Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat but noodles are still being served and the locals seem less than concerned. However, this will, on Christmas Eve itself, not I am sure stop a mass of celebratory souls gathering down in the shadow of the Bell Tower in the centre of town. If it is a less impromptu event than previously it is because it is now an annual ritual of Chinese proportions.
For those who are unaware, the last few years have seen thousands of locals congregating on Christmas Eve upon the closed-off streets in the centre of the city, in a sort of silent ritual of consent and pseudo-celebration of our own seasonal pursuits. Families, friends and groups of the young just wander around the traffic-less streets with smiles on their faces and good cheer in the air, although they do so as if somewhat in search of a reason for their presence out on what is in fact a cold, late December night. There are no presents or cards shared, tinsel or mistletoe hanging, Hymns or Carols sung, egg nog or mulled wine consumed, let alone drunken kissing of random strangers, but never the less the masses gather. They do though manage to hoist aloft a pretty cool sky lantern or two (pictured above).
It seems to me that this now yearly routine is less a sign of a Chinese desire to grab hold of all that is golden in Western culture but more a chance to begin their own season of good cheer early: “Why not get in the spirit of celebration a few weeks before our own national holidays get going?” The locals may well ask in a rhetorical fashion. It surely gives the next few weeks of work a happier hue with the soon to be holidays brought into sharper focus.
That is at least how I see those Christmas Eve gatherings down on Xi’an’s North, East, South and West Streets, in the centre of town. If you are not doing much or you are out in the city already it is worth checking out, though perhaps more importantly it is worth bearing in mind as you will not be getting a bus or taxi anywhere near the city centre that night. We stumbled across it the year before last and ended up wandering with the masses from the Bell Tower to Xiao Zhai, a good few kilometers of late December night strolling, though of course a festive atmosphere pervaded the proceedings.
This time of year is a good time to be living in China, even if a dozen million rolls of bangers do eventually start to play havoc with your equilibrium. The Chinese have begun to tip a hat ever further towards our own celebrations and we can’t help but celebrate and enjoy the extended holidays that consume them. At the very least it gives opportunity for the old Laowai community to gather together, eat foods not often found on local menus and/or grab an extended overseas break.
I will continue this theme of non-religious observance of the religious with a couple of brief extracts from a few interesting recent commentaries elsewhere, as well as conclude with reference to an article that gives us an update, appropriately this time of year, about the progress of Christianity in this officially atheist land. But first, a note from James Fallows that I recently spotted over at The Atlantic:
‘Yes, I know, you could have a “serious” reaction on several levels to the news clip below. But as soon as I saw it I burst out laughing and thought, “That’s what I miss!” When living in China I would see things like this every day. It’s from a report in the Economist on Chinese-Saudi relations and tensions, including Chinese companies building a railroad in Saudi Arabia:
“Some firms would have been put off by the fact that non-Muslims are barred from working in Mecca, so China simply converted hundreds of railway workers to Islam.”
This is the same Chinese pragmatic ingenuity in finding “a” way to do things that I marveled at (and illustrated with photos) several years ago, here. I know what people have in mind when they warm up for big speeches about the “lack of creativity” caused by East Asian rote-schooling practices, and about the conflict between free academic discourse and China’s controlled media environment. But if you want to see ingenuity applied round the clock and on a huge scale, that’s another reason to head to China. (Thanks to reader JE.)’
And thanks to James Fallows. Now, with reference to a couple of other more serious aspects that exist within the religious fulcrum that sits not too far from the centre of contemporary Chinese society, I will continue this theme of non-religious observance of the religious by highlighting the Chinese State’s potential role in the selection of the 15th and next Dalai Lama. A role that may well be at odds with the traditional procedures used to identify the next reincarnate Lama. This extract was taken from a very interesting recent article, well worth a read, in The Guardian:
‘Reincarnate lamas, that is trulkus or “living buddhas”, are embodied institutions believed to be higher realised beings, who control their rebirths and are integral to Tibetan Buddhist culture. Once a reincarnate lama passes away, his soul is said to transfer itself to another body, usually that of a young boy. After a painstaking search governed by indications given by the previous body, rituals, cosmic signs, dreams and material factors, the new reincarnation is found and confirmed. The search party, as well as those who confirm the final selection, is often itself composed of reincarnate lamas and expected to have a close association with the embodied institution.’
One problem that may be found with the Chinese choice, although not a problem to be readily dwelt upon by the Chinese delegation I would imagine, orientates around the idea that the reincarnate Lama is seen as being reborn to continue the work of the previous embodiment. There is an obvious problem with this, with regard to the Chinese choice, given the present Dalai Lama’s position on issues of autonomy and independence. The 15th (Chinese) Dalai Lama, like those recent Chinese converts to Islam, might find a distinct lack of religious and spiritual conviction in his actions, or a lack of action to back up his spiritual conviction. And this, I think I am safe in saying, is not an insignificant problem for a Dalai Lama and not an issue to be taken lightly by Tibetan communities at home or abroad.
Finally, a religious reference that has particular relevance this time of year, and which is also not to be taken lightly, but that does in this instance seem to at least have a reasonable level of support from the State, that is the ever growing number of Christians in modern China. This isn’t a reference to Western evangelists, though their work here should not be underestimated, but to what some predict to be the nearly 100 million Chinese Christians in China today, a number greater than the Communist Party’s membership, which sits at about 75 million. This article over at NPR helps us connect a few of the dots:
‘Their [the Government’s] powers to govern religion do, however, seem to be waning. That seems clear in a rural village in eastern China, where young people are openly trying to gain converts in defiance of the laws prohibiting proselytizing in public places. They claim not to be aware of such laws. A crowd of villagers is listening, perched on tractors and low benches, their feet swimming in a sea of mud. In a fiery sermon, one young missionary makes oblique references to rampant materialism, corruption and the immense wealth gap between rich and poor. It’s a message that hits home in this hardscrabble part of China.’
I will refrain from any pithy conclusions, there will be more space for those from me in the future, this is after all a country that doesn’t seem to be standing still in anyway or probably sitting as pretty as it might seem, something this turn to religion may in part point towards. So, I will just finish by getting a jump on the celebrations ahead, by offering a few festive wishes of good will: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and don’t forget, you recent converts, Allahu Akbar. Happy Days!