Celebrating Chinese Festivals

This interview with Rev. Wong Fong Yang appeared in the Kairos Publication "Celebration and Faith" (June 2004) 
Kairos Malaysia

Rev. Wong Fong Yang grew up in Bagan Serai, Perak-a small town steeped in Chinese traditions and culture. He has served seventeen years in the Presbyterian Church - thirteen years as Pastor of Gereja Grace, Batu Pahat and four years as Senior Pastor of City Discipleship Presbyterian Church in Subang Jaya. Rev. Wong retains much of his Chinese heritage especially the aspect of celebrating festivals. In this interview, he explains why he thinks Chinese Christians should not discard many aspects of their culture. He also suggests ways in which some of these festivals can be redeemed and celebrated.

NKW: Please share with us your background.

WFY: Like any Chinese with a Taoist-Confucianist-Buddhist background, I grew up celebrating the various festivals including Chinese New Year, Mooncake Festival and Dumpling Festival. I have many vivid memories of the celebrations. During Chinese New Year, we children would look forward to receiving angpow and we were forbidden to sweep the house on the first day. We also celebrated Chingay. It was always a thrill to watch the sixty-feet long dragon climb great heights in order to collect the angpow. 

I remember asking my aunts for the meaning of some of these practices. They often said, "It's something your ancestors passed on." So I was happy to go along with the festivals even though I didn't always understand their significance. It seemed to me that these were things that made up the Chinese culture and that defined the Chinese identity. Later on when I started going to school, I learnt more about the festivals from books.

NKW: How does becoming a Christian affect your taking part in these festivals? Do you experience any tensions?

WFY: I became a Christian while at university. But I realized that though I had become a Christian, I did not cease to be a Chinese. So I began to ask some questions: Which elements within my culture can I retain? Which ones should I reject? And which ones should I try to transform? It took me years to work through the issues. It was only after I went to Bible College that I came up with some answers. I came to the conclusion that in any culture, there would be some elements that are evil and demonic which I must reject. For example, the Hungry Ghost Festival encourages and promotes fear. As a Christian, I must reject that. But I can use the opportunity to explain why we don't need to fear.

NKW: Can you explain the philosophy behind Ching Ming? 

WFY: The underlying philosophy behind Ching Ming is filial piety and honouring our parents. This is also something we find in the Bible. But the Chinese go one step further to worship their ancestors. There is a saying in Chinese that-you are a human being today, a departed spirit tomorrow, and a fairy in the future. The practice of worshipping ancestors spring from the Taoist belief that if we fail to make offerings of food and other sacrifices including hell bank notes and even 'computers' these days to our dead ancestors, then their spirits will return to harm us. 'Uncared for' spirits might also fall victim to the mischief of other departed spirits. But logic tells us that parents don't harm their children.

NKW: Do you think there is a way Christians can connect Ching Ming with Easter?

WFY: Ching Ming and Easter are celebrated around the same time of the year, but on different dates. I think it's better for Christians to visit the gravesites during Ching Ming and not Easter. This would signal to the non-Christian Chinese community that we Christians are also filial. We should visit the gravesites together with our non-Christian relatives. While they make offerings and sacrifices, we can pray and give thanks to God for our ancestors. We might even want to bring flowers, which are widely regarded as a symbol of respect. It is also a good time for us to share about the resurrection and the Easter message of hope. 

We might also want to take the opportunity to initiate a family gathering during which family members take turns to share the virtues and good deeds done by our ancestors-to keep the memory alive and to pass on the stories to the next generation. It would be good to end the meeting by thanking God for his goodness shown to the family. 

NKW: What about Chinese New Year celebrations?

WFY: The Lunar New Year is the most important Chinese festival. It is called Chun Jie(or Spring Festival) in China. There are many legends associated with the celebration. According to one popular legend, a village in China was terrorized by a ferocious nian (monster or beast). Every year during Chinese New Year Eve, the monster would appear to destroy property and devour people. One day, the villagers came up with a bright idea on how to get rid of the monster. They made a 'lion' that pranced around, and beat their pots and pans to frighten the monster away. Indeed frightened, the monster retreated to the mountains never to be seen again. It is believed that that's how we got our lion dance and firecrackers.

Essentially, the lion dance is about good overcoming evil-a theme that is not theologically incongruent with our Christian beliefs. The dance itself incorporates many skills and movements that require strength, coordination and agility. I think the lion dance can be redeemed and the Christian community should organize a Christian lion dance troupe. But make sure you are really good otherwise you will be laughed at. Now ordinarily prior to the performance of the dance, the troupe would bow to the gods. In the case of the Christian troupe, members of the troupe should pray together. The pastor can accompany the troupe as they visit homes to perform the dance, and take the lead to pray for protection from evil for the house owners. In this way, we can transform the lion dance in our culture.

NKW: What about other aspects of Chinese New Year celebration?

WFY: I have no problems with wearing new clothes, and with the practice of giving and receiving angpow. In Malaysia and Singapore, we also have yee-sang (a special dish made of raw fish and other condiments). In Cantonese, the words yee-sang literally means "live fish" which sounds like, "Abundance, prosperous and life." It reflects the aspiration of our Chinese ancestors who migrated from China where there was widespread famine and poverty.

I don't think we should reject this practice since it is not demonic, and it is okay to want blessing. But after sharing in the meal, we should take the opportunity to explain our worldview-that we Christians do not depend on 'lo' (act of stirring the dish) for blessings but rather on God. Christians must always be proactive to share their faith. I find that many non-Christians are open to us praying for them to receive blessings.

NKW: What are the different legends behind the Mooncake Festival?

WFY: This festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eight month of the Chinese calendar. Due to the Chinese fascination with the moon, there are many legends associated with the festival. Most of these legends arose during the Tang Dynasty. According to one legend, Chang Er was caught with the elixir of immortality which the sorcerer had concocted for her husband, Emperor Hou Yi. Chang Er accidentally swallowed the elixir which turned her into an immortal, and she floated towards the moon.

In another legend, the festival is attributed to a magician named Lo Kuang Yuan who asked the Emperor Tang Ming Wang if he wanted to go to the moon. When the emperor said, "Yes," the magician threw down his walking stick which immediately turned into a silvery bridge stretching to the moon. The emperor crossed the bridge to the moon and there, heard many beautiful songs sung by a multitude of fairies.

This festival can also be traced to a historical event. It marks the successful rebellion of the Han Chinese against their Mongol ruler in the fourteenth century. To mobilise the entire Han community in the rebellion, sweet cakes shaped like the full moon were distributed throughout the land. Inside each cake was a message written on paper that bore the words, "Kill the Tartars on the night of the fifteenth of the eighth moon." Lanterns were also used on that night as signals from higher grounds. When the appointed night came, many Mongolians and their key officers were killed. The successful rebellion ended the Yuan Dynasty, and the Ming Dynasty was established in its place. Since then, mooncakes have been included in the festival to commemorate and celebrate victory over foreign rule.

To me, it doesn't matter which version of the legend or story one subscribes to or prefers. Since there is no evil connected with the festival, I would advocate celebrating it as a Chinese tradition. After all, it is a communal time of gathering and sharing together. The children also enjoy carrying lanterns during this time. But the story must be told especially the one about how the rebellion ended the Mongol rule. That story has a redemptive flavour of how the Chinese race was preserved by God. We ought to thank him for his deliverance. 

NKW: Is there a distinctive or relevant way the Christian community can celebrate some of these festivals?

WFY: The more devout Chinese would visit temples during the festivals. For Christians, we can go to church as usual. Most English-speaking churches do not celebrate these festivals even though they may have a large ethnic Chinese congregation. As a result, many non-Christians think that Chinese Christians are very western. Some Chinese-speaking churches, however, do make the effort to distribute mooncakes to the community though they would often include bible verses with the package.

I don't think we should insert bible verses at every point. We should be more thoughtful. The Mooncake Festival is very rich in story. We should take the opportunity to organise a church service to tell the story behind the festival, recite Chinese poems or read the Psalms or Proverbs. But we shouldn't over-spiritualise our efforts. We can share about God who created the moon. We can even praise our Chinese culture that mobilized a revolution through such ingenious means. In this way, we are rooted in our own history and we retain our Chinese identity. 

Most modern Chinese don't believe that Chang Er lives on the moon, but they still celebrate the festival and enjoy it as a cultural occasion. Why can't we join them?

NKW: Another cultural practice is the Chinese yam-seng at weddings. Do you think this is an acceptable Chinese practice?

WFY: In Cantonese, yam-seng means "drink to victory." In China, the army generals would normally drink with their soldiers the night before the battle to boost their morale. But in Malaysia and Singapore, the term has been adopted in the context of wedding celebrations. It reflects the Chinese community's desire for success in marriage, which is a good thing. What I deplore is the drunkenness that sometimes accompanies such occasions. Most Christian couples continue the practice of yam-seng to please their parents. 

I don't think Chinese Christians should replace yam-seng with "blessing"-that would be too westernized. Rather, we should affirm the Chinese aspiration for a successful marriage by the means of the traditional yam-seng. The original Chinese practice is to have three toasts: one for the married couple, one for the couple's parents, and one for the guests. Chinese Christians can adopt this practice by offering one toast to the couple for a happy marriage, another to the couple's parents to honour them, and the third to the community whom the couple will need to rely on for help and support to ensure a successful marriage. 

I advocate Chinese Christian couples to serve soft drinks and wine during the wedding celebrations. I should point out that the Messianic Banquet will include wine (Isaiah 25:6; Matthew 26:29). But wine must be served in moderation. We don't want non-Christians to accuse us of getting drunk and being no different from them. Instead of going from table to table to yam-seng, I encourage the newly married couple to get to know their guests-some of whom are distant relatives or friends of the family.

NKW: Anything else? 

WFY: One other major festival is the Dumpling Festival, which is sometimes called the Patriotic Poet Festival. The first time the festival was celebrated was in 287 B.C. Since then, it has been celebrated annually on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. According to legend, Chu-yuan was a loyal minister of the Kingdom of Chu. He, however, became entangled in court intrigues and due to his refusal to compromise his integrity, was banished from the imperial court. Chu-yuan then committed suicide in the river. To prevent the fishes from eating his body, the fishermen threw dumplings into the river. 

The main theme of this festival is integrity, which the Bible also talks about. The festival has a special message for politicians since Chu-yuan was an honest and loyal public servant who loved the nation. The legend also encourages the rest of us to be good citizens. Such festivals are worth celebrating. 

But we need to think further how we can meaningfully celebrate this and the other Chinese festivals. We don't always have to look at foreign models. Within our own cultures, we already have many elements we can connect with. To be a Chinese Christian, we don't have to throw off all our different cultural expressions and put on a 'western garment' instead.