Yesterday on weixin, members of one of my livelier circles debated whether or not Christmas should be translated as “圣诞节 (shèng dàn jié )” or “耶诞节 (yē dàn jié )”. At stake in the debate is whether or not “Holy Birth Festival” — a literal translation of 圣诞节 — should refer to Jesus or to Confucius.
In Mandarin, 圣 (shèng) functions as both an adjective “holy” and also a noun “sage”. In contrast, 耶 (yē ) is a phonetic marker, appearing in Chinese expressions for Jesus (耶稣), Jehovah (耶和华), and the Book of Jeremiah (耶利米书). 耶 also appears in the transliterations of Yale, Jerusalem, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Lamentations. Advocates for putting the “耶稣” back in the translation for “Christmas” had two culturally relevent points. (1) historically, Chinese have used the character 耶 to designate words and institutions from the Judeo-Christian tradition; and (2) the Chinese sage was and remains Confucius. Consequently, they believe that the expression “holy birth festival”, which also means “the Sage’s birth festival” should designate Confucius’ birthday, September 28. The Center may or may not agree with those in the cultural right, after all they recently decided to move Teacher’s Festival from September 10 to September 28 in order to honor China’s original teacher.
The 圣 or 耶 debate is a contemporary example of intellectuals attempting to rectify names (正名), a quintessentially Confucian endeavor. Confucius explained that when we clearly perceive reality we call things by their proper names. It followed that by misusing names, we muddy the perceptual waters and make it difficult for people to understand reality. Importantly, for Confucius, moral relations infused reality. Consequently, to rectify names was in fact an effort to bring the world into harmony through proscribed relations. For the Confucians there was a great deal at stake in the rectification of names — moral certainty, harmonious society and the proper administration of punishments, i.e good government. Nevertheless, the difficulty of rectifying names, even translated names and even when one holds the cultural linguistic high ground, is that language does in fact spin out of control because each of us lives and uses and experiences words and names in divergent contexts and for different purposes.
So what’s at stake in the contemporary 圣 / 耶 debates?
In Shenzhen, Christmas is an international holiday, celebrated by non-Christians. Lovers and friends exchange gifts and eat together. The shopping malls offer all sorts of discounts and there is a general sense of happy consumption without the angst of family reunions. In fact, a Shenzhen Christmas has a particular demographic — high school and college students, as well as young white-collar workers. They still go to school and must go to work, but they use the day to celebrate themselves and their non-familial relationships. In other words, Christmas and its commodification have been appropriated to celebrate young modernity.
In contrast, the older generation emphasized the winter solstice (冬至), which was marked this past Sunday with sweet rice ball soup and noodles. In the north, they ate dumplings. The solstice was not marked by the level of Christmas consumption. Certainly, the Santa Clauses, tinsel and trees, candles and presents had nothing to do with the actual gatherings that took place around family tables.
Thought du jour: At stake in the 圣 / 耶 debate may be the extent to which commodity and youth cultures overlap in these globalizing times. Indeed, the recognizable Christmas traditions — gifts and trees and cookies and candles — didn’t actually come from the early Church, which maybe why they have so happily adopted in Shenzhen.