It was late January 1982. My wife and I were in Guilin, enjoying a few days with some of my American university students at the beginning of the Spring Festival break. I can still picture the evening of the 24th. It was a perfectly still and clear night, temperature in the mid-70s. I was sitting with one of my students on a grassy knoll overlooking an irrigation canal, our quiet voices the only sound as he shared his experiences during his first semester in China.
Suddenly ear-splitting explosions shattered the tranquil night. We jumped to our feet, alarmed and confused as the blasts just went on and on. The decibel level was so high that we couldn’t even hear each other yell. Then it occurred to us: It was midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve! Every household in Guilin was throwing firecrackers out their windows—big ones too!—in celebration of the New Year.
Chinese New Year. Celebration indeed! Ancient customs are observed everywhere in the Chinese world. But what about those customs? When and how did they originate and what are their meanings? Stories abound, but one of the best-known legends is that small-scale celebrations began during the reigns of emperors Yao and Shun, about 2300 BC. Over time, home-grown religious content gradually became part of New Year observances. There is no indication that New Year religious rites were imported from other peoples or cultures.
Then how can we explain remarkable parallels between Chinese New Year and Jewish Passover observances? Consider:
- In the week before Passover/Chinese New Year, the family works hard to clean the house thoroughly (for Passover, getting rid of yeast). For Jews, yeast represents ceremonial uncleanness. Removing all vestiges of yeast is a spiritual cleansing rite. The “spring cleaning” activity of Chinese resembles Jewish practice, but its meaning is more to the point of just making sure everything is clean before all the relatives arrive and the new year begins. Nevertheless, it is intriguing that a thorough pre-celebration house-cleaning is a feature in both cultures.
- Both celebrations mark the beginning of the year. Jewish and Chinese cultures both observe lunar calendars, though they are not the same calendar. Still, Passover and Chinese New Year are both in the first month of the respective calendars.
- Both Passover and Chinese New Year are family affairs where the whole clan does its best to return to the ancestral home. Centuries of atrocities have disbursed Jewish families and devastated genealogical records so that few, if any, know precisely where their ancestral homes are. Nevertheless, as many family members as possible will gather at one home for celebration of the Seder. As for the Chinese, most know exactly what village their forefathers came from, and if possible, they will return from wherever they are in the world for the New Year celebration.
- The centerpiece is a big meal shared in the evening by everybody in the family. For the Jews, this is the Seder, a ritual service and ceremonial dinner. For many Chinese, the New Year’s Eve meal is probably the most lavish feast with the most hilarity that most of them will experience in a year.
- Insofar as possible, everybody endeavors to stay awake all night. Jews remain dressed in their street clothes all night. Exodus 12:11—“. . . eat it in this manner: with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand . . .” (New American Standard Bible).
Chinese stay dressed and awake to guard against a monster which roams the streets that night to harm or kill anyone who ventures out of the house. On the stroke of midnight they throw firecrackers out the windows to scare the monster away.
- Both festivals are characterized by red on the door frames, blood for the Jews and red strips of paper for the Chinese, both being signs to protect the family from harm and to bring blessing. For contemporary Chinese, it’s just a custom. In all my years in China, I have never met a Chinese person who was curious about the origins of these customs or saw any deeper meaning than celebration.
Not so the Jews. Their Passover customs are specifically rooted in history, clearly recorded in the Bible. The central focus is on protection from the angel of death, who will devastate the Egyptians and free the Jews from centuries of bondage. “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13).
- On the festival day itself, and for days thereafter, nobody is to work at all, except to prepare food. Similar custom for both Jews and Chinese.
So what about these similarities between Jews and Chinese? Some are superficial congruities. Spring cleaning. First month of the new year. Family reunion. Big meal.
But in my opinion, some similarities are profound. A monster/angel of death in the streets. Harm or death to anyone who leaves the sanctuary of a protected house before sunrise. Red on the doorframes which will prevent the monster/angel of death from entering such a house.
Where did the Chinese get these ideas? It is safe to say that we don’t know. The emperors Yao and Shun lived about the time of Abraham, and Passover was instituted about a thousand years after that. There is no way that Jews could have transmitted the idea and customs of Passover to the Chinese, and as far as we know, there was no transmission from Chinese to Jews.
Is it possible that in antiquity, God revealed some inkling of spiritual truth to the Chinese? Is it possible that a profound understanding of that truth has been lost, leaving only a footprint of it in ancient preserved culture and customs? We don’t know, but it’s an intriguing thought.
Image credit: Village Street by Geoffrey McKim via Flickr.
Mark Newland (pseudonym) lived in Taiwan for a decade and since then has lived and worked for extended periods in the People's Republic of China. His PhD is in General Linguistics, reflecting his deep interest in language and culture. He has been involved in a wide variety of pursuits in …View Full Bio
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