrollable laughter. By this time, of course, the others are laughing at the fact that 2 of us have now gotten the exact same present. This misinterpretation of events dies, of course, when Kristin opens her present from me — the blue scarf. At that point the gift-giving was done and we laughed ourselves sick for a long long time.
In an entire department store, there was only one thing that suited western aesthetic sensibilities — a blue scarf. I visited Dennis and Rose this past weekend, and, as always, the story of what has come to be known as The Great Manchurian Scarf Incident came up. We had a good laugh, but unfortunately, were unable to come up with a picture of the scarves.
Oh…and none of us ever came down with bubonic plague.
Do you have a funny “China Christmas” story? Leave a comment and tell us about it.
In 1997 my sister and her family traveled to China to spend Christmas with me in Changchun. While they were in town, we visited a miiddle school. This was of particular interest to my three nieces, who were all still in middle school and high school at the time. The following essay about that visit was written by one of my nieces 3 years later for an assignment in her Freshman Composition class in college. She has graciously given me permission to post it here:
As my family and I made our first steps through the classroom door, about thirty pairs of dark, glistening eyes followed our movement as we walked to the front of the room. I had never felt so out of place and awkward, so blaringly white. I was far from home in the unfamiliar city of Changchun, China, on a family vacation visiting my aunt who works as a teacher. She had arranged for us to visit a junior high school to talk to the students and answer their questions. I don’t remember what I expected when I walked into that classroom–probably nothing. But I didn’t leave the classroom that day without learning something that would stay with me forever.
My platinum ponytail and red Polo jacket stood out against the dozens of navy and white uniforms and heads of jet-black hair. The students’ faces came to life as they saw us enter. A surge of nervous giggles and hushed exclamations rippled throughout the room, stirring and awakening the calm that had been present moments earlier.
“It’s cold in here,” my sister whispered, cupping her hand so that her words wouldn’t get lost in the space around us. “And a little drab,” she added. I scanned the room, drinking in the surroundings. I was enclosed by monotone grayness: the walls, the floor, the desks were all gray. Cracks and crinkles that plagued the bare walls looked like the aging skin of an old man.
I thought back to the rooms at my middle school in Miinnesota where barely a fraction of the wall peeked out behind brightly colored posters and decorations. Glossy, laminated clippings of “Peanuts” cartoons loosely related to fractions were proudly displayed on the walls of the math room. Gigantic posters hung from the walls, printed with words such as “Attitude is Everything!” in loud, rainbow-colored bubble letters. Maps of the world peppered the walls of classrooms and paintings of Monet and Picasso covered the halls. Videos narrated by grinning teens in braces taught us to respect our peers. A step into the classroom was like walking into a mental playground; we were bombarded with stimuli to strech and challeng our budding minds.
The atmosphere of the classroom in Changchun, China, paled in comparison to the place I was used to. I almost pitied them. However, when I walked into that classroom, I was unaware of how much I would discover that looks can be deceiving.
The room quited to a hush as my dad, mom, and two sisters tiptoed to the five rigid wooden chairs that were set poised and elevated at the front of the room. The squeaks of our chairs broke the silence, which was so thick it seemed like a substance. I was now facing the class, looking straight into those thirty pairs of shining eyes, attached to thirty little bodies, which were straining to keep an explosive amount of curious energy from escaping. I was just as curioius as they were. I wondered what they were itching to ask; I wondered what I was going to say.
As soon as my aunt said a few brief words to them in their own language, thirty arms shot up in the air and started wiggling. It was question-and-answer time. I could hardly contain my grin as the students’ enthusiasm filled every corner of the room. My aunt called on a tiny girl with shy eyes. When she asked the girl if she wanted to practice her English she blushed and nodded.
“W-what…music…do…you…listen?” she asked, painstakingly crafting the words through a thick accent. She put everything she had into forming that sentence, and she beamed when we understood and responded.
Next, my aunt called on a boy wearing a starch-pressed shirt towards the back of the room who wanted to know about Wall Street. The question marks written all over the faces of my mom and sisters matched my own. Luckily my dad scraped up an answer while my aunt translated for the students.
I lost track of the minutes as time rolled by. My aunt told the students my sisters and I sing together, so they begged us to sing something in front of the class. We were apprehensive at first, but we worked up the nerve to sing our old stand-bys, “‘Amazing Grace” and “My Girl.” As layers of harmonies and melodies filled the room, the students’ faces shone like bright stars. I was startled by their thunderous applause. We asked them if they had anything to share — a song or poem to recite. I was sure no one would volunteer. I thought again of my school back home and imagined the reaction of myself and my peers if given a chance to share a song or poem with the class. There would be scoffing, shoulders hunching, and eyes heavy with apathy.
“Yeah, right! Get up in front of everybody and look stupid?” we would say. We have learned from an early age how painful it is to be slapped in the face by the harsh snickering of peers. Risks are not to be taken, and no one wants to be singled out. Despite everything we have been fed, even after all the sayings, the posters, and the videos, we simply do not care. But far away, in this junior high classroom in China, I stood face to face with a passion I had never witnessed before.
I had thought no one would volunteer to share with the class. I was wrong. Two volunteers. Five. Eight. Fifteen! Arms from all over the room began to rise. Some shot up boldly, while others inched out from their comfortable homes beneath the desks.
One boy’s performance left an impression on me I will never forget. His plump cheeks seemed to swallow his eyes, which were barely visible behind his thick, smudged glasses. A few sprayed sprouts of hair floated away from the rest of his head. But as he rose to speak, he seemed to grab ahold of all the space in the room. His words came out as forceful bullets, his full, booming voice resonating off the blank walls. He spoke with such passionate fervor that every person in the room was frozen in his spell, unable to look away. I didn’t understand the language, and it wasn’t until later that I found out he was reciting a political poem about Hong Kong’s recent return to Chinese sovereignty.
When he was finished, he slowly and silently eased his way back into his chair. I peeked at the other students, bracing myself for the giggling and pointing I was sure I would find. I dreaded the humiliation he would have to face. However, to my shock, there was none. Instead I saw nods of approval, supporting smiles, and words of praise for the young boy.
As I peered out into the faces of the students, I saw something foreign to me. It wasn’t in their complexion. It wasn’t in the almond shape of their eyes or the black color of their hair. These students were filled with more curiousity, life, and encouragement for one another than I have ever seen before. I was ashamed of the lifelessness and disrespect that I took part in. The surroundings of this Chinese classroom may have been gray, but it was the spirit of the students that splashed the room with a prism of color. They didn’t need pretty pictures, sings, or sayings. The light that gleamed in their eyes and the passion they carried with them did not come from a poster on the wall. It came from within.
I don’t think you’ll be suprised that my niece got an A for that essay. She went on to major in ESL in college, and has since taught in Mexico, Guatemala and South Korea, and is currently working on an MA in TESOL. Who knows….maybe she’ll teach students like this in China someday.
“Silent Night” is probably the most loved of all Christmas carols in China, at least among those who know Christmas carols. In this society, “sweet” music tends to be favored by the masses and “Silent Night” is definitely in the “sweet” music category.
In Chinese, it is called Ping An Ye (Peaceful and Calm Night). Somehow, in the past few years, Christmas Eve has come to be known as “The Silent Night.” Ping An Ye.
I first heard Christmas Eve itself referred to as the Silent Night back in 1997 when my sister and her family were spending Christmas with me in Changchun. At that time, Christmas was just beginning to seep into the consciousness of urban Chinese. A few stores sold trees, there were Santas here and there, but that was about it. I had taken my three teenage nieces to a local beauty parlor for a hair wash/massage — one of the cultural experiences on the list for them.
So there we were, on Christmas Eve in China’s Northeast, getting our hair washed. The girls loved it, and the workers in the beauty parlor were thrilled to have three gorgeous foreign girls to ‘work on.’ We chatted about lots of things, then one worker suddenly said, “Hey it’s the Silent Night! What do you usually do in America on the Silent Night?” We explained to them that it was normally a quiet night (ping-an, in fact), a time when family and friends are home together. I assured them that going out to get our hair washed was definitely not an American Christmas Eve custom.
Fast forward to 2001….much has changed in China since that Christmas in1997. Where once Christmas was barely heard of, it has now become a grand consumer festival. The evidence is everywhere. Enough Santas to sink a ship. Sitting in MacDonald’s listening to The Chipmunks sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Christmas Carols — religious and secular — blaring from all the shops. Sheng Dan Jie — The Holy Birth Festival — is in. It’s hip. It’s cool. And it’s culmination is Christmas Eve — Ping An Ye — the Silent Night.
Only Christmas in urban China has become a party night — a night to go out to eat, to shop, to be with your ‘significant other.’ Even Schlotzky’s Deli had a special romantic meal for two, complete with goblets of wine. St. Nicholas meets St. Valentine.
I was out with a colleage on Christmas Eve, trying to get to a church service. As we sat in a traffic jam, my friend told me of a conversation she’d had with a student the week before. They were discussing Chritmas and its rising popularity in China. Like us, the student was puzzled. “Why is China doing this,” he wondered. “We have our own festivals and holidays.” Admittedly, since we were stuck in the mother of all traffic jams on the 2nd Ring Road, we shared that sentiment.
One thing we were sure of, however, was that in modern China, Christmas Eve is anything but ping an.
I realize that Christmas was almost two weeks ago, but I have a little Christmas story anyway. A few years back, we started a new Christmas tradition at Gracewood Cottage. After putting together a traditional Thanksgiving dinner cooked at home, we decided to order a Sheik’s Platter from The Holy Land Deli and Bakery, one of our favorite restaurants here in the Twin Cities. We figured that it was the height of appropriateness to celebrate the birth of Jesus by eating food from land if His birth.
A week or so before Christmas my mom and I were visiting with some locals who were (as most people around here are) of Swedish descent. The conversation invariably turned to the topic of preparations for a traditional Swedish Christmas dinner. There was talk of meatballs, lefsa, lutefisk, and bread pudding. Someone turned to my mom and asked her what traditional food she was preparing for Christmas dinner.
When she responded that her Christmas dinner would be kebabs and rice from a local Middle Eastern bakery, the horrified look on their faces was the same as it would have been if she had jumped onto the table and started doing The Hokey-pokey!
Never mind. We had a fantastic Middle Eastern Christmas feast!
“Children are celebrating Christmas. As parents we have to buy gifts for them so they won’t feel neglected.” So says Qian Liu, who is buying Holy Apples for her son from a street stall in Beijing.Only an estimated 2% of China’s population are practising Christians so, for people such as Ms Liu, there are no religious reasons whatsoever for celebrating Christmas. Yet in recent years, there has been an increased focus on Christmas in China, particularly among young people who regard it as an important and fashionable day to celebrate. “We simply just want to have some fun on this day,” explains Sai Wang, who works for an IT company in Beijing. “Western holidays are more trendy for young people. There is no other sophisticated reason at all,” he adds.
As they say, read the whole thing….
And Christmas in Minnesota this year can best be summed up this way: LET It SNOW, LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW!