Since December, Chinese netizens have been debating whether the country’s recent Christmas celebrations took on more distinctly “Chinese” characteristics than previous years. A popular online meme shared by Christmas well-wishers depicted Guan Yu — a war hero during the Three Kingdoms period in the third century who is known for his long beard — dressed up as Santa Claus. Images of Confucius, the Buddha, and other figures in similar getups soon followed.
Meanwhile, a Chinese opera titled “The Baby Jesus” went viral for how it reimagined the nativity. Forget the traditional story of a baby lying in a humble manger in Bethlehem; in this retelling, Christ was born in the balmy city of Zhumadian, in central China’s Henan province. His birth didn’t herald the pilgrimage of three wise men bearing frankincense, myrrh, and gold; instead, he was visited by three immortals bearing more practical, if less valuable, gifts: a box of apples, 2.5 kilograms of pork, and 5 kilograms of noodles.
Images of Guan Yu and Confucius dressed up like Santa Claus are meant to be humorous. “The Baby Jesus,” on the other hand, has deeper social and historical roots. About five years ago, I carried out fieldwork in Nanyang, another city in Henan, where I witnessed performances of a number of Chinese operas similar to “The Baby Jesus.” These experiences opened my eyes to the vibrant forms Christianity has taken at the local level. In a church in downtown Nanyang, I watched children in colorfully decorated costumes perform the Parable of the Ten Virgins from the Gospel of Matthew. In an abandoned factory on the city’s outskirts, I saw an old man act out the story of the Blind Man of Bethsaida. Elsewhere, I watched a eulogy to Jesus accompanied by Tibetan dance.
Henan has a long tradition of adapting the Christian doctrine to local customs. In one case, Lü Xiaomin, a Nanyang resident, composed more than 1,000 hymns, some of which were performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2012, and in that same year also featured in “Back to 1942,” a movie by the well-known Chinese director Feng Xiaogang.
As I shuttled back and forth between Henan’s various churches, I realized that Lü was by no means an anomaly. I often heard the story of an old woman nicknamed “Yang Ba,” which in the local dialect literally means “the sheep who leads the flock.” Yang Ba had never learned to read, yet was Lü’s equal in every way as a songwriter. Unfortunately, Yang Ba passed away many years before I began my research, but her songs live on in today’s musical performances throughout the province.
I also came across an astonishing number of anonymously composed local hymns, most of which date back to the 1980s. At that time, China was transitioning into the reform and opening-up period, and religion was experiencing a revival. Due to a shortage of Bibles and hymnals, locals composed religious songs with links to regional culture, which are easier for the largely undereducated Christian population to understand and recite. Most of these hymns are rooted in kuaiban, a local operatic style performed with wooden clappers.
The hymn “Carrying the Palanquin” is an example of the genre. Though the song is inspired by the Marriage Supper of the Lamb — a passage from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament — it transforms the apocalyptic subject matter into a jubilant scene: “Quick, make ready, all ye faithful, the second coming of our Lord draws near!” reads the first verse. “He leads the way, borne aloft by angels, accompanied by a vast heavenly army! The trumpets sound, didi dada, dada didi; they call for you and me!” The vocalized patter of “didi dada, dada didi” is common to folk songs across China and breathes life into the hymn’s stiff underlying theology.
Indeed, many local hymns are structured in the same way as folk songs. “The Song of Four Seasons,” for example, places Christian messages into a traditional song structure that begins one verse with the phrase “in the spring” and another verse with “in the autumn.” Similarly, “Twelve Months of Persuasion” counts off the months of the year from January to December — another trope of local folk singing.
Other hymns borrow popular melodies. “In the World, Only Jesus is Dear” is almost a direct reworking of a song nearly every Chinese knows: “In the World, Only Mama is Dear.” The song’s lyrics convey an almost cloying intimacy with God that many Western hymns do not capture. “In the world, only faith in God is good; those who have faith will be blessed,” it begins. “Seek refuge in His embrace, overflowing with happiness and good fortune.” Another hymn, “Stand Up,” has the same tune as the Chinese national anthem. Centered upon a love of country and faith, these hymns propagate historically Confucian virtues such as filial piety while encouraging the listener to adopt a Christian lifestyle.
The extent to which Christian hymns have been localized in Henan is admirable, but such flexible attitudes toward worship songs frequently draw accusations of heresy from ordinary Chinese and even some nonlocal Christians. Many people in China see Christianity as a more invasive foreign religion than, say, Buddhism, partially because they know more about the Protestant missionaries who came to China in the 19th century than they do about the faith’s deeper historical roots in the country.
Christianity first arrived in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when it assimilated into certain local belief systems, some of which were based on longstanding Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian philosophies. The Nestorian Stele, a stone tablet dating back to the late eighth century and unearthed in Xi’an, a city in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, describes the first century and a half of Christianity in China. Its design, which depicts a cross suspended over the Buddhist symbol of a lotus flower, offers a classic example of the syncretic power of Christianity in imperial China.
When Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary who lived in China during the 16th and 17th centuries, sought to translate the Latin word “Deus” into Chinese, he chose to borrow a word that had appeared in early Chinese texts: shangdi, or “Highest Emperor.” At other times, he used the more understandable tianzhu — literally, the “Lord of Heaven.” In the 19th century, Xi Shengmo, a well-known Chinese pastor from the northern province of Shanxi who composed Christian hymns rich in local influences, frequently collaborated with members of the Cambridge Seven, a group of young British missionaries — mostly Cambridge University graduates — who were active in China at that time.
After the Boxer Rebellion took place at the turn of the 20th century, Chinese Christians began to reflect on how best to balance their national and religious identities. Influenced by the May Fourth Movement of the late 1910s, Christian intellectuals became more institutionalized and sought to make their faith more “indigenous” to China. While their efforts helped Christianity to thrive, the Communist Party’s reunification of China in 1949 and subsequent launch of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement saw Chinese Christians bring their faith in line with state-sponsored goals of self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation — that is to say, relying on indigenous missionary work rather than that of foreigners.
Wherever Christianity takes root, it draws on local customs to survive. Since the 1970s, the faith has flourished in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, even while fewer and fewer people in the developed world identify as religious. Today, the archetypal 21st-century Christian is no longer white, middle-class, and European. They may hail from sub-Saharan Africa, go to church in one of South America’s sprawling cities, or even sing the dynamic, diverse, and quintessentially Chinese hymns written by Henan’s religious flock.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: An acrobat in a Santa Claus costume performs on a tightrope at a shopping mall in Luoyang, Henan province, Dec. 25, 2017. VCG)