by Patrick Nohrden
Note: This article was written in January 2006. Since then, world political and financial situations have changed.
I just came back from my third Christmas in China. I have been back from China now for about a year, after having lived there a year and a half teaching English. This trip, and two previous ones, was necessitated by the fact that the U.S. State Department still has not issued my wife a visa, a problem which I hope will be resolved soon.
The first notable event was my train ride form Beijing to Jinzhou in Liaoning Province, where my wife teaches math at a middle school. The train was half full of young soldiers on their way to their initial assignments in the far northeast of China, perhaps along the border with Russia and North Korea. Most of the troop movements in China occur in December. Many of the soldiers in their new uniforms were not more than fifteen years old. My wife told me that they probably changed their birth dates in order to join the army, and it is likely that their parents had enough influence or money for that to happen. It is not easy to join the army in China. Although it is the largest army in the world, it represents an extremely small fraction of the 1.4 billion people living in China, so competition to enlist is difficult. Poor students from rich or influential families will enter the army after completing the ninth grade because they cannot enter high school, which is reserved for only the best students.
One of the nice things about being in China in the few days leading up to Christmas is that shopping is a bit easier. Although there are many indications of Christmas throughout the shopping district, with displays of Christmas trees, Christmas music playing in the background, paper Santa’s in the windows, and a life-size mechanical Santa Claus singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” people are not Christmas shopping. It is not a gift-exchanging holiday in China. Yet the Chinese are curious enough about the holiday to participate in some way. The Christmas carols are usually “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” Occasionally you might hear a “religious” Christmas song, but it will be without the words. One can only guess why the largest supermarket in Jinzhou thinks that “The Yellow Rose of Texas” is a Christmas song.
Christmas is not a holiday in China. It is a workday and school day, and the holiday is treated more as a distraction than anything else, much as we treat Valentine’s Day or April Fool’s Day in the west. However, Christmas Eve has somehow evolved into a community event.
We decided to eat in a restaurant on Christmas Eve, and there was a new Chinese-style steakhouse in Jinzhou that I wanted to try only a few blocks from my wife’s home. Walking down the street to the restaurant I was amazed at the number of people that were out. Amongst the firework vendors were apple vendors, all selling apples specially wrapped in decorated cellophane with a bow. The restaurants were packed and the volume of fireworks was reminiscent of a war zone. Remarkably, none of the thousands of people on the street was hurt.
My wife explained that the apples were purchased as gifts and were exchanged among friends and relatives on Christmas Eve. That is because the Chinese people have come to consider Christmas Eve as “Peace Night.” The word for “apple” in Chinese is ping gua. The Chinese word for “peace” is he ping, or ping an (peace implying safety). Both “apple” and “peace” in Chinese include the root ping, hence the apples.
When we arrived at the restaurant, it was packed, and we were told that we would have at least a 40-minute wait, so we decided to take a walk while waiting. Jinzhou has two churches that are licensed by the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, both on the same block around the corner from the restaurant. Out of curiosity, we walked over to the churches. The first was the official Protestant church. A large crowd had gathered in front of the church, barred from entering by gates held closed with a chain and padlock.
Surrounding the gates were more policemen in one spot than I had ever before seen in China. They were there to help keep the people from entering the Church. Although the police will not let you take their photographs, they will not stop people from taking photos of other people, even if they happen to be standing near the policemen. So I left with a few photos.
We then walked a short distance down the block to the Chinese Catholic church (the Roman Catholic Church is banned in China), where we found the same situation. We squeezed through the crowd to the gate, only to find it likewise locked. I asked my wife to ask one of the persons at the gate why it was locked. The answer was typically Chinese, “Somebody lost the keys.” Right. We left the front of the church and went around to the side where we found a steel plate door with a peephole. This door had a small crowd, as well, but my wife said something to somebody on the other side of the door and it opened, allowing my wife, my stepdaughter, and me to enter the church. Once inside, I learned that the people outside the church could not come in because they were not registered with the government as “Catholic.”
We were ushered upstairs to the large sanctuary where a mass was in session. Although the church seemed crowded, and many poor people were lining the walls along the side if the sanctuary, the first three or four rows of pews were only half full. We were given a seat in the third row, while a speech was being given by a woman at the lectern. From time to time she would say a name, and a person sitting in one of the first three rows would stand and be applauded. I felt uneasy about sitting so near the front, especially since I did not know what was being said and because I was certainly no dignitary.
While in church, the choir in a loft began signing “Silent Night” in Chinese, and I felt an immediate comfort. As they sang, I looked around and counted each of the Stations of the Cross and viewed the various artworks of biblical subjects. It was almost like being in church at home, except that there were no candles, the church substituting small light bulbs instead. I could only think about the hundreds of people standing outside in the cold wanting to come in to see what Christmas was all about, and the numerous policemen keeping them away. I thought about the many Roman Catholic priests, protestant ministers, and Muslim clerics that are languishing in prisons throughout China or on house arrest. I thought about the freedoms we have in America. I thought about my right to write this article and say anything I want. More importantly, I thought about the apples that were being exchanged on that cold night in the streets of Jinzhou.