I skipped over a big holiday that I shall now write about: my Easter of 2007!
First, I can only talk about Easter with the understanding that my experience is exactly that; just one person’s experience. China is a big country. Religion is one area in which I’m certain there are wide variances in treatment depending on where one is geographically located. I live in one, very large, city that is known for having a relative amount of freedom and prior exposure to the west. (Guangzhou was the terminus port on the southern silk road, a center of colonial activity, and even in modern history was the first area of China to open to "the West.") Any grand pronouncements on my part about the general state of "religion in China" would be very sophmoric. Religion is one area in which I’m fairly confident that each person’s experience is unique, dependent on both the person and on their geographic location. Nevertheless, there are a few common themes.
I believe there are a lot of misperceptions in the west about the role of religion in Chinese life. Even if exaggerated, some of these myths are grounded in truth. For instance, a Christian is not allowed to be a member of the communist party! I understand that the anti-religous zeal is not limited to Christianity, but to every belief that falls into the category of "superstition." No openly religious person may be a Party member. Moreover, every organization is required to register with the government. The government provides funds and support for the organization, as well as supervisory oversight. Every organization reports, ultimately, to the CP. Thus, the state does control the church. This is necessary for two reasons.
First is the need to control dissemination of information. This is a paramount concern. Religious organizations are places of assembly where beliefs are communicated. I’m told that running afoul of this was the key fault of one of the organizations that was banned in very recent history. Any Assembly with powerful organizational capability is potentially dangerous. In a sense, China is like a bubbling cauldron. Any social unrest could possibly lead to very dangerous consequences.
There is also the sticky, negative history regarding the association between Christianity and colonialism. It’s a fact that he who wins the war gets the privilege of writing history to fit his own narrative. It is a fact that Colonial powers used sales of opium into China to attempt to balance the tremendous trade deficits as European and American consumers gobbled up Chinese made products in the 19th Century. Their religion was tainted by its association with them.
The Chinese had an equivalent of an opium "tea party" right here on the shipping dock in Canton, otherwise known as Guangzhou, dumping tons of opium into the river in an act of defiance regarding the forced sale of drugs into their homeland. In response, the Colonial powers took military action to protect shipping and trade channels of the drug. This resulted in the war which led to establishment of Hong Kong as a British colony. It also resulted in the treaty which allowed access by foreigners — including missionaries — into China.
A modern day equivalent is almost un-imaginable. Imagine in modern times, if a South American drug cartel were selling opium or cocaine into New York, Los Angeles, and Galveston, and Miami! Is this unbelievable? Well, stretch your imagination because in Colonial era China, the equivalent of exactly this scenario became a reality. Except the location was China, and the drug cartel was the merchants of the Colonial powers, supported by their governments seeking the balance their trade deficit. (See, the imbalance of trade with China is not a new issue.)
Imagine, in my hypothetical scenario, that the drug cartel was so powerful that it set up trading headquarters in protected islands in each of major port cities in the USA, defying all attempts by Washington to stem the drug trade. In this scenario, drug addiction becomes a serious problem for society. Fueled by free samples, bribes to officials, and wide distribution networks, approximately 10% of the population develops a serious addiction problem. There seems to be no way to stem the trade. The center of the trade is located in Galveston, far away from Washington.
The central government in Washington sends its best administrators to stop the drug trade, but ordinary measures don’t work. The administrator from Washington asks for, and receives, military intervention to get rid of the cartels. But the South American drug cartel has far superior weapons and military technology. The drug cartel, supported by the governments of South America, delivers a humiliating defeat to the U.S. Army and then uses this military victory to force the USA government to sign treaties that give it free license to continue to do business in the port cities. Thus, as the result of a military war, the drug cartel forces the USA to accept shipments of illegal drugs into the nation.
Is this hypothetical situation outrageously impossible? Well, I have just laid out a hypothetical equivalent of the Chinese Opium Wars. The Chinese made two attempts to expel the Colonial merchants who were selling opium into the country. The first Opium War was in 1839, and the second was in 1856. This is how Hong Kong came to be a British colony: the Chinese were able to expel the British from Canton for a time, but they set up camp in Hong Kong instead.
Now for the million dollar question. "How," you might ask, "does this in any way, shape, or form relate to religion in modern day China?" The answer is that the treaties won as a result of the opium wars were used to procure access for Christian missionaries to travel into China. As a result, missionaries (as well as their converts) came to be associated with the deleterious effects, and humiliation wrought by, colonialism. I read that during the Boxer Rebellion, one of the groundswell movements to eliminate the colonialists from China, it is estimated that 30,000 Christians in China were killed. Missionaries were expelled because of the bitter taste of colonialism that they were associated with. To this day, proselytizing carries with it that same, unpleasant association.
Because of the Christian church’s association with colonialism, China is extremely sensitive to outsiders being in positions of leadership in the church. Because of the legacy of colonialism, as well as hostility to any organization whose power structure is not controlled by the CP, proselytizing is strictly forbidden under Chinese law. It is, in fact, a legal requirement that every religous organization must only have Chinese citizens in positions of leadership. There is one registered church in my city which has foreign leadership. It was approved soley to meet the needs of expatriates. To enter that church on a Sunday morning, one must present a foreign passport. (This church is called the Guangzhou Christian International Fellowship, and their web site is at http://www.gicf.net/
.) Chinese citizens are not allowed to attend.
In practice, the requirement that Chinese religious organizations have only local leadership and report to the CP results in a delicate dance between Chinese Christian organizations and their sister organizations in other parts of the world. This insistence on "Chinese church for and by the Chinese only" is why the Catholic curch does not recognize the Papacy in Rome, and why the Papacy in Rome does not have any official ties with the Chinese Catholic church. The Catholic church in China reports to a Bishop who has been appointed by the Communist Party, not by Rome. Rome, likewise, does not recognize the legitimacy of the Bishop appointed by Beijing.
This leads also to differences in approach between the various protestant denominations. The Baptists, for example, refuse to participate in this system. Presbyterians, on the other hand (which is my denomination) insist on working within legal structures. The Baptists have a vested interest in proving to their USA domestic audiences that the church in China is widely persecuted. The Presbyterians, on the other hand, devote space on their web site to showing how the church has great freedom in China. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
All this said, now, I can turn to the specific issue of where I fit into this. My little family is just a set of little minnows in a big ocean. We find GCIF far too fundamentalist for our taste. The one time we visited the church, David was fairly happy there but I felt far too much emphasis on judgment and condemnation, far too little on love and grace. I wasn’t motivated to go back. There are other, Chinese, churches where we are welcome to attend, but they are not particularly fulfilling for us. There is only one church we know of that has a bilingual English / Mandarin service. It’s a long way from our house and has nothing except a sermon, has nothing to offer our children. And it, too, is very fundamentalist. So more or less, we don’t go.
So this year I was thrilled when a Chinese friend of mine invited me to attend a special Easter service at a protestant church in a different area of the city. This church only has services in Cantonese. As little as we know of Mandarin, we cannot communicate at all in Cantonese. Nevertheless, on Easter Sunday it didn’t matter so much. The main program was musical, with a special piano performance by a famous pianist who is now 86 years old. Our friend invited us to accompany her to the musical performance.
On Easter morning, we dressed in our Sunday clothes. It had been so long since Munchkin dressed this way that we couldn’t find her black dress shoes or her red stockings to go with her red and green dress. So, she wore her white Chinese style shoes instead, along with her maroon stockings to go with her red and green dress. Quite fashionable. Then we went in a taxi and met our friend at an intersection close to where we would be going. She directed the taxi from there into an older part of the city, where we exited the taxi and then walked back into an older neighborhood where the streets are too narrow for cars.
There, we came to the Protestant He Nan Church of Guangzhou. The word "he nan" simply means south of the river. It is in the Haizu District, about a 15 minute walk south of Shamian Island, the site of the Cantonese opium dumping and subsequent British reprisal.
When we arrived, we were escorted to the front of the church. (Later, I learned to my consternation, that it was our youngest daughter who led our Chinese host to this spot!) There was a short service which included announcements, prayer, and the Apostles Creed. Then, there were musical presentations by both the regular choir and the senior choir, and a lovely piano performance. The music was all hymns that we recognized and mostly knew by heart. The hymnals were all in Chinese, but we sang along in English for the songs we knew! We felt warmly welcomed.
After the close of the service, we went to Shamian Island, the old Colonial District, had lunch at a western restaurant, toured some of the souvenir shops, and took Munchkin to the park there. The adoptive families were out in full force. They often stay at the White Swan Hotel on Shamian Island. I struck up a conversation with one of the new moms. A nice day was had by all. I’ll create a photo album for it.
Contact info for some churches:
I just found the following web page which has addresses in chinese, opening hours, and photos:
And then I also have the following:
Sacred Heart Cathedral (Seksat)
56/7 Yide road (Yat Tak Road)
Guangzhou, Guangdong 510120
Tel 20-8333 6761
Sundays: Conducting English mass
Shamian Catholic Church
Our Lady of Lourdes
14 Main Street, Shamian,
Tel 20-8188 9858
Temporary worship site for expats
3/F, 89 Linhe Xi Lu, Tianhe District
Sunday mornings (9:00 — 11:30)
The Protestant He Nan Church of Guangzhou
Protestant Church on Shamian Island
From front (north) door of White Swan hotel, turn left and walk toward
U.S. Consulate Tower. Church is on right. Meets 10:30 AM sundays