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Thanksgiving in China: Not a Trojan horse from the West

Chinese Protestants celebrate Thanksgiving as a way to become more Chinese, not Western

Thanksgiving in China: Not a Trojan horse from the West

A Chinese Protestant sings in Beijing's state-sanctioned Chaoyang Church. Many Chinese Protestants celebrate Thanksgiving each year on the same date as America but they do so in their own distinct way. (Photo by AFP)

Michel Chambon, Shanghai
China

November 23, 2016

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On this fourth Thursday of November, it is not only American families who are gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving, but many Chinese Protestants as well.

Does it mean that Protestantism in China is a tool of American cultural Imperialism? Despite what some critics say, this is not the case. Here are the reasons why.

To understand Chinese Thanksgiving, one needs to spend some time among these Protestants and carefully observe what they say and do. Indeed, over the past decade, more and more churches are celebrating the festival, and influencing the rest of the country. These churches claim they were inspired by Thanksgiving in America, a great Christian nation.

However, pastors also claim that Thanksgiving was celebrated in ancient China, as it was celebrated in ancient Israel, as a harvest festival. Therefore, giving thanks for all the blessings of the year and marking the end of the harvest is not just performed as a copy of the American example. As Chinese Christians see it, celebrating Thanksgiving is a true return to the eternal China.

Some even claim that in celebrating Thanksgiving, they are referring to the sacrifice that the emperor used to offer during Chinese New Year and the Temple of Heaven festivals. Over the centuries and the dynasties, Chinese emperors offered sacrifices to an almighty Heaven. Instead of giving thanks, it was a ritual to incite Heaven to be benevolent toward the Chinese people. Chinese pastors claim they are reforming this imperial tradition in which the emperor previously forgot the true unique God. Chinese Christians, however, believe that God is the unique origin of all life and He does not need human incentives or offerings to bestow life. There is no place for celestial corruption.

Indeed, the claim of reforming a spring festival into a fall festival is quite subversive. It is now the Protestant clergy, not the emperor, who act on behalf of the nation in an encounter with the Almighty.

The Chinese Protestants' way of celebrating Thanksgiving differs from the American ritual in other ways. Weeks before the due date, Chinese official churches invite Christians to prepare testimonies and offerings. Then, on the fourth Thursday of November, the entire church gathers as one unique body and conducts a service to give thanks together.

In China, there is no family meal, no turkey to share, no prayer to be said by the head of the family. Instead of a family-based festival celebrating the uniqueness of a nation's destiny, we have a church-based Chinese service. Chinese Protestants gather at church, bring offerings of all sorts, share testimonies about the wonderful blessings they have received during this past year, and rejoice for the fidelity of God, the source of all life.

Clearly, the framework of the Thanksgiving ritual is entirely different to the American one. Though on the same day, with the same name, and with some vague relations, Chinese Protestant Thanksgiving is not the same as the American version.

Indeed, the Chinese Thanksgiving aims to build the Church and to transform the cosmology of Christians. The goal is not a vague nationalist self-celebration, but to convert and deeply transform every single Christian.

By celebrating Thanksgiving this way, Chinese Protestants learn that they must give thanks to God and not try to bribe him. By celebrating with the entire Protestant community (rather than in individual families) on behalf of the whole nation, they also enact the role of good citizens concerned about the country. By connecting this practice to the historical narratives discussed above, they reinforce their conviction that becoming Christian does not put them at odds with Chinese culture, but makes them even more fully Chinese.

Finally, one must notice that the Thanksgiving holiday is promoted mainly by the official churches. These Three-Self Protestant Churches, who are too often unfairly accused of being too patriotic and somehow brain-washed by their communist government, give us a very interesting example of one case where their creativity and faith are fully at work.

In a context where Thanksgiving is present within the broader Chinese society. It is even celebrated by Buddhist devotees who on this specific day great each other by saying "give thanks." We must highlight how the official Protestant Churches celebrate Thanksgiving in order to become more Christian; not to turn more American or Western.

Michel Chambon is a U.S. based doctoral student who has spent the last two years in China researching for his dissertation on religion in the country.

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