There may be no exact translation for “humbug” in Chinese, but in recent days, as popular fervor for the trappings of Western-style Christmas celebrations enveloped this officially atheist nation, the defenders of traditional Chinese culture have fought back with Scrooge-like zeal.
On Wednesday, university students in the central province of Hunan held an anti-Christmas pageant with banners declaring “Chinese should not celebrate foreign festivals.” Education officials in the coastal city of Wenzhou issued a decree banning the celebration of Christmas-themed events at schools.
Students at a university in northwestern China were forced to endure three hours of propaganda films, including one glorifying Confucius, according to the state media. Faculty members reportedly stood at the doors, making sure no one tried to sneak off to partake in illicit Christmas cheer.
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“Be good Chinese boys and girls, and oppose adulation of foreign festivals,” read one banner strung across the campus of the Modern College of Northwest University in Xi’an, home to the famed terra cotta warriors.
Although xenophobic rumblings against Christmas have emerged from time to time, the seasonal surge of anti-Santa activism this year suggests that the Communist Party’s continuing campaign against Western values, and what it sees as the culturally corrupting fare of Hollywood, is taking hold in unexpected ways.
Most alarming, Christian activists say, is the yearlong crackdown on church buildings in Wenzhou, a prosperous city in Zhejiang province sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem of China for its large number of congregations. The government has targeted as many as 400 churches across the province, Christian rights advocates say, demolishing many and removing crosses on structures they say violate local zoning rules. A provincial policy statement that emerged this year, however, suggests that the campaign is actually aimed at regulating “overly popular” religious activities.
According to Radio Free Asia, three people were wounded last week when more than 100 police officers and government workers forcibly removed a cross from a church in Hangzhou.
Christmas, nonetheless, has become big business in China, with retailers enjoying some of their highest sales in late December. Even if the holiday is largely devoid of its religious connotations, gift-giving among young Chinese is soaring. Nearly every office building, shopping mall and high-end apartment building in China features Christmas trees in the lobby and Yuletide decor on elevator doors.
At stores across the country, the familiar strains of “Jingle Bells” and “Feliz Navidad” have become unavoidable. On the popular Chinese social media app WeChat – where greetings of merry Christmas have become fashionable among friends – typing the word “Christmas” yields a blizzard of tiny spruce trees.
The city of Yiwu, a wholesale commodity hub not far from Shanghai, manufactures about 60 percent of the world’s stuffed reindeer, elfish figurines and colored string lights, according to the Yiwu Christmas Products Industry Association, which counts 600 factories among its members.
Although China’s growing love affair with Christmas tends to be a largely faithless dalliance, the number of Christian adherents has been soaring in recent years. According to some estimates, there are more than 100 million believers here, a figure that stands in marked contrast to the 85 million members of the Communist Party.
For many young Chinese, however, Christmas is simply a lighthearted diversion that has little to do with religion.
“Though it might seem a little bit shallow or consumer-oriented in China, people get great satisfaction on Christmas,” said Liu Xingyao, 22, a student at the Communication University of China in Beijing who is a practicing Christian. “They just believe the day is just an excuse to have some fun.”
But hard-line traditionalists and communist doctrinaires say the growing prevalence of Christmas is a tinsel-draped Trojan horse that aims to subvert traditional Chinese culture. At Modern College of Northwest University, the school that barred students from leaving campus on Christmas Eve, officials explained their opposition to the holiday in a microblog post run by the institution’s Communist Party Youth League.
”In recent years, more and more Chinese have started to attach importance to Western festivals,” according to the post. “In their eyes, the West is more developed than China, and they think that their holidays are more elegant than ours, even that Western festivals are very fashionable and China’s traditional festivals are old-fashioned.”
On Thursday, as photographs of anti-Christmas events circulated on Chinese social media, there was resistance that at times swamped the voices of Christmas opponents.
“If one day, Europeans, Americans and other East Asians were to take to the street and demonstrate and boycott the Chinese Lunar New Year, I’d like to see how Chinese nationalistic advocates feel then,” wrote one blogger, Wu Zhongzhan.
Another popular commentator, Yao Bo, said that those attacking Christmas would do well to focus on cultivating traditional Chinese culture.
“Respect for tradition is not about boycotting others, but staying true to yourself,” he wrote. “Tradition will never be revived by boycotting others. Boycott only makes it buffoonery.”