Interview with Revd Canon Daniel Tong
Hi, Rev Daniel Tong! With Chinese New Year just around the corner, Chinese Christians may find themselves faced with questions on how to go about celebrating Chinese traditions/rituals while being a good testimony for our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Could you share with us your thoughts on some of these most frequently asked questions?
I am a new believer. Chinese New Year has many rituals and I enjoy participating in them because it brings me close to my family. However, can you tell me which traditions have roots in idolatry and therefore I should avoid them?
In general, the advice would be to avoid practices associated with the veneration of any other than our Lord God, and that with overtly superstitious overtones.
The reunion dinner is a great tradition to uphold, which helps bring the family and extended family together. While a growing number choose to travel or eat out on this occasion, it is encouraged that effort be made during Chinese New Year to connect with family, through traditions like the sharing of family recipes and visitations, etc. To be avoided would be the making of offerings at the family altar before the dinner, as our worship is reserved for our Lord Jesus Christ alone.
Symbolism is rife in traditional customs, but not necessarily bad, and quite unavoidable during CNY. Opt for decorations none would even in passing construe to be placed in our home with the superstitious belief that such items may draw in good luck.
The symbolism of offering oranges to those we visit or who visit us as a wish of blessings in the coming year is neutral, and to be viewed more as a sign of generosity on the part of those visiting, and good hospitality of those receiving the guest.
I don’t bow before the family altar. However, during the annual spring cleaning before Chinese New Year, is it all right for me to help my parents clean the altar and lay out fresh offerings and incense?
Spring cleaning serves basically to prepare the home for the visit of any who might choose to drop by during Chinese New Year. We must not, however, get caught up in the superstitious belief that the floor may not be swept during the CNY as doing so would result in the sweeping away of all the good blessings the New Year bring.
Helping with the spring cleaning is encouraged, but do try to avoid extending this act to the family altar. No disrespect is intended, just the maintenance of our commitment to worship our Lord Jesus and He alone. The act of laying out the offerings and incense connotes worship, and as such is a practice we are called not to either perpetuate or encourage.
There is a whole house to spring clean, of which the family altar is just a very small part.
My mother prepares a delicious braised duck every year, which she will place on the altar before bringing it down for the family to eat. Is it all right for me to eat that duck?
The practice of not eating any food first offered at the family altar has been hard fought and won by many believers before us – as a sign to their respective families of their commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ and none other. This is not an effort won for which we should too readily discard.
It would be sad to miss out on a delicious family dish, but our commitment to our Lord Jesus should take priority. Try asking your mother to lay aside a portion for you which would not be presented at the altar – as many Christians had done. However, be contented and prepared to do without, as you seek the larger worth of communicating your new relationship with Christ to your family.
To find out more about taking a biblical approach to Chinese traditions & beliefs, check out Rev Daniel Tong’s best-selling book here: A Biblical Approach to Chinese Traditions & Beliefs.
Daniel Tong has been a priest of the Anglican Diocese of Singapore since 1993. A graduate of Trinity Theological College, he has been researching and teaching about Chinese beliefs and practices for over 20 years. A father of three children, Daniel is currently Vicar of the St Andrew’s Community Chapel.
His bestselling titles are: