When Chinese Christians adapt Lunar New Year
Many Catholic parishes insist that the practice of following Chinese culture is part of their missionary duty.
Actor Gareth Morrison poses as Scottish poet Robert Burns in front of Chinese lanterns at St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, on Jan. 22, prior to the celebration of Burns Night on Jan. 25, which coincides with the Chinese Lunar New Year, an alignment of dates which will not happen again for another 76 years. (Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP)
Chinese-speaking people across the world are busy preparing to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which this year falls on Jan. 25. The festival marks the beginning of the Year of the Rat. Chinese Christians, of course, are part of the celebrations, composing and adapting the parallel sentences of greetings typical of the festival.
The expression "parallel sentences" needs a bit of explanation. Chinese alphabets allow the flexibility of writing sentences from top to bottom or left to right. During the Lunar New Year, the Chinese have a tradition of writing two-sentence greetings on two strips of paper, placed vertically on either side of a statue, picture or door. These couplets of greetings came to be known as parallel sentences.
Christians adapt these greetings and also compose their own. Sometimes they may vary among different denominations. In order to understand these sentences, we must return to the context in which these sentences are written. These greetings of four to 10 characters evoke a story, an affirmation of wisdom, or a blessing, corresponding to each other. Concise and poetic, their form and content are meant to reflect a certain beauty. Each sentence sounds like a maxim that highlights an idea; it translates and transports them. The parallel sentences are found in all regions and religious groups of the Chinese world.
The sentences are composed, printed and sold extensively during the Chinese New Year. Every household, as part of the preparation, makes it a point to clean the house, clean old greetings or place new ones. The new set can come from a friend who likes calligraphy, from some banks or can be bought from stationery stores. If the people in the house are elderly, the couplets will often opt for longevity wishes. But more often than not, they wish for prosperity and harmony.
Although the themes used are relatively limited, the number of sentences that can be composed is unlimited. Anyone can produce new ones. Besides, between the two parallel sentences that run vertically alongside doors, a significant “blessing” font often appears, topped by a four-character sentence that is placed horizontally on the lintel.
The whole greeting is usually visible from a distance and is written in gold or black on a red background. It frames and highlights the entrance door. For example, one can read sentences such as “Growing family, flourishing finance, peaceful household; blessed longevity possessing together a house full of honor.” Or “Happy New Year, good prospects, good bargain; more wealth, more joy, more luck” or “Growing family, prosperous business, peaceful home; wealth and luck, auspicious fortune, flowering resources.”
A dying practice in cities
The renewal of parallel sentences during New Year is typical of Chinese culture. However, many Chinese do not show interest in these ostentatious decorations, and without regret. There could be many reasons for this lack of interest, but some stand out.
The first is the change in social life and families. A traditional Chinese family housed one or more couples, often of several generations. But the bachelors who now populate Chinese cities are not keen to follow the tradition. The same is true of many young couples, who consider their home in cities as temporary.
The architectural typography of modern housing should be another reason. Traditionally, New Year’s greetings are set on the main entrance of the house, a high and beautiful door. The doors of people living in city apartments often open onto a narrow corridor frequented by a few neighbors. For many, it makes little sense to have a greeting on their entrance door.
Some others, not just young people, told me they found these sentences “ugly” and considered a reminder of what older people did in the countryside. Concerned about neatness and simplicity, many of them just avoid having these brightly colored papers, often poorly glued to their doors for the rest of the year.
Variations from place to place
In Hong Kong, parallel sentences are still present in some building corridors, although their frequency is decreasing. At a time when the Hong Kong population calls itself less and less “Chinese,” this practice is perceived as from another time.
Among Hong Kong Christians, practices vary. The overwhelming majority of Hong Kong Protestants do not use parallel sentences and consider that this tradition is no longer theirs. As for Catholics, many priests encourage it and distribute new small formats on which one can read, for example: “The family is filled with the love of the Lord; Society is filled with harmony."
For Christians living on the mainland, the situation is different. In the countryside of northern Fujian, for example, Catholics and Protestants hang sentences on their doorsteps. High and colorful, these sentences refer very explicitly to the Christian God. Religious motifs in them — crosses, grapes and doves — help to grasp the Christian nature of home. Catholics usually add an evocation of the Holy Family above the sentences.
Some Catholics also use “secular” sentences distributed by banks or bought from shops. In these cases, Catholics add a cross or the monogram “JHS” in the center of the door.
While Protestant pastors have no problem with such a practice, Catholics tend to encourage it. In Hong Kong, for example, many parishes insist that the practice of following Chinese culture is part of their Christian missionary duty.
Although rare, some political tensions may arise with parallel Christian sentences. For example, one church in a city that attracts many tourists had these sentences placed very high and conspicuous, explicitly mentioning the Christians’ God. Although they had been in place for three years, the authorities finally forced the parish to remove them, but not without protest.
The parallel sentences represent much more than just greeting couplets. Like any cultural product, they reflect the social construction and the values that society seeks to transmit and develop. As such, they are a living phenomenon and part of a complex and shifting set of relationships.
If Christians use these sentences, they are providing more support for the long journey of Christian faith in the vast Chinese world.
* Published by arrangement with Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Mission Society. Michel Chambon is a French researcher and academic who specializes in Chinese culture and traditions. This is an adapted version of what first appeared in Eglises d'Asie.