THE BLOG
12/20/2010 02:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Merry Christmas, China!

Just because China has embraced Christmas does not mean the country is becoming Western. Looks can be deceiving.

Christmas tunes play on radio stations. Every Grade A and Grade B office building in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou is decked out with holiday displays. Christmas music is piped into elevators far and wide, even in Communist Party buildings. Santa, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf, are ubiquitous. Department stores never used to have Christmas sales. Now they all do.

What's going on? One thing for is sure: the Chinese have not discovered Jesus. The meaning behind Christmas - the birth of God's son who died for our sins - can be articulated by a small percentage of the population. True, evangelical Christianity is spreading, particularly in the countryside where adherents can be quite passionate -- and brave -- as they proselytize the word of Christ. But, as a rule, mainland Chinese know very little about the deeper meaning of his teachings. In the eyes of most, China's Jesus is, more often than not, interchangeable with China's Buddha. He is someone to pray to, someone to turn to particularly in periods of uncertainty or fear. The idea of having a relationship with Jesus through acceptance of his "golden rule" in exchange for salvation is a nuanced abstraction. It is not a powerful offer for today's pragmatic, ambitious, worldly new generation of Chinese. In the PRC, morality is relative; standards shift based on ever-morphing external circumstances. But Christian morality is absolute. Jesus' word - charity to others, including the weak, particularly strangers - is non-negotiable. The tenets of Occidental Christianity are poorly understood and, frankly, unattractive as a consumer proposition. (By the way, most Chinese do not know the difference between Jews and Christians, let alone the difference between Catholics who acknowledge the Pope and Protestants who do not.)

So why is Christmas hot? There are two reasons. First, Christmas is win-win. It fuses fun, a universal release, with transactional gain. Second, and more subtly, Western holidays, particularly Christmas and Valentine's Day, are useful tools in reinforcing individual identity within a Confucian - yes, a Confucian - context.

To the Han, Christmas is not "Western." Instead, the holiday is "international" and "modern" and carries a whiff of status, the ultimate commodity in face-driven China. Santa is a symbol of progress. He represents the country's growing comfort with a new global order, one into which China is determined to assimilate, without sacrificing national interest. Individuals who make merry are making a statement. They are declaring themselves new generation players, able to absorb new elements and apply them in a Chinese framework.

On an even deeper level, Christmas is an investment in the future. Men here carry a heavy burden. In matters of the heart, women are demanding. Mothers-in-law will not approve of a prospective groom unless he can afford an apartment, an increasingly elusive requirement given skyrocketing real estate costs. Cars have become "must buys" for couples intent on entering the ranks of the middle class. Chinese relationships are rooted in dependability, not romantic love. Of course, the desire for passion is universal. But, in anti-individualistic China, a society in which the clan remains the basic productive unit, love is not enough to seal the deal. Men need to, first and foremost, prove themselves. They must establish their commitment in terms of both emotional dedication and material potential. The Christmas gift is one more opportunity for young Chinese men to proclaim, "Darling, I would do anything for you." It has been embraced by as a means of demonstrating steadfastness.

In 2010, Christmas festivities are still rather new fangled. (Chinese New Year, an extended-clan affair is inviolable, even for hip, earring-sporting cool guys.) For 15 years, however, Valentine's Day has been de rigeur. If a boyfriend does not give his girlfriend an expensive present, he will no longer have a girlfriend. The reason is obvious. Valentines Day's raison d'etre remains unadulterated: "show me your love." This drive explains the phenomenal spread of engagement rings. Diamonds are a new cultural imperative; they have achieved 85% penetration in primary cities, up from less than 10% in 1995. In China, DeBeers' tagline, "A Diamond is Forever" has been translated as "For you, anything is possible." (Pardon the generalization but marital practicality also reveals why a Chinese wife often looks the other way if her husband has a "happy ending" massage. She will, however, ask for divorce if he has a mistress, a much graver threat to a domestic "harmony.")

Chinese adoption of Christmas rituals does not imply "Westernization." It has been co-opted to advance a distinctly Chinese agenda: projection of status in a culture in which individual identity is inextricably linked to external validation.

Happy Holidays, everyone!