By Xinxian Cynthia Zheng GS
Recently, I found a file of 72 “Chinese New Year cards” in the Princeton University Library Records (AC 123). Looking through them, I saw that they were a syncretic fusion of Chinese and Western elements, rather than the kind of Chinese New Year cards I usually receive from friends now. Dated between 1935 and 1942, many of these “Chinese” cards came from non-Chinese Westerners—some were book collectors and art connoisseurs, while others were individuals with non-profit organizations. They were sent to Dr. Nancy Lee Swann (1881–1966), one of the first female scholars of Chinese history who served as the curator of what became Princeton’s East Asian Library between 1931 and 1948.
Intriguingly, the existence of these “Chinese” cards suggests Chinese elements became part of the consumption culture of celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Day for some in the Americas. Beginning in the nineteenth century, people increasingly romanticized the two religious festivals and made them the rites of selling and buying, as Leigh Schmidt has detailed in Consumer Rites. Just as individual tastes varied in Christmas shopping, these “Chinese” cards also show significant diversity. They came in various sizes, ranging from a greeting on letter size paper to a small card of 5 × 2.75 inches. The cards employed metaphors from Chinese arts and classics in the personalized envelopes, cover illustrations, and greeting messages. Depending on the social context and the sender’s relationship with the recipient, individual authors used elements of Chinese culture as tools to socialize with colleagues, pay respect to friends, convey messages of religious teaching, send off encouragement and good wishes, and reinforce the effect of fundraising. This blog post is the first in a two-part series about these cards. Here, the focus is on cards blending Eastern and Western themes in cards from religious groups and non-profit organizations. Next month, I will highlight the imagery Chinese scholars used in corresponding with Princeton’s librarian.
Dr. Swann received some of the cards from Christian missionaries. On occasion, the Christmas cards sent by missionaries synthesized the Chinese styles of religious art and biblical teachings. For example, in dedicating their cover illustration to the night when Jesus was born, the Nanjing diocese of the Catholic Church in China painted an angel in the Buddhist fashion as a priest with a hossu in his hand, and the shepherds as Chinese.
We can also see such ways of contextualizing the biblical tradition from a 1936 card sent by the Chinese Catholic Mission in St. Joseph, Quebec. The façade of the church was presented in the traditional styled arch. Down the arch, the card maker included a sinicized illustration of the advent of Jesus, which almost immediately draws the viewer’s attention.
At other times, missionaries invoked classical Chinese literature. The image gallery below presents some cards of this kind. They all come from the National Committee of the YWCA in Shanghai, who sent seasonal greetings to Dr. Swann at least eight years in a row for each Christmas between 1933 and 1940. Several of these cards were made in the papercut style. The messages, printed in both Chinese and English, often invoked familiar Chinese metaphors. For example, for the Christmas of 1935, the card was dedicated to “ma gu xian shou” 麻姑獻壽, which literally means “the [Taoist] Goddess of Longevity wishes you a long life.” In their card for the Christmas of 1939, the YWCA invoked the metaphors of “suihan sanyou” 歲寒三友 , which literally means “the three friends of winter”—pine, bamboo, and plum, the plants that do not wither in cold weather. By comparing people with “the three friends of the winter,” a theme that has inspired Chinese artists and writers for centuries, the YWCA staff members encouraged their friends to persevere at a trying time in China during the Sino-Japanese War.
Besides scholars and missionaries, non-profit organizations also appealed to elements from traditional Chinese culture to reinforce the effect of fundraising. For example, the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China in New York sent Dr. Swann cards that were dedicated to their campaign “A Christmas card may save a life.” The cards, featuring Chinese toy peddlers and the Chinese Madonna, were sold for 1 dollar each. The income was donated to the refugees in China in need of medical supplies such as vaccines and quinine.
As these various “Chinese” cards show, there was no universally agreed-upon “Chinese way” of festival celebration. Decades before the rise of the Chinese zodiac signs in celebrations of Chinese New Year in American popular culture, people had already appropriated elements from the traditions of the country and tailored such elements to their interests and concerns. Although the visual form of those cards sometimes “betrays” our presumption about what a “Chinese” card should be, they cast light on a world of consumers’ tastes, for which “China” can be read as a metaphor. If you are interested in seeing more, stop by Mudd Library to see a display of Chinese Christmas and New Year’s Day cards, which will be on exhibit in the lobby through the end of January.
Xinxian Cynthia Zheng GS is a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at Princeton University.
For additional reading:
Perushek, D. E. (1985) “Nancy Lee Swann and the Gest Chinese Research Library,” Journal of East Asian Libraries: Vol. 1985: No. 77, Article 5.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric (1997). Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.