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Spring couplets and the materialization of Chinese Christianity

The couplets are a Sinicized way to bring Christianity into the public sphere
In rural China, the vast majority of Christians — regardless of their denominational background — hang spring couplets with a Christian flavor on their door as well as a Christian poster in the background in their front living room.

In rural China, the vast majority of Christians — regardless of their denominational background — hang spring couplets with a Christian flavor on their door as well as a Christian poster in the background in their front living room. (Photo supplied)

Published: February 08, 2024 03:45 AM GMT
Updated: February 08, 2024 05:27 AM GMT

As the Lunar New Year approaches, many Chinese families clean the front door of their home and hang poetry around it. This is a rich and age-old Chinese tradition, both cultural and religious.

Chinese couplets (duilian 对联) are a pair of calligraphed sentences written in traditional Chinese that hang on the two sides of a door, a frame, a painting, or a statue. These short and vertical sentences are made up of two lines of poetry responding to each other. They display positive values — blessings — with sometimes a Buddhist, Daoist, or Christian flavor.

With the exact same length, the two sentences are read from top to bottom, right to left. Although the length, message, and style may vary immensely, there are only a handful of situations during which Chinese people produce and display couplets: marriages, funerals, and Chinese New Year.

As the week-long Chinese Lunar New Year festivities begin Feb. 9, I would like to focus on the couplets of this season, named "spring couplets" (chunlian). Based on my observations in southern China, Chinese Christians rely on spring couplets to materialize their religious commitment.

Despite the political suspicions they face, churchgoers and their couplets manifest how Chinese Christians are in tune with their broader religious environment and are not a major departure from what constitutes the living and evolving Chinese culture and society. Chinese spring couplets are a Sinicized way to bring Christianity into the public sphere.

Most researchers have focused on the text of these couplets, the vocabulary used, and the type of calligraphy. But as an anthropologist, I found out that those couplets are more than texts. Indeed, spring couplets are much more than propaganda banners.

Carefully produced, selected, and displayed by a huge variety of people (usually married couples), these two lines of poetry respond to each other. But the text does not only say something deep and meaningful, it opens up space, an inter-text, between the two sentences. Going from the upper-right corner to the lower-left corner, the paired sentences and characters create a dynamic correspondence.

Couplets are not a static frame but a vibrant window calling for open interpretations and poetic evocations. The space that they generate is infused by the blessings and images of their poetry. It is a quasi-sacred space.

Still, the inter-text, the physical distance lying between the two sentences is not a random space. It is the main door of a household and not the door of the kitchen nor a window. It is a central node of circulation.

In the traditional Chinese countryside, this door is usually opened. Consequently, the two sentences are not only in relationship to each other and the open space standing between them, but also to the poster displayed in the line of sight. The space produced by the poetic couplet is not flat or mono-dimensional. There is depth to consider. Between the couplet and the poster lies a room — a room in which a poster catches the eye.

In most households in the countryside, this front room is usually not random. It is not some kind of a porch, mudroom, or lobby that visitors only trespass quickly. In traditional society, the space between the couplet and the poster was an entire courtyard surrounded by halls opening on the central yard. This vast area located in front of the main door was the space to welcome guests, but also to maintain the main altar of the family.

Today, in most rural households I have visited in southern China, the space between the couplets and the poster is not a yard but a room where the household welcome, receive and honor their guests. It is where any passerby can sit down, drink a cup of tea, and chat.

This front room is not a hallway, a kitchen, a bedroom, or a more intimate living room. It is a semi-public living room, a liminal space between public and private spheres where civility and hospitality are performed. It is around this highly cultural space that spring couplets and their posters stand. They are the guardians and the producer of a space of encounter and circulation. 

Nonetheless, many couplets and their posters are filled with religious flavors. While the poetry may apply religious discourses, the poster often represents a deity. In some households, the poster can even be part of the family altar where offerings are honoring Bodhisattva Guanyin, the God of Fortune, or other popular deities. Therefore, the civil, semi-public, and welcoming environment opened by spring couplets is not solely filled with humans and material objects. Gods are also welcomed and honored. The space of hospitality that spring couplets co-produce is for all beings, family members and visitors, but also deities and ancestors honored by the household.

But what about Christian practices? 

In rural China, the vast majority of Christians — regardless of their denominational background — embrace this practice. They hang spring couplets with a Christian flavor on their door as well as a Christian poster in the background in their front living room. In a Protestant home, the poster has often a large red cross with a few surrounding motives. Catholic families may prefer an image of the Holy Family. Yet, they do not have offerings at the bottom of this image — they do not burn incense or pile fruits up to honor their God as non-Christians do.

Like other Chinese deities standing as the guest of honor of a household, the Christian God is publicly honored in most Christian families. For my informants, there is no contradiction in using Christian spring couplets and Christian posters as non-Christians do. Like everybody else, they select the vocabulary of their couplets and adjust the style of their poster according to their religious views and family. In short, Christians maintain the local way of elaborating a semi-public place of hospitality where people and God are honored together by a household.

This is just one quick snapshot. Spring couplets represent a rich and vivid practice which deserves more research. In urban China, but also in New York, Kuala Lumpur, and Sydney, Chinese Christians continue to recycle and adjust this tradition.

Spring couplets are at the nexus of numerous hopes and desires. They bring forward faith and civility into our complex world. This is why, the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics in partnership with De La Salle University in Manila is launching an online depository to collect and preserve Christian spring couplets for 2024 from all around the world.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA New.

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