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Myths, fireworks, and red doorposts

The celebration of Chinese New Year is an opportunity for Chinese to visit family—and for some, to share the gospel

Myths, fireworks, and red doorposts

Performers in Beijing participate in a lion dance during Chinese New Year. (Andy Wong/AP)

In the United States, there is a Thanksgiving travel rush and a Christmas travel rush, when freeways are lined bumper-to-bumper and airport lines snake longer than queues at Disneyland on a summer day.

In China, the main travel rush centers on Chinese New Year, which this year falls on Feb. 16. The largest human migration in the world, it’s the one time of year Chinese workers get a weeklong break to return to their hometowns. Most work in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, and will travel home to small towns to gather with family.

Altogether, Chinese residents are expected to make 3 billion trips during the monthlong Chinese New Year travel season, according to the state-sponsored CCTV. That means seas of people filling train stations, bus tickets sold out months ahead of time, and the government dispatching an extra 177 high-speed train services.

On Chinese New Year’s Eve, doorposts will be hung with red paper couplets sporting the Chinese characters for good luck and prosperity as firecrackers pop in the dark of the night. Inside homes, families will gather for an elaborate meal with dumplings, parents will hand children red envelopes filled with money, and young and old will gather around the television to watch the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala. With an annual viewership of more than 700 million, the variety show includes skits, comedy acts, musical performances, magic tricks, and a New Year’s countdown. TV channels like HBO Asia make the most of the holiday by playing their best movies and highly anticipated shows, since most businesses are shut down and people are at home.

For young, single professionals, the holiday can be a stressful time as parents and relatives harp: “Are you dating anyone yet? When are you getting married? When will you bring us a grandson? We are getting old!” Lily Huang, a woman in her mid-30s living in Chengdu, told me that “in Chinese people’s eyes, unmarried women over 25 are not well-received. My relatives often say, ‘If you don’t get married soon, you’ll be past your prime … then you’ll be unmarketable, an unwanted product.’”

The situation is exacerbated for Christian women like Huang who are unwilling to marry the non-Christian men their relatives try to set them up with. Since women make up a large percentage of church congregations, suitable single Christian men are hard to find.

Beyond the issue of marriage, new converts to Christianity also view Chinese New Year as a time of both anticipation and dread: They’re excited to tell family members of their newfound faith in Christ, but fearful of how they’ll respond. How should they broach the topic of Christianity in a culture where the name Jesus is foreign? During the Chinese New Year holiday, many Christian websites publish articles with tips on how to evangelize family members.

One article on the website of Bridges International, which reaches out to Chinese students, ties the legend of Chinese New Year’s origin to the gospel message. As the story goes, long ago, a mythical beast called Nian (or “Year”) would come up every New Year’s Eve and eat villagers. One year, an old man decided to fight back: He covered a house with red paper and set off firecrackers to scare Nian away. The color red and the sound of firecrackers turned out to be what the beast feared the most, so every year Chinese people put up red lanterns and couplets and set off noisy firecrackers.

Another version of the legend says the old man killed a chicken and smeared its blood on the house’s doorpost in order to scare away Nian. It’s reminiscent of the story of the Passover in Exodus, when the Israelites escaped the judgment of the angel of death by painting lamb’s blood on their doorposts, a foreshadow of Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God. One commenter on the Bridges International article said he used that Chinese New Year legend to share with his grandmother about the “blood of Jesus which wash[es] away our sins.” After years of evangelizing to her, she professed faith in Christ at age 86.

As millions of Chinese Christians return home to celebrate Chinese New Year this week, let’s pray for opportunities to share the gospel, and an openness for the hearers to believe.

KFC love: KFC has long been the most popular fast-food brand in China. When KFC first arrived in China in 1987, it was the first taste of Western food for many Chinese, who considered the restaurant a luxury, due to its high prices compared with local eateries. Now, with competition from a myriad of fast-food chains including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Subway, KFC recently opened an experimental restaurant in Hangzhou called KPRO, offering quinoa salads, salmon sandwiches, and fresh-squeezed juice.