Ask Mei

Competing celebrations

Whose birthday is more important?

Competing celebrations

Christmas (or Sheng Dan Jie 圣诞节 in Chinese, meaning ‘Holy Birth Festival’) is historically not an important holiday in China. However, with the growing influence of commercialism and Western culture over recent decades, more and more Chinese, especially young and well-off urban dwellers, have been celebrating this Christian holiday with gift-giving, festive greetings and even by attending masses in churches – although many are not even Christians. Therefore, I was not surprised to see an explosion of Christmas celebratory messages on WeChat, China’s leading social media platform, during the days leading up to and on December 25.

However, what startled me were a few postings the day after Christmas which were celebrating Mao Zedong’s 124th birthday (Mao was born on December 26, 1893). Pitted against Jesus Christ, some of these postings called Mao “the founding father of modern China” and called December 26 the “Holy Birth Festival for Chinese”. Although they are in the minority among my social circle, those who posted Mao commemorations are among my relatives, university friends and acquaintances, who are mostly in their 40s and 50s and are solidly middle class.

As mentioned in one of my previous articles (see WiC325), Mao has been a major polarising/touchy issue among Chinese in recent years. Many intellectuals still resent the chaos and destruction he unleashed on China’s society and culture during his totalitarian rule, whereas many working class as well as nationalistic people still worship him and see him as a national hero who “liberated” China from poverty and humiliation (i.e. from Western and Japanese imperialism) to independence and modernisation. They represent two extremes of China’s ideological spectrum – the former camp is more aligned with the Western value system and considered right-leaning, whereas the latter is more in tune with the ‘redder’ leftist wing of the Communist Party and is inspired by nationalistic doctrines.

The official verdict on Mao was set by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s which states that he was 70% good and 30% bad. My personal view of him is also 70/30 but the other way around.

Although I was no fan of Mao, I try not to be too forthcoming with my views to avoid open conflicts, especially amid the current political atmosphere in mainland China which has visibly shifted toward the left. Just as I was mulling over the issue though, a brilliant quote on WeChat caught my eye: “One of the key ideological conflicts in today’s China is the conflict between those who celebrate December 25 and December 26.”

He is indicating these two consecutive days symbolise two viewpoints (one more pro-market reformist; one more statist and nostalgic for the revolutionary era). Arguably both are managing to co-exist under the current Chinese system: the 25thers are the consumers driving the economy, while official propaganda is increasingly driven by the 26thers.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]

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