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Friday, October 10, 2008

Of Ghosts and Spirits: A Question from a Chinese Christian

[This essay was originally posted to a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

I should have known "Terry" was a Christian right away. There's something about Christians in China: Perhaps because the environment has been hostile at times, they tend to be a bit more committed, and a bit more consistent, than they might be in other places. In the past, Christians were likely to be found in Christian families; these days, in the more open society, some young people are converting while their parents maintain traditional beliefs, but a Christian household still seems to be the norm. If Dad converts, everyone converts.

Anyway, Terry was the first Christian I met in China, and his kindness was all the evidence one needed. Countless times he has come to my rescue, especially since he teaches computer science and knows the ins and outs of Shenzhen's electronics industry.

His mother had told him Bible stories when he was a boy; too busy with his studies to follow up on Mom's teachings during his school years, he considered them to be sort of "fairy tales."

But while living in Hong Kong in the early 90s, he was befriended by a local Christian and attended church with him. It wasn't until 1998, though, when he was living in Australia, that he literally heard the call, and literally heeded it. Chancing into a Sunday service one day, he was struck by the pastor's sermon, and responded to an "altar call," committing his life to Christ in front of the congregation that day.

His dedication to his Christian studies is followed closely by his avid study of English, so when we are together (as we often are on the teachers' bus to school these days), the conversation often turns to one or the other of these topics--or both.

Earlier this week, we were joking about me being a gweilo, a somewhat derogatory but freely-used word referring to white people. It literally means "ghost man," and is often translated "foreign devil." I remembered that the subtitle of Maxine Hong Kingston's book The Woman Warrior was Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, as her immigrant mother called the various white people around them: "The Mail Ghost," "The Milk Ghost," "The Garbage Ghost," "The Meter Reader Ghost," and even "the Social Worker Ghosts" and "The Public Health Nurse Ghosts."

After we joked about this for a while, Terry got more serious and asked, "Is a ghost always a bad thing in your culture?" The question was kind of loaded, because Chinese people--even modern ones--spend a lot of energy trying to avert the danger of having a pissed-off ghost on their hands.

"Sure," I said, "usually. If someone says, 'I saw a ghost,' they're usually going to say it with some distress. I mean, they won't smile and say cheerfully, 'Guess what? I saw a ghost!'"

"But," he said, "in some of my books, God is called 'the Holy Ghost.'"

AHA! Now I knew where we were going. So I had to explain how language has changed, and how at one time that word just meant "spirit." When I was growing up, it was always "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," but that always seemed weird to me. After liturgical reforms brought us "Holy Spirit," I felt a lot better about it.

It's all just connotation. The Latinate "spirit" is really no better than the German geist; no one thinks zeitgeist means "ghost of the age." And there's something really beautiful in the assonance of the German Der Heilige Geist that carries over into English "the Holy Ghost."

But connotations change. Little kids are afraid of ghosts. So language changes, and we get "spirits" instead. Then, when the language is forced to jump over a cultural divide, confusion reigns. That's why I find it far more important to teach culture than just "language." As a wise old man once told me, "Language without culture is merely a cipher."

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