New Year Reflections: More Than Well-Wishes
Ryan moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China, at the age of twelve. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as an Assistant Pastor at New City Presbyterian Church in his US hometown of Cincinnati, OH. He also serves as the China Partnership Translation Manager.
I am becoming increasingly unsure of what to do during the Chinese New Year. Growing up in China, Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival) was always the biggest holiday of the year. We would go visit relatives and friends, collect red envelopes, and eat lots and lots of good food. Even several years after coming to the United States, we have sent holiday greetings to relatives in China through letters, emails, and now WeChat. But in the past several years, I have found myself becoming more and more limited in what I can say.
Traditional Chinese New Year greetings consist of four-character phrases, such as 恭喜发财 (wish you wealth), 身体健康 (wish you a healthy body), 心想事成(may all your wishes come true), 万事如意 (may your will be done), 财源滚滚 (ceaseless wealth), etc. Very often people also form greetings with that year's zodiac. For instance, in the year of the tiger people would wish each other 如虎添翼 (like a tiger with wings), in the year of the horse 龙马精神 (may you be energetic like a dragon-horse). This year presents a bit of a challenge because it is more difficult to greet people when you compare them with pigs. If you travel to China you will see many households hanging the character 福 (happiness) on their doors. Many people will hang this character upside-down because 福倒 (happiness upside-down) sounds the same in Chinese as 福到 (happiness has arrived). Some people go to the extreme and line up in Daoist or Buddhist temples overnight to pray for health and fortune in the coming new year, but most people simply stick with greeting each other with well wishes.
These greetings are quite harmless, and they sound especially cute when they come from little children. I am certainly not one who believes that celebrating Chinese New Year is wrong. It is nice and kind and festive to wish each other a good year, and Paul affirms that "for those who love God all things work together for good" (Romans 8:28). The Creator of the Universe promises to use his power to work all things for our good, which is no small blessing. Paul goes on to write, "And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified" (Romans 8:30). God has purchased this blessing with his own blood and guaranteed it with the presence of his Holy Spirit in us, and it is so real and rich that there are many people in China who right now are imprisoned because they cling to this blessing. Just last week, several families from Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu had their bank accounts frozen by the government because they are members of the church. Years of savings are gone, and some of their husbands are still locked up in prison.
Believers like them "are scum of the world, the refuse of all things" (1 Corinthians 4:13). They look very different from the images of wealth, health, and happiness that we wish upon each other on Chinese New Year. And yet I doubt that any well wishes – or even actual wealth, health, and happiness – can be of any comfort or enticement to them, and I hope the same for us. After all, how can we truly comfort and give hope to people who have lost a child, or are nursing a dying parent, or have a broken heart? New Year greetings are quite literally wishful thinking. They carry no actual promise, power, nor potential; they point to empty cisterns that do not satisfy. But we have with us the weighty glory of good news. We have the Father's adoption, the Son's death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit's intercession for us. We have real hope.
If you want to celebrate the Chinese New Year with your friends in a meaningful way, certainly take some time to eat and visit with them. Wish them a happy new year. It is certainly kind and appropriate to wish them peace and good health. But beyond well wishes, embody God's benediction toward them. Be their friends, grieve with them when they grieve, rejoice with them when they rejoice. Tell them you will be praying for them this year. Tell them how you will be praying for them specifically, and actually do pray for them throughout the year. If you have the opportunity, tell them how you pray to a God who has done great things for them, and the things he has done will satisfy the deepest wishes in their hearts.