[Feature] How Do Chinese Church Celebrate Traditional Festivals?

Qingming in China: burning joss candles to pay tribute to ancestors
Qingming in China: burning joss candles to pay tribute to ancestors (photo: Pixabay)
By Karen LuoAugust 30th, 2018

On April 5, 2018, a number of believers offered flowers to attend a collective memorial service conducted in Hongkew Methodist Church in Shanghai, also known as Jingling Church for the Chinese Qingming Festival or Tomb Sweeping Day.

The names of deceased pastoral staff and people known by the congregation were listed on cards pasted on two white boards. With a cross on each, the cards read, "XX rest in peace." A silent prayer and reflection part was also included in the event. 

For the Chinese people, the Qingming Festival is a very important time for people throughout China return to their hometowns to clean the gravesites of their ancestors and show respect to them. 

According to traditions, people offer food, wine and fruit, followed by the burning of joss paper, in front of their ancestors' tombs. They then kneel down to finish the ritual offering and eventually have food and wine before going back home. 

However, when it comes to ancestral worship and the burning of joss stick and paper, controversies arise within the Christian faith, like the conflict between "honoring parents" rooted in Confucian filial piety and "not bowing down to idols" in the Ten Commandments.

Soon after Matteo Ricci introduced Catholicism into China in the 16th century, "the Chinese Rites controversy" grew, leading to the ban of Christianity during the Qing dynasty initiated by the Kangxi Emperor. After Protestanism entered into China, the focus of the controversy shifted to the "debate on ancestral rites".

In church sermons, some preachers exhort Chinese believers not to visit their deceased family members' tombs on Qingming because the festival is against the faith and ancestral worship is idolatry. Radical Christians abstain from the observance of the traditional day, holding that it originated from pagan customs. However, some believers secretly sweep the tombs of their family members because of their longing for them. On the contrary to these positions, many churches like Hongkew Methodist Church conduct memorial services to express the respect and tribute to their ancestors. 

At the present time, the Chinese church remains unable to reach an agreement on whether it should celebrate traditional festivals or not. 

On March 21, 2017, China Catholic, a Catholic news website, and Christian Times, a online Protestant news website, launched a questionnaire to explore the landscape regarding Christians who commemorate their ancestors on Qingming Festival and how it should be done respectively. 

As 4 pm of April 2, 2017, 2,979 people, comprising 1732 Catholics and 891 Protestants, were involved in the survey. About ten per cent of both Catholic and Protestant participants said that they chose the burning of joss sticks or paper to honor the deceased. 

At least 34% respondents for China Catholic's survey stated they felt "embarrassed" about not remembering ancestors in a traditional way during the Qingming Festival, while 56%  said that they were "indifferent". At least 20% participants for Christian Times' survey said they felt "embarrassed" while 38% "didn't care for it". 

To a great extent, it seems that the celebrations of traditional festivals is not so important today as it is in the past. 

The dragon-boat festival is also controversial for Chinese Christians.

Zhang Yuanlai, who serves in a church in Guangzhou, commented that the festival which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the traditional Chinese calendar was originally a festival in which the ancient Wuyue people living in the southern China held an offering to their totems. However, it was later used to commemorate the patriotism of the poet and minister Qu Yuan during the Warring States period. The story was similar to Christians who changed the Roman solar holiday into Christmas which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. 

Regarding folk culture, Chinese people associate dragon boat races and eating zongzi, a traditional Chinese food made of glutinous rice, with honoring Qu Yuan. There're disputes over the festival, especially dragon boat racing that is considered by many Christians to have something to do with superstition and religion. 

"The issue on whether Chinese Christians should remember their ancestors in a traditional way has been debated since the time of Matteo Ricci. It is also a great challenge for the church to become localized. As the church came to understand the Chinese tradition, its attitude towards remembering ancestors has changed from rejecting it to accepting it and from doubting to trusting it. Along the way, the church has also come to realize the difference between offering sacrifices to ancestors and fearing God and the distinction between cultural customs and religious rituals. With the drastic social change, and the development of secularism and globalization, especially in the past half century, some traditional rituals have lost their religious flavor by becoming sheer customs. This then caused the church to open wider arms to accept and combine them with its traditions, giving them meanings in faith so that they no longer block the way for believers to walk their path of faith and deepen their understanding of faith, especially their understanding of eschatology." Said Hua Xie, a scholar. 

The traditional festivals is also a tool used by the Chinese church to hold activities including retreats, music evangelistic rallies, and social service. 

For example, several churches in Zhengzhou, Henan, jointly held an event for single Christians from different churches who studied marriage courses and took part in activities together during the Dragon Boat Festival of 2016. A worship and praise team of 24 people from Hangzhou Sicheng Church hosted a music evangelistic meeting on the same festival in 2015. 

On Oct. 4, 2017, during the Mid-autumn Festival that celebrates the autumn harvest, the Beijing Chongwenmen Church held a party for community and church empty nesters in cooperation with a local community of Suzhou. While watching the art performances, the elderly participants tasted mooncakes that are traditionally eaten during the festival and fruits. They also attended the lantern riddle game and interacted with songs. 

On the Spring Festival that ranks as the most prominent day for Chinese people, a portion of the Christian migrant workers who dwell in the Pearl River Delta Metropolitan Region all year long don't return to their hometowns. So, some churches in the area provide tables of meals for them during the Chinese lunar new year holiday to make them feel that the church is also their home. They are also asked to bring their non-Christian countrymen and friends. Guangdong Dongshan Church has continued this activity for the past two years. During the holiday of 2018, 500 people ate together during the festivities.

A church in another part of China launched several visitations during the great festival as well, mainly to its members, local elderly people and nursing homes. On Jan 20, 2018, during the Chinese New Year festival, coworkers from Baoji Shilipu Church in Shaanxi visited 19 poor families. 

A large number of churches conducted retreats, particularly in the rural areas, because the main labor forces go back home during this period. The retreats are helpful to the rural congregation's spiritual growth. The church in Chaoshan, Guangdong,, for instance, holds a three-day retreat that starts on the first day of the lunisolar Chinese calendar.

Meanwhile, it is a tradition for a church in China's northeastern Jilin province to hold a four-day retreat during the Chinese New Year festival.

In their preaching, pastors tell their congregations how Christians should spend the festival and urge them to honor their ancestors, parents, and live in harmony with their families. 

Rev. Li Lancheng from Nanjing Mochou Lu Church said, "Traditional Chinese culture focuses heavily on family ethics and harmony, honoring parents, and family reunion. These Chinese culture are well represented through the Spring Festival. So the church advocates Christians to visit their parents, elders, relatives, and friends during the Chinese New Year."

Rev. Li added that Christianity mentioned "the commemoration of ancestors", for instance, in the Bible which said that Israelites didn't forget their forebears like Abraham, Issac and Jacob. He said, "It's not necessary to honor ancestors by the burning of incense and offerings of food. We need to honor their wise words and noble deeds."  

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