Silent Night

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Dave Cragin asks, "How did 平安夜 come to mean Christmas Eve?"

Now that's a good seasonal topic if ever there were one.

Píng'ān yè 平安夜 literally means "peace(ful) night", which calls to mind "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" ("Silent Night, Holy Night").  That's the famous German Christmas carol composed in 1818 by Franz Gruber (1787-1863) with lyrics by Josef Mohr (1792-1848), both Austrians.  The adjective "stille" can mean "quiet", "still", "calm", "peaceful", and so on, but John Freeman Young's (1820-1865) choice of "silent" for "stille" is brilliantly memorable.  In addition to "peace(ful)", píng'ān 平安 can also mean "safe and sound", "safety", "well", "without mishap", so it's easy to see the overlap with "stille".

The Chinese translation of the famous Christmas carol was by Timothy Ting-fang Liu (Liú Tíngfāng 劉廷芳 [1891-1947]) from around the time of the May Fourth Movement (culminating on May 4, 1919, but more broadly referring to the period of the New Culture Movement from 1915-1921).

Aside from Píng'ān yè 平安夜, Christmas Eve is also called Shèngdàn yè 聖誕夜 ("night of the holy birth") in Chinese.  The Chinese name for Christmas itself is Shèngdàn jié 聖誕節 ("festival of the holy birth").


  1. Tim Taylor said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 9:20 am

    I was asked today whether I had an apple on Christmas eve. In response to my puzzlement, I was told that 苹果 píngguǒ 'apple' symbolised 'peace' (平安 píng'ān) in Chinese.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 2:40 pm

    I'm a bit surprised that they're "peaceful night" and "festival of the holy birth" instead of something like "festival of Jesus' birth", since most Chinese, I assume, don't believe Jesus' birth was holy. Only somewhat less surprising, the Hebrew is "chag ha-molad", which must mean something like "holiday of the birth".

  3. David Marjanović said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 5:58 pm

    I'm a bit surprised that they're "peaceful night" and "festival of the holy birth" instead of something like "festival of Jesus' birth", since most Chinese, I assume, don't believe Jesus' birth was holy.

    Only Christians talk about Christmas in China?

    Or is it more like in Japan these days…?

  4. AntC said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 6:07 am

    @David M Only Christians talk about Christmas in China?

    I can tell you that December 25 in Taiwan was just as any Sunday. Building sites were still hammering; all the shops were open. The only sign of Christmas was the brazenly commercial shop window-dressings [snow with temperatures in the 20's?] and schmaltzy music in said shops.

    There are a few Christian churches dotted about, but nothing to the temples featuring revered figures: Confucian/Buddhist/animist/polytheist/shaman (Mazu)/several of the above.

    Snow and Santa and reindeer and fir trees and cute figures in red hats or clip-on antlers. But little evidence of the nativity.

    So I see no evidence that non-Christians were aware of a holy birth.

  5. (((Stuart L))) said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 10:37 am

    In Japan, Christmas has come to be associated with romance and hot dates for young people. This gives rise to a pun: "holy night", 聖夜 (せいや) has an appropriate homophone 性夜 "sex night".

  6. Dave Cragin said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 1:08 am

    Thanks for the explanations. I didn't think of the connection of Ping an jie with Silent Night.

    Tim Taylor: On 12/26/2016, the China Daily noted: "For many ordinary Chinese people, Christmas is just another excuse for a family reunion or gathering with friends. The localization of Christmas in China has the core beliefs of peace and love, which are in line with the values celebrated in the traditional festivals. For instance, apples, which are called ping’an guo in mandarin, are perfect gifts during Christmas to send best wishes of peace, health and happiness."

    The above said, many friends note that Christmas in China is like Stuart describes in Japan, i.e., a romantic holiday for young people. They note that there are significant expectations about their behavior on traditional Chinese holidays and that with Western holidays, they are free to enjoy the time the way they want.

    2 big differences between Christmas in Japan and China is that a large % of young kids in Japan believe in Santa Claus (I believe few do in China) and also Kentucky Fried Chicken is a wildly popular Christmas food in Japan. According to an article in the Wall St Journal, Japanese start reserving KFC as early as October to ensure they get it on Christmas. It's KFCs busiest day of the year in Japan (who would have thought???).

  7. Dave Cragin said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 1:15 am

    If you are interested in hearing Silent Night and 11 other traditional Christmas carols, John Pasden's website, has them for free download.

    Most were done musically very well. When I first found them, it was fun to have my kids try to identify the song. Despite that they knew the tunes, because they don't speak Chinese, they had much difficulty with the titles for most (except Jingle bells).

  8. liuyao said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 2:23 pm

    The character 聖 (shèng) does not quite equate with "holy" in Christianity. It is often translated as "sage" (but in reverse, it is used to translate all instances of Saint, St, etc.). Confucius is known as the "ultimate sage" Zhìshèng 至聖, Mencius the "second sage" Yàshèng 亞聖, and only three other disciples of Confucius attained the status of shèng.

    The character is also associated with the emperor, who was supposed to emulate the sages in governance. The composition of the character was thought to be have significance: 耳 ear, 口 mouth, 王 king. (The phrase 內聖外王 (lit. inner sage, outer king) reminds one of Plato's philosopher-king.)

    聖誕, therefore, used to refer to the birth(day) of Confucius, or that of the (reigning) emperor. How it came to exclusively refer to the birth of Christ today is a mystery to me. Some insist in calling it 耶誕節, where 耶 stands for yēsū 耶稣, the Chinese transcription for Jesus.

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