A Chinese Christmas story

Dr. Gary Sigley, Associate Professor of Asian Studies, University of Western Australia


The object of this chapter is to tell a Chinese Christmas story. Christmas

iconography in the shape of the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, reindeer, and tinsel

is becoming increasingly visible in China, particularly in urban areas. Where

once such displays were restricted to large hotels that catered to foreigners, and

foreign student dormitories on Chinese university and college campuses, the

iconography of Christmas has now found its way into department stores,

restaurants, nightclubs, and even small “mom and pop” enterprises. Christmas

has become an increasingly important commercial event in the cycles of

consumption that now characterize China’s consumer economy. The Chinese

Christmas story that I wish to tell here attempts to place this phenomenon in

the broader context of China’s unfolding social transformation in a way that

highlights the complexity and interconnectivity of political, economic, and

cultural domains and discourses in contemporary China.

Does the spread of Christmas mean that Christianity is gaining ground in

China? According to official government figures, the number of Christians in

China is only equivalent to approximately one percent of the population. Other

estimates, which include underground churches that do not figure in official

statistics, put the size of the Christian community at ten percent. However, even

if we take the larger figure, this does not explain the dramatic pace, expansion,

and sheer visibility of Christmas in China over the last several years. Put simply,

the majority of persons taking part in Christmas festivities in China are not

Christian. Therefore, rather than viewing it through the grid of religion, we

should read Christmas in China as a manifestation of China’s increasing

integration into a global consumer economy that will have far-reaching political,

economic, and cultural implications.

Since the beginning of economic and social reform in 1978, the Chinese

party-state has actively encouraged the development of a consumer society. Deng

Xiaoping argued that, in order for socialism to have continued relevance in

China, it had to deliver sustained material benefits to ordinary people. The

primary goal is to resolve the “food and clothing problem” (wenbao wenti). This

has by and large been achieved for many people in urban China, and some rural

areas, particularly along the eastern seaboard. In these locales, the task has

become one of satisfying, and indeed creating, demand for consumer products.

As incomes have risen in these regions, a consumer and leisure economy has

also emerged. The focus on production that was a hallmark of Maoist socialism

has now been supplemented by an emphasis on consumption.

The party-state has taken the visibility of consumption and leisure, which a

visit to a bustling metropolis like Shanghai will confirm, as vindication that the

reform process is reaping benefits for Chinese citizen-consumers. However, the

dazzling display of consumer goods and leisure lifestyles obscures the flipside

of consumption: not all subjects in the People’s Republic qualify as “citizenconsumers.”

In the factories of Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces, migrant

workers toil to make much of the consumer products that will grace the display

panels of department stores and shopping precincts not just in China but in

many other sites around the globe. For many of the migrant workers who come

from poor rural communities, full participation in the consumer society lies out

of reach; they cannot fully share the fruits of their own labor.

The Christmas story that I wish to tell here centers on this duality of

consumption and production. The study of Christmas in contemporary China

affords us an excellent opportunity to examine the complexity of globalization

in a way that cuts across and highlights the interconnectivity of political,

economic, and cultural domains. As a political issue, Christmas in China,

although extremely commercialized and secular, cannot be completely

disassociated from the Christian religion. The Communist Party of China has

always had an uneasy relationship with religion. Christianity is particularly

problematic insofar as it is viewed as closely tied to the penetration of Western

imperialism and colonialism throughout the modern era. Christmas is also

problematic because its sheer visibility in the urban landscape simply reinforces

the fact that the monopoly the party-state once had over public space has long

since eroded; it must now share the streetscape with blatant commercial

interests. In many cases, the party-state has happily reconciled itself to this

situation as it shifts its emphasis from Marxist ideology to a combination of

nationalism and “bread and circuses.” The phenomenon of Christmas, however,

reinforces that this process also contains challenges and pitfalls, especially as

nationalism takes on exclusive cultural forms that look upon foreign influences

as a threat to a core cultural identity. There is, therefore, an uneasy political

alliance between the ever-changing ideology of the party-state and the further

penetration of global capitalism in which the symbolics of Christmas represent

a significant ideological fault line.

As an economic phenomenon, Christmas tells the tale of China’s rapid

economic growth and increasing integration with the global consumer economy.

A semi-autonomous sphere of economic activity has emerged that abides by

commercial interests that work through the mechanisms of the market. The

consumer economy sponsored by the party-state has produced particular

moments of mass consumption, notably during the traditional Chinese New Year

(Spring Festival) and the officially designated “golden weeks” of tourism and

leisure.1 In this connection, Christmas has emerged as a potential new “golden

week” in its own right, as commercial enterprises attempt to further stimulate

the desires of citizen-consumers, especially those who have disposable income,

for more consumption and leisure. For instance, according to the National

Bureau of Statistics, in December 2002, retail sales rose eighteen percent from

November to reach ¥440.4 billion. It thus comes as no surprise that the study

of Christmas within China has been pioneered not so much by academics or

government departments but by market research firms seeking to both

understand and shape consumer behavior. As Arif Dirlik (2001, 15) notes,

advertising and marketing companies have the Chinese consumer under close

scrutiny, extracting a detailed knowledge of habits, patterns and tastes. Alongside

the emergence of other “Western festivals” such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s

Day, Christmas is thus perhaps one of the first instances of socially engineered

mass consumption that does not bear the mark of official party-state sponsorship.

Instead, the appearance of these global “foreign festivals” (yangjie) indicates that

the Chinese consumer economy has begun to integrate itself with the

consumption cycles of global capitalism.

Finally, as a cultural phenomenon, Christmas in China is an excellent case

study of the tensions between the discourses of cultural nationalism and

globalization as westernization.2 At this point, it should be noted that “culture”

in this instance is understood not as a fixed and timeless entity but a series of

practices, signs, and concepts that form part of the complex terrain of an always

contested national cultural identity. The celebration and visibility of Christmas

has attracted widespread media and public attention. There are those who

lament that Christmas is a form of cultural colonialism undermining traditional

Chinese festivals, especially Spring Festival. For instance, one commentator

describes the growing popularity of Christmas as akin to the rising fortune of a

concubine” that is about to become a “wife” proper, the wife that is to be

displaced in this instance being Spring Festival (Yang Min 2003). The

conservative cultural nationalism that has come to characterize the ideology of

the party-state, and indeed a large section of the cultural and intellectual élite,

during the 1990s, has undertaken a major volte-face when it comes to traditional

Chinese culture. Whereas Maoist socialism called for the “destruction of the four

olds” (dapo sijiu), during the reform period, the party-state has “rediscovered”

and “reinvented” cultural traditions as a means of bolstering national unity and

providing an alternative value basis that supports the paramount concern with

social stability” (shehui wending) (see Bakken 2000). In this case, Christmas is

seen as a foreign intrusion promoting a value system of hedonism and selfish

individual gratification at odds with that project by the party-state and

conservative cultural élite.

Others, by contrast, hold that Christmas is simply part and parcel of

globalization and internationalization. They argue that, as China “gets on track

with the rest of the world” (yu quanqiu jiegui) and Chinese cities become

increasingly cosmopolitan, it is only right that Christmas, the “global festival,”

should make an appearance. Alongside international events such as exhibitions,

sporting events, and cultural festivals, Christmas is seen by some, even among

some urban officials,3 as a necessary element of modern urban life, without

which a city cannot really claim to be truly cosmopolitan. From this perspective,

Christmas, especially in its non-religious form, is simply another item of choice

in the consumer market. Whether viewed through the grid of

cosmopolitanization” in which cultural differences dissipate over time, or the

clash of civilizations” in which the differences become more intense, it is clear

that Christmas as a cultural phenomenon has become a salutary example of the

position “culture” has taken in contemporary China in debates over national

identity and value systems.

However, as I have already alluded to, behind these political, economic, and

cultural dimensions lies another China. Firstly, it is misleading to assume that

the political, economic, and cultural dimensions represented here are unrelated.

On the contrary, they are symbiotically interconnected in multifarious ways. The

phenomenon of Christmas clearly highlights this interconnectivity insofar it is

at once political, economic, and cultural. The story of Christmas in

contemporary China is made up of a number of competing voices and subject

positions, some of which are no doubt louder than others, but as we shall see

they do not neatly fit the “West/non-West” divide. As Shi-xu (2005, 3–4) suggests,

the study of discourse in non-Western contexts must pay sufficient critical

attention to the dominant position of Western discourse analysis in the general

way in which discourse studies have been carried out since its inception. Shixu’s

call for a multicultural approach to discourse studies, like Ien Ang and Jon

Stratton’s (1996) call for a “critical transnational cultural studies,” places

emphasis on challenging the discursive domination of the West by shifting our

attention to the existence of a plurality of cultural discourses. This chapter

wholeheartedly concurs with this approach. However, it is also wary to avoid the

pitfall of simply reworking existing binaries that equates cultural discourse as

national discourse. Cultural discourse can no longer be reduced to simple

national forms, since, in this era of global capitalism, a consumer culture with

global characteristics has made its mark transnationally. At the same time,

cultural discourse within nations is also fractured along the lines of those people

who are included or excluded from this celebration of global consumerism.

Secondly, if cultural citizenship is measured by participation in the

consumer economy in which the older “Confucian” notion of “having culture”

(you wenhua) in the refined and aesthetic sense of the term has been grafted

onto the ability to consume in which “culture” is a product purchased in the

cultural market” (wenhua shichang) (and thus the sign of being cultured is

defined not so much by the level of education but by the amount of purchasing

power), then the culturally dispossessed are those at the bottom of the consumer

food chain. These subjects can be divided into two major groups. There are

those who make up the production side of the consumption equation. It is

through their labor that the consumer products are made available. In this

regard, and as I discuss further below, we can confidently say that Christmas is

made in China.” The other group consists of those who fall completely outside

of the “consumption/production” equation. These subjects are those who have

neither the purchasing nor the labor power to take part in the consumer

economy. In the neoliberal celebration of the global consumer economy, these

are the forgotten people who eke out an existence in the “informal economy”

(or what in Chinese Marxist parlance is known as the “natural economy”) (see

Gibson-Graham 1996). Many of these people live in the poorest and remotest

regions of China, and a significant proportion are made up of members of

China’s “minority nationalities” (shaoshu minzu) (see Schein 2001). Through a

study of Christmas in China, I hope to unite these disparate groups into a single

moment that will shed some light on the situatedness of cultural citizenship and

the citizen-consumer in contemporary China and the interconnectivity of

political, economic and cultural domains and discourses. Now on with the story

Christmas among the Ha’ni

This Christmas story begins in December 2002, when I had the good fortune

to travel to the town of Lüchun, a county seat in Honghe Prefecture, Yunnan

Province. The population of the county primarily consists of members of the

Ha’ni nationality. In comparison to other places in Yunnan, such as Dali, Lijiang,

and Xishuangbanna, the county is relatively “underdeveloped,” although there

are plans to open the region to mass tourism in the near future.4 As such, there

are no “visible” signs of “globalization as Westernization.” That is, there is no

Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, or other iconic symbol of westernization (or

Americanization). For someone whose life experience has been significantly

shaped by Western (that is, Australian) culture, I looked forward to the

opportunity to experience a “non-Christmas” Other. Given that, even in

Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, Christmas would be hard to avoid,

the visit to Lüchun was a golden opportunity for me to indulge in the fantasy

of what it must be like to exist in a community as yet untouched by Christmas consumerism. However, unbeknown to me, my host had organized a special

surprise Christmas party. Thus, on Christmas Eve, members of the local cultural

troupe entertained the guests with a number of local Ha’ni folk songs and

dances, all of which took place around a massive Christmas tree.5

This special event led me to ponder how long it would be before Christmas

and, by extension, other visible aspects of Westernization, made its debut among

the Ha’ni.6 Thus in the following days, when I had the opportunity to speak to

members of the local Ha’ni cultural élite, both in organized seminars and in

private conversation, I was curious to understand how they understood

globalization.” This curiosity was equally shared by my Ha’ni interlocutors.

However, during the course of conversation, the terminology invariably shifted

from “globalization” (quanqiuhua) to “sinicization” (hanhua). To the Ha’ni

cultural élite, “globalization” was a vague concept that needed some form of

explanation to make it meaningful. As I noted above, there are no “visible” signs,

at least not at the time of writing, of “globalization as Westernization” in Lüchun.

Instead, cultural change is measured by “sinicization,” by which I mean the

cultural influence of Han Chinese culture.7 The signs of modern Han Chinese

culture in architecture, clothing, and popular culture (e.g., karaoke) were much

more palpable. It therefore made more sense to talk about globalization relative

to “sinicization” (hanhua) rather than to “westernization” (xihua).

This cultural encounter reminded me that “globalization” for many people

is at once an abstract concept and a lived experience. The way in which

globalization is understood, and the significance of aspects of globalization such

as Christmas, will depend on the geographical and cultural location of the

observer. As we shall see below, the discussion of Christmas within the

mainstream Chinese media locates Christmas within a dichotomy of “Chinese”

versus “Western” culture in which “Chinese culture” (zhongguo wenhua) stands

for “Han Chinese culture” (hanzu wenhua). In so doing, the positionality of non-

Han Chinese cultural groups, such as the Ha’ni, are rendered silent, as they do

not figure within this dichotomy of “Chinese” and “Western”; their specifically

cultural discourse has been rendered marginalized and excluded. There is,

however, another way in which such groups are made invisible. Even if the plan

of mass tourism is realized in Lüchun, it is unlikely that many of the Ha’ni who

live in the rugged mountain terrain that characterizes this part of Yunnan will

directly benefit in such a way that they become active members of the consumer

economy.8 Hence, to tell the story of Christmas in China that highlights the

interconnectivity of the political, economic, and cultural domains means we must

pay sufficient attention to the silences and gaps within the dominant discourse.

The experience of the Ha’ni as a marginal ethnic community forces us to

develop a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of globalization and

associated phenomena such as Christmas.

Christmas in Kunming

Thus concludes, for the moment, the part the Ha’ni have to play in this

Christmas story. I would now like to shift our attention to Kunming, where

Christmas, as in other Chinese cities, has become more prominent over the last

several years. Kunming is itself quite a multicultural city, approximately ten

percent of the population made up of ethnic minorities (which is about the

same proportion for China as a whole). Thus, in the sense that many different

peoples share a common environment, Kunming is a multicultural city. Kunming

is also cosmopolitan in the sense that it also has the visible signs of “globalization

as westernization.” Most of the major fast-food chains are now represented (e.g.,

McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut), as are the large foreign retail department stores

(e.g., Wal-Mart, Carrefour). Kunming is also a major transport hub for the mass

tourism that flows into Yunnan, and the city abounds in hotels, restaurants, and

nightclubs of every grade.9

However, in comparison to cities on China’s eastern seaboard, Kunming is

relatively “undeveloped.” Whereas the Ha’ni considered themselves “backward”

(luohou) compared to the Han Chinese, many Han Chinese who I spoke to in

Kunming regarded Kunming, and Yunnan more generally, as “backward” when

compared to the provinces and cities on China’s eastern seaboard. Hence, when

people in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou talk of “getting on track with the

rest of the world” (yu quanqiu jiegui), in Kunming this also implied “getting on

track with eastern China” (yu zhongguo dongbu jiegui). Many of the students I

interviewed, who were studying in the universities and colleges of Kunming and

who themselves came from outside of Yunnan, regarded Kunming’s relative

backwardness” as both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, they were

critical of the apparent “slackness” of Kunmingnese who didn’t have a strong

entrepreneurial spirit (for instance, many students complained that the shops

did not open until late in the morning). Yet on the other hand, they had great

praise for the “relaxed” pace of life and the high level of tolerance Kunmingnese

displayed towards outsiders.

In any case, even in this environment, Christmas has made itself very visible.

Most of the major department stores, retail centers, and hotels festoon

themselves with decorations in the lead-up to Christmas. There is little doubt

that the major hotels first brought Christmas to Kunming during the reform

era.10 However, these are places off limits to most urban Chinese. Instead, it is

the large foreign department stores and retail outlets that have “christened”

Chinese consumers in the ways of commercial Christmas.11 A number of students

informed me that they would visit Wal-Mart on Christmas Day, not so much to

consume but to enjoy the Christmas decorations and displays and the general

atmosphere of hustle and bustle.12 In order to compete with foreign retailers,

and no doubt just simply to tap into another potential “golden week,” many

Chinese-owned department stores in Kunming are also getting in on the act.

Christmas has now become so entrenched in the retail and leisure calendar that

even small shops, cafés, and restaurants feel the need to provide Christmas

atmospherics. Christmas is on the verge of becoming “internalized” and

normalized” as a natural part of the urban streetscape. When I asked several

small businesses why they put up Christmas decorations, the response was a

surprised, “Because Christmas is coming!” as if the answer should have been

self-evident and the question unnecessary in the first place.

As I noted earlier, a number of commentators in the general media have

observed that Christmas is becoming more important for some urban Chinese.

However, most commentators leave open the question of in what way it is

important to some Chinese urbanites. There are a few basic characteristics of

Christmas in Kunming, and by extension Christmas in China generally, that are

worth mentioning in this regard. Firstly, you don’t need to be Christian to

celebrate Christmas. The secular and commercial dimensions of modern

Christmas are no doubt important features in Western societies, but they seem

even more pronounced in China. There is, for instance, no critique of Christmas

from religious institutions in China, at least not one that is carried widely in

the public media. By contrast, in many Western countries, Christian churches

have periodically attacked the commercialization of Christmas and the associated

iconography as paganistic and degrading to the central theme of the Nativity.13

Christmas in China can therefore be disassociated, although not completely,

from its Christian associations. Indeed, the form of commercialized Christmas

that many partake of is devoid of religious imagery and meaning altogether.

For many, it is this secularization and dethronement of Christmas as a religious

festival that makes its celebration acceptable to non-Christians, insofar as it

signifies that Christmas has shed its parochial and religious origins and become

a truly global and secular festival. For instance, an introduction to Christmas at

sina.com, one of China’s largest Web portals, declared, “Christmas has developed

from being a religious festival to a global popular festival (guojixing de dazhong

jieri)” (Anonymous 2003a).

Yet not only is it unnecessary to be Christian in order to enjoy Christmas;

one does not even need to know of its religious connotations in the first place.

Indeed, many people who “celebrate” Christmas are surprisingly ignorant of the

Christmas story. According to a survey conducted in 2002 by China Marketing,

ninety-six percent of urban Chinese residents knew of Christmas, thirty-three

percent said they had celebrated it in some fashion, sixty-six percent of young

people said they had exchanged gifts and held Christmas parties or picnics, but

only nine percent of respondents knew of the Christian associations of

Christmas, the so-called “story of Christmas.” According to an editorial in The

Economist (Anonymous 2003b), in 2001, a Beijing government survey found, “that

30 percent of the capital’s residents planned to celebrate Christmas. Of these

more than half said they did not know the religious origins of the festival and

less than 3 percent said they wanted to mark Christmas for religious reasons.”

Secondly, Christmas in China is not a family affair. Instead, it is generally

celebrated among friends, with an emphasis on the individual sense of pleasure.

In this connection, as is the case in Japan, Christmas has been described as a

democratic festival” insofar as it implies freedom to partake in a way of

individual choice and avoid the obligations that are a crucial part of more

traditional festivals. By contrast, Spring Festival remains the central festival of

the family in much of China, and that is not likely to change any time soon.

However, a number of respondents stated that Spring Festival was a bit of a

drag” and not as exciting and enjoyable as Christmas. Celebrating Spring

Festival meant fulfilling one’s familial and social (i.e., workplace related) duties.

Christmas, by contrast, has no such obligations.

Thirdly, and in relation to the second characteristic, the most active and

boisterous time for Christmas celebration is Christmas Eve and not Christmas

Day. In many Western countries, such as Australia, Christmas Eve is generally a

very quiet affair, as the vast majority of stores, restaurants, cafés and nightclubs

are closed and people tend to stay at home. However, in Kunming and other

Chinese cities, Christmas Eve is a major night of consumption, when nightclubs,

hotels, restaurants, and so on, hold Christmas parties (as Christmas is not a statedesignated

holiday, Christmas Day is business as usual for most people). On

Christmas Eve 2003, the major public pedestrian shopping mall in Kunming

was packed with people enjoying the department store displays and pyrotechnics

that were provided. Indeed, when asked how they would celebrate Christmas,

many students I interviewed responded with specific acts of consumption which,

depending on budgets, included shopping, travel, nightclubbing, and going to

the cinema. Some even declared that they would celebrate Christmas by having

a romantic candlelit dinner with their partner, which has led some to refer to

Christmas as the “second Valentine’s Day.”

Fourthly, people can manipulate Christmas iconography in ways unthinkable

in Western contexts. For instance, one article promoted the Christmas tree as a

suitable present. From an Australian perspective this is rather odd, as most

families and households would be expected to erect the Christmas tree several

days before Christmas Day. The gifts are then placed around the Christmas tree.

It is, therefore, inconceivable that the Christmas tree be considered as a suitable

gift. However, in China, the citizen-consumer needs to be educated in the ways

of the commercialized Christmas festival, which includes inculcating the practice

of the Christmas tree.14 But given that some consumers may consider it wasteful

to purchase an item that is only to be used for a brief period each year, the

promotional article suggests, “Not only is the giving of a ‘Christmas Tree’ a good

gift that is richly endowed with festive feeling, but even after the festival has

past it can give the home a feeling that spring is in the air” (Chuncheng Wanbao

2002). The Christmas tree can thus become a more permanent feature of the

home and have a life longer than the Christmas Season itself. Indeed, in some

restaurants and bars, Christmas iconography, particularly that of Santa Claus,

often remains on display many months after the conclusion of Christmas itself.15

As I noted earlier, the rise of Christmas has accompanied perceptions of

the relative decline (danhua) of Spring Festival.16 Ironically, the same

commercial and material forces that drive consumer Christmas are also

impacting on Spring Festival to such an extent that some lament that the

traditional values which are seen to be embodied in Spring Festival and which

have become important parts of official neoconservative ideology in the reform

period are under threat. Of particular concern is the perceived decline in family

values, but one in which Christmas is not seen as filling the gap. The perceived

decline of Spring Festival in the wake of imported “foreign festivals” such as

Christmas can be read as a statement on the causal relations between

globalization and cultural change. Spring Festival is an iconic cultural practice

that is quintessentially Han Chinese, a festival that focuses on family and

tradition and, unlike Christmas, is endorsed and promoted by the party-state.

The erosion of Spring Festival is a visible sign of cultural transformation insofar

as its once uncontested status is simply no longer uncontested; in both meaning

and consumption, it must compete with other festivals. For many young people

I interviewed in Kunming, Christmas is regarded as “foreign,” “fashionable,” and

modern,” while Spring Festival is “Chinese,” “conservative,” and “traditional.”

The visible presence of Christmas is thus a challenge to Spring Festival and Han

cultural nationalism; it is emblematic of the other “intrusions” of the foreign

into China in the form of fast food, fashion, and so forth. There is also a concern

that physical “space” will be overwhelmed by the foreign. There is thus a sense

of loss of control over mainstream Chinese identity, particularly with regards to

the capacity for both individual and nation to control and shape identity.

Christmas made in China: The duality of production and consumption

The kind of packaged Christmas we have been discussing here is a heterogenous

assemblage of many different practices and icons that, during the course of the

nineteenth century, became relatively stable and began to spread to many

different locations over the following century. In its most commercial and wellknown

form, the global Christmas that emerges in the twentieth century,

particularly after WWII, is made in the United States (US). During this period,

China was, for several decades after 1949, cut off from developments in global

capitalism and its attendant consumer economy. It goes without saying that

Christmas during this time was a virtual non-entity in China.

However, as a result of the policies of reform and openness post-1978,

Christmas has begun to make a comeback. This paper has already noted in some

detail the extent to which Christmas has emerged in recent years as a part of

the cycles of consumption. Yet before Christmas was ever a significant act of

consumption in China, it was first and foremost a site of production. The modern version of commercialized Christmas may have been invented (or

reinvented to be precise) in the US, but it would be fair to say that, as an act of

mass material production, Christmas is “made in China.” According to the

Customs Bureau of China, in 2002, China exported more than US$1.4 billion

worth of Christmas-related products, over half of which made their way to the

US. The figures of the US Census Bureau reveal that China accounted for

seventy-nine percent of the $1.4 billion worth of Christmas decorations imported

into the US during the first ten months of 1999.

This is the flipside to the Christmas as consumption story and celebration

of “consumer democracy.” The ongoing process of social stratification that is

unfolding in China is dividing the society into a hierarchy of consumption made

up of those who consume, those who produce for those who consume, and those

most marginalized who can only watch others consume from the sidelines. Those

in the consumer category are a motley crew of high- and low-level consumers.

For high-level consumers, Christmas is another opportunity to use their

disposable income in acts of conspicuous and extravagant consumption. For lowlevel

consumers, such as college students, the emphasis is on how even minimal

consumption allows one to participate in the “democracy of consumption.”

However, for those like the Ha’ni, or the Miao, described by Schein (2001), in

more remote and poorer regions, the desire to be a consumer is very real but

in many ways remains unachievable; the opportunity to consume enjoyed by

many in an increasingly affluent urban China remains out of reach. In the

consumer-driven media, many, like the Ha’ni, are not even hailed as citizenconsumers

and therefore have no rights of participation. As Pun Ngai (2003,

474, 476) notes:

The mass media, especially television programming and newspaper

headlines, all target their audiences as consumers. The intention is to

stimulate the desiring machine of consumption and simultaneously

provide a process of identification for members of the newly emerging

middle class to position themselves as “modern” and “sophisticated”

citizen-consumers … However, not everyone can be a consumer.

As China becomes increasingly integrated into global capitalism, it should come

as no surprise that the citizen-consumer as consumer, located primarily in urban

areas and in particular in greater numbers on the eastern seaboard, has begun

to take part in the great global waves of consumption such as Christmas. It is

this portion of the population that is “getting on track with the world” in

consumption, heralding the emergence of a global middle class, who, rather

than “clashing,” share a common “civilization of consumption.” But there are a

great many more in the factories and in mountainous regions for whom cultural

citizenship in the form of the citizen-consumer is clearly out of reach. The effects

of global capitalism and structural transformation have different effects on

different groups of people. It is clear that discussion of these effects that privileges the nation as the privileged space of cultural resistance to

westernization” runs the risk of overlooking the significance of the transnational

relations that have now emerged and link different populations and

communities within the nation to the global economy in distinct ways. In this

regard, it no longer makes sense to hold to a rigid “West/East” divide where

never the twain shall meet. As Arjun Appadurai (1990, 6) notes, “the global

cultural economy has to be seen as a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order,

which cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periperhy

models (even those which might account for multiple centers and peripheries).”


Christmas is a thus good example of how China is now integrated into global

cycles of production and consumption. It is also a salutary case study of how

the political, economic, and cultural domains within China overlap and

interconnect. As this chapter has demonstrated, Christmas in China is an

economic phenomenon that manifests itself as both a part of the emerging

consumer economy and as an integral site of material production. Christmas is

also intensely political, insofar as it cuts to the core of longstanding concerns

in China over the status of culture as a marker of national identity. In this

connection, I have argued here that the way in which the dominant division

between “Chinese” and “Western” culture is established within mainstream

Chinese discourse excludes minority cultures that do not readily conform to

the pattern of “Han Chinese culture.” If we shift our gaze to the interior of China

we are constantly reminded that participation in “consumer democracy” is itself

based on a material exclusion that privileges those with cultural and material

capital. Any analysis of cultural phenomenon in China needs to bear this in mind

if it is to tell a story worthy of critical attention. The Christmas story I have

presented here attempts to do just that, not by reducing the narrative to the

mainstream story that everyone knows (that is, the celebration of a progressive

consumer individualism), but by unapologetically complicating the story so as

to jar the reader into cognition of a set of much broader and more important

complexities that are crying out for further analysis and storytelling.


1. The “golden weeks” are the first week of May and the first week of October.

2. For a study of consumer nationalism in China as a form of assertive cultural

nationalism in the retail product sector, see Hooper (2000).

3. In a sign that the control of the party-state in the ideological domain has

in some cases weakened, in 2001, the Chinese postal service issued stamped

postcards bearing the image of a Chinese-style Santa.

4. The county is an officially designated “poor county” (pinkun xian).

5. There is actually a rather interesting connection here between the Christmas

tree and the belief system of the Ha’ni. The Ha’ni practice a form of

animism in which certain trees are designated as sacred. No doubt the

origins of the Christmas tree are similar. Thus in some ways, the Ha’ni may

be closer to the “spirit of Christmas,” especially with regards to the symbolics

of the Christmas tree, than many non-Ha’ni who celebrate Christmas. This

thus brings to our attention the potential possibility of reappropriation of

Christmas symbols and practices in ways that draw on the complex syncretic

history of Christmas itself as a “pagan,” “Christian,” and “consumer” festival

and combines them with elements of local knowledge.

6. As to whether Christmas is celebrated among the minority of Ha’ni who

are Christian, I am at this stage uncertain.

7. The Han Chinese make up approximately ninety-two percent of China’s

total population and thus constitute the dominant political, economic, and

cultural force.

8. These communities are also rendered invisible by sheer geographical


9. Although as more direct flights are made available from cities on the eastern

seaboard to tourist destinations such as Lijiang and Jinghong, the number

of tourists passing through Kunming will likely decline.

10. Of course, Christmas celebrations also take place in the officially sponsored

churches, but given that these are relatively few in number and that they

are not places which ordinary people visit daily, they do not constitute a

major component of the visibility of Christmas in the urban landscape.

11. A similar process of induction by large department stores and retailers has

been noted in the Japanese context. For instance, see Creighton (1991) and

Plath (1963). It is also worthwhile noting that the major department stores

and retail centers are very active in the promotion of traditional Chinese


12. Of course, this use of the luxury shopping floor as a promenade is not

limited to Christmas but is a much more general feature of what Schein

(2001, 285) refers to as an “imagined cosmopolitanism” and “vicarious


13. For instance, see Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (in Miller ed. 1993, 38–9) graphic

description of the “execution of Father Christmas” by hanging and

incineration at the Dijon Cathedral in 1951.

14. Indeed, many popular Chinese Web portals and magazines provide

extensive introductions into practices associated with Christmas.

15. James Farrer (2003, 313), in his work on youth sexuality in Shanghai, notes

in passing that in nightlife venues, “Santa Claus has become a kind of patron

saint of cheap nightlife, a romantic Western version of the Chinese God of

Fortune who decorates the walls of a similar class of local restaurants.”

16. I say “relative decline” here because, by all measures, Spring Festival is by

far a greater moment of material consumption than is Christmas.


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