Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from gov’t bulldozers

Here’s my soapbox: People need to update their understanding of Christian persecution in China. And a recent Chinese-officials-try-to-bulldoze-a-church incident that’s hit international news is a fine opportunity to illustrate what I’m on about here. Like it or not, the relationship between Chinese authorities and Chinese Christians is… not super-simple.

Does the Chinese gov’t persecute Christians?
First of all, it’s Chinese governments — plural — as in local, provincial, and national levels that are often at odds with one another, and never mind that levels of tolerance and policy implementation vary greatly from region to region. “The Chinese gov’t” is a complicated collection of departments that vary hierarchically and geographically, and each one has latitude re: its attitude and posture toward Christians within its territory. If some Chinese Christians are in trouble, we need to ask who’s giving it to them; “the Chinese gov’t” isn’t specific enough to be a useful answer. A given instance of Christians-in-trouble usually has little if anything to do with Beijing.

Second, this is a bad question, because if you’re talking about the whole country, the answer is:

  • “Sometimes, but not usually.”
  • “All the time, at least somewhere.”
  • “Systematically marginalized? Yes. Actively persecuted? Not so much.”

Chinese authorities leave most Chinese Christians alone most of the time (within a status quo of effective, systematic social marginalization). So a more useful question is, “What factors are most likely to provoke trouble from the authorities?” There’s a list.

But let’s get to the sensational persecution story. This one’s actually kind of fun. Christians brazenly defy lower levels of gov’t while appealing to higher levels of gov’t. From The Telegraph:

wenzhouoccupychurch1 Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from govt bulldozers

Christians form human shield around church in ‘China’s Jerusalem’ after demolition threat
Christians have flocked to defend a church in eastern China after Communist Party officials claimed it was an “illegal construction” and announced plans to demolish it

If you see these kinds of (sensationalized) headlines and (understandably) get the impression that Beijing is literally plowing churches into the ground across the country, look at the details in more than one report. In this case, one province let churches get out of hand, so they’re reducing the number of extra-high, extra-conspicuous steeples and have picked a couple buildings for demolition. Here’re some hand-picked excerpts:

the Sanjiang church is part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, China’s officially sanctioned and government-controlled Protestant church, making this week’s stand-off highly unusual.

A woman who introduced herself as a representative of the local government rejected claims the Communist Party was persecuting local Christians.

“They can believe. This is free. We can’t control them,” said the woman, who gave her name as Zhang Biyao.

Ms Zhang said the church had been illegally built and was structurally unsound. The government wanted to protect “people’s safety,” she claimed.

Sanjiang’s congregation was unconvinced.

Parishioners believe their church was targeted after Xia Baolong, the provincial Party chief, visited the region and was unimpressed by the prominence of a church built to house thousands of worshippers.

“His behaviour is illegal. He has abused his power. The construction of the church is not against the law,” said Wang Jianfeng, a 47-year-old man from a nearby congregation who was among hundreds of people gathered on the steps outside on Friday in a show of force.

Wen Xiaowu, another visitor, said he believed China’s president would be “displeased” with his Communist colleagues in Zhejiang.

“Xi Jinping has said society should be harmonious. He is very open-minded about disciples of the Christian church.”

So:
– Local officials allow the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Church (or at least a legally-registered church; reports conflict) to build a big flashy church building.

– The provincial head comes into town and doesn’t like it. The unwritten rule is that Christianity must keep a low profile, and Christians in this province have been pushing that line for a while. In fact there’s a province-wide campaign to tone down the visibility of churches, mostly by making some (not all) churches take down extra-conspicuous steeples. See other articles here and here. This problem arose in the first place because churches across the province were given so much relative leeway that their buildings became too numerous and conspicuous for the comfort of provincial Party officials. In more tightly restricted provinces, churches aren’t allowed to become this conspicuous.

– So the local officials, who care first and foremost about their careers (which depend mostly on kissing up to their superiors) announce that the church building is illegal and, for the sake of “the People’s safety”, the “unsound” building must be destroyed, even though they’d previously designated the building a “model project”.

– So rank and file Christians publicly defy the local and provincial authorities, by [1] staging a sensational protest, [2] singling out the provincial Party head by name for blame, [3] appealing to higher levels of Chinese gov’t (in this case the Chairman himself) [4] via domestic and international news media. (Using news media to apply pressure to the gov’t is common, though also dangerous.)

–> In other words, these Chinese Christians are appealing to the Chinese gov’t (President Xi Jinping) to protect their legal rights against persecutors from the Chinese gov’t (Zhejiang province Party head Xia Baolong and the local officials carrying out his orders).

If they get to keep their church building, will headlines read, “Chinese central authorities defend Christian church”? I suspect not.

wenzhouoccupychurch2 Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from govt bulldozers

Read the whole thing; while it may be short on solid info, it’s full of colourful anecdotes:

Sanjiang’s resistance has been organised with almost military precision. A makeshift kitchen behind the altar provides rice, pork and fried liver with leeks for those occupying the church while women hand out bottles of water and satsumas at the entrance.

By day, Christians from around the province crowd the church’s steps, with undercover security agents mingling among them, snapping photos and eavesdropping. By night, hundreds of worshippers take it in turns to keep watch, grabbing a few hours of sleep on cramped wooden pews between shifts.

Yang Zhumei, 74, said she had pleaded with officials to leave her church alone.

“I held their hands and said, “Comrades, don’t take down our cross. I can give you my head instead.”

The Christians have seen to it that the local and provincial authorities now have an embarrassing mess on their hands that will look much worse to their superiors than an overly-conspicuous church building would have. But even if the Christians win this round and keep their building, they’ll still be left with a ticked-off provincial Party head whose security forces know who every single one of those protestors is. For these Christians, things might not be easy until he retires or gets promoted.

It’s also worth comparing this to another recent local-government-hassles-legal-church-over-property incident.

More from this particular soapbox:

P.S. — Images are from the Telegraph article, but I couldn’t find any attribution info.

Preparing for the Resurrection Festival (aka “Easter”) in Chinese

If you aren’t going to do in-depth historical and cultural reading on 1st-century Palestine and learn koiné Greek, but you want an Easter tie-in for your Chinese language-learning and/or an intro to the basic “Resurrection Festival” narrative, here you go!

Even if you’re totally unfamiliar with the Easter story, this short reading list should more or less work for you. It’s all actual biblical text, abridged and slightly rearranged to make the narrative easier to follow. It doesn’t include every detail; read each of the four gospel accounts separately for that (like you should! ha). And don’t do like this in exegesis class or they’ll fail you.

pilate Preparing for the Resurrection Festival (aka Easter) in Chinese
“Pilate Washes His Hands” by He Qi.

Each PDF’s text comes in five different Chinese translations, all of which you can view online at BibleGateway.com and Bible.com. My plan is to do one a week ending on Resurrection Festival Sunday. Here they’re arranged to fit the traditional Western church calendar, but it’s cramming a lot of text into only a few days:

  • 2014年4月13日 — 棕榈主日 — 〈复活节2
  • 2014年4月17日 — 濯足节 — 〈复活节3〉+ 〈复活节4
  • 2014年4月18日 — 受难节 — 〈复活节5〉+ 〈复活节6
  • 2014年4月20日 — 复活节星期日 — 〈复活节7

复活节1.pdf

Peter tells Jesus he thinks Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus tells him he’s right, but when Jesus goes on to talk about dying a horrible, humiliating death at the hands of their foreign political oppressors — basically the antithesis of what the Messiah was expected to be — Peter tells him to knock it off. Jesus responds with some tough love.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 可8:27-38 (但7:13-14))

复活节2.pdf

The common people are all keyed up. Word’s got around about Jesus’ miracles, especially about raising Lazarus from the dead. And the religious and cultural elites are calling for Jesus’ arrest. Crowds are fickle, but they know what potential public drama looks like. Will Jesus dare show up in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival when the religious and cultural establishment is out to get him? And what will happen if he does?
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 约11:55-12:19;2:13-25)

复活节3.pdf

It’s the Passover meal with Jesus’ closest followers, his final meal before his death. Jesus continues to demonstrate his radical redefinition of Messiah and the subversive, upside-down nature of life in his ‘Kingdom’ by taking the role of the lowest servant and washing everyone’s filthy 1st-century Palestine feet. With wine and broken bread, he tells his disciples that his imminent sacrifice is for them.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 路22:7-13;约13:1-17;路22:14-30;(但7:13-14))

复活节4.pdf

Jesus knows it’s mere hours before his suffering and death, and he tells his disciples they will all abandon him. Peter refuses to accept this — he’s not afraid of violent revolution; that’s what he signed up for in the first place and he’s not the only one. Despite what Jesus has already said and done, his followers just can’t think outside their preconception of ‘Messiah’ as the long-awaited political liberator. Some of them are armed, and there’s blood shed when Jesus is betrayed. But Jesus’ reaction shatters them, and they do exactly as he said they would.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 太26:30-46;路22:47-52;可14:49-52;(但7:13-14))

复活节5.pdf

Jesus’ enemies can’t manage to convict him of blasphemy at their illegal trial because the testimonies of their lying witnesses conflict. So Jesus helps them out and makes a direct claim to divinity right in the high priest’s face. By their own laws that means the death penalty, but under Roman occupation they need an order from Pilate, the Roman governor, so they claim Jesus was organizing an armed rebellion against Rome. Pilate declares him innocent multiple times, but in the interests of diffusing a potential riot he orders Jesus’ brutal flogging and crucifixion, while placing responsibility for Jesus’ death squarely on the religious leaders and the mob they’d stirred up.

Meanwhile, Peter’s followed at a distance all this time, sneaking in within earshot of the proceedings — the only disciple brave enough. He alone of the 12 core disciples has refused to give up all hope that Jesus will bust out with the supernatural power and take down the Romans and the politically sold-out Jewish establishment. But as things turn from bad to worse and the people around him begin to recognize him as one of Jesus’ followers, he finally breaks.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 可14:53-72;路23:1-23;太27:24-31;(但7:13-14))

14 Crucifixion Preparing for the Resurrection Festival (aka Easter) in Chinese

复活节6.pdf

Jesus is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two high-ranking and prominent religious leaders, publicly defy their peers by requesting Jesus’ body and giving him as honourable a burial as they can. The religious leaders, aware of Jesus’ claim that he would come back to life on the third day, convince Pilate to place guards at the tomb and seal it with a heavy stone so Jesus’ followers can’t steal the body and claim he’s resurrected. (Plus: the full psalm from which Jesus quotes, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, and the previous bits involving Nicodemus: where he sneaks off in the night to talk with Jesus, and where he questions the legality of what his peers are suggesting.)
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 路23:26-43;约19:23-27;可15:33-41、43;约19:38b-40;路23:54-56;太27:62-66;(诗篇22);(约3:1-21、7:45-53))

复活节7.pdf

Women with burial spices arrive at the tomb early in the morning only to discover it open and empty. An angel invites them to have a look, and then go tell Jesus’ other followers. Meanwhile the guards report what happened to the leaders, who bribe them into saying that Jesus’ disciples stole the body while they slept. Jesus appears to various groups of disciples on different occasions, including Thomas, who has refused to believe any of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, and Peter, who’d denied knowing Jesus before his crucifixion. Peter’s gone back to fishing, and in a dramatic scene reminiscent of previous key shared experiences between the two, Jesus appears and addresses Peter’s denial.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 太28:1-15;路24:13-34;约20:19-21:25)

lws7 detail Preparing for the Resurrection Festival (aka Easter) in Chinese
“Nail Mark” (detail) by Li Wei San.

More Resurrection Festival in China:

Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!

Here’s some “evil cult”-related translations from our daily life in Qingdao. Both sides — the local authorities and the “evil cults” — are attempting to influence public opinion through printed material. At least two locally active but unrelated groups are officially designated “evil cult” (邪教) in China. We’ve personally encountered three different cults here in Qingdao.

Evil Party!

First, here’s the juicy anti-Party tidbits from some altered currency that we’ve received in the past couple weeks (in addition to this, this, and this). I’ve got 72元 worth of this stuff now. Feel free to suggest better translations:

cultmore Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!Remember: Truth-Virtue-Tolerance is good!
FLDF is good!
When disaster comes your life is guaranteed!
The news broadcasts are all fabrications
Many common people have been deceived
FLDF saves the people of the world
You can only survive by sincerity and honesty

cult02cultmonetake2 Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
The Party plucks organs live from FLG practitioners
Sold off at a high price, the list of crimes reaches to heaven
Organ transplant matching is difficult
Outside China people have to wait two or three years
Inside China they only need one or two weeks
Where does this huge number of organs come from?
Irrefutable evidence of crime is like heaven’s blessing (?)

more cult Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
Quit the Party Team sign your name:
The evil CCP harms all living things
Inciting the masses to fight the masses
Killing 80 million of my compatriots
Unjustified persecution of FLG
Every offense cannot be pardoned
Heaven’s fury and people’s enmity will extinguish the Party

cultfiver Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
Peace to the Party-Quitting Team
Heaven will extinguish the Party
The Party-Quitting Team is the most intelligent
Heaven extinguishing the Party is an inexorably destined fate
Anyone wanting to save [the Party] is completely in vain
The Party is thoroughly finished

10cult Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
Truth-Virtue-Tolerance is good
FLDF is good
The net of justice is extensive
[It will] settle accounts with Jiang Zemin

cult20 Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
Truth-Virtue-Tolerance is good! FLDF is good!
Sincerity, respect and care get karmic reward (?)
Harmonious society is high-flown rhetoric
Persecution of DF, Heaven is unforgiving
Quickly find the real facts, quickly quit the Party
Choose a future that has karmic reward

20kuai Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
FLDF is good
Truth-Virture-Tolerance is good

cult01handwrittencultmoney Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
Remember FLDF is good, Truth-Virture-Tolerance is good,
Good fortune bestowed by heaven, guarantee of wellness

Evil Cult!

Second, the latest from our neighbourhood’s “Anti Evil Cult Warning & Education Propaganda Board” (邪教警示教育宣传), courtesy of the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association (青岛邪教协会) and the Qingdao Office of Guarding Against and Dealing With the Evil Cult Problem (青岛防范处理邪教问题办公室). I feel safer already. As you can see, they really put their heart into these public education campaigns:

20131029 442 cult03board Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
Anti Evil Cult Warning & Education Propaganda Board

I’d share what the second anti evil cult poster says (on the left), but it’s buried underneath vandalized neighbourhood committee election notices (apparently someone has issues; election-related stuff on every notice board got defaced).

Now here’s a picky but important detail: The posters below are not about the “evil cult” that stamps the money. However, the previous batch of evil cult posters was, as were the posters we had in Tianjin. The posters below, currently on display in our neighbourhood, are for the other “evil cult”: the Eastern Lightning/Almighty God cult.

Not all “evil cults” are created equal, and these two “evil cults” are not related. I’ve read from non-gov’t sources about the violence, deception, seduction and brainwashing of the group in the posters below. But that doesn’t apply (so far as I know) to the money-stamping group. So for the sake of fairness and accuracy, keep that in mind. Of these two groups, Eastern Lightning/Almighty God comes closer to earning its official “evil cult” designation. (There are links to info on each group at the bottom.)

Anyway, let’s see what we’ve got here…

20131029 436 cult04poster Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
See Through (discern, penetrate) the Evil Cult “Almighty God”

20131029 437 cult05detail Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
Immorally Amass Wealth by Scamming People into “Becoming Believers”
This organization employs lies to dupe, violence to intimidate, money to bribe, eroticism to seduce, etc. to draw people into becoming believers, as well as the so-called “Leaving family, parents, wife, husband and children now is entering the start of the spiritual world,” conspiring with believers to abandoned family, cast off family and give up occupations to go out to “evangelize”. In the name of “sacrificial funds” they exploit their members’ wealth, even to the point of inciting believers to sell off family property and live in a collective so as to welcome the arrival of “Almighty God.” For this reason, some believers might go far from their hometowns, with no news of them at all for several years, or sell off family property and without exception dedicate it to the religious leader, causing the family’s elderly to have no one to support them, the children to have no one to look after them. The originally harmony-ful family is shattered.

20131029 438 cult06detail Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
From top, left to right: Lies to Deceive: “You must obey to get rebirth” / Violence to Intimidate / Immorally Amass Wealth: “sacrificial funds” / Money to Bribe: “First give you 200元” / Sexually Seduce: “Join our church and you can enjoy…”

20131029 439 cult08adetail Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
They will separate the believer from social life, disseminate “Doomsday” rumours. “Communicating with the outside world is forbidden! Await the coming ‘Doomsday’!”

20131029 441 cult07detail1 Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
Promote “Doomsday Rumours” and Create Social Panic
The “Almighty God” cult organization makes an extreme effort to imprison believers’ thinking, isolating them from normal social life, disseminating “Doomsday” rumours, and creating panic in society. Their backwards and perverse way of doing things has caused the People’s mass livelihood and to receive severe interference, and the social stability and unity situation has suffered serious damage.

20131029 440 cult08bdetail Propaganda fight: Evil Chinese Cults vs. the Qingdao Anti Evil Cult Association!
Conscientiously Resist the Evil “Almighty God” Cult
The numerous People’s masses have a duty to recognize “Almighty God”-type evil cult organizations’ harm, earnestly strengthen wariness and consciousness, conscientiously resist “Almighty God” evil cult’s corrosion, achieve no listening, no believing, no propagating, if you discover or come across evil cult members disturbing and bewitching, distributing illegal publications or such other illegal activities, actively report and expose, without delay dial 110 and report to the police, safeguard our harmonious and stable happy livelihood.

On Chinese authorities’ actual methods for dealing with undesirable groups:

Required reading:

More about “Evil Cult” #1:

More about “Evil Cult” #2:

More “evil cult” money:

[Photo Gallery:] It’s Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!

fu5 [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!

Qingdao’s canal bed Licun Daji traditional market is epic on a normal day (see photos here). But on the last market day before Chinese New Year, it’s “here a , there a , everywhere a -” — like a ginormous red, yellow and black ant colony that some kid has just poked with a stick, all charged up and buzzing with Chinese New Year colour, food and traditions.

fu1 [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!
Have a fu.

On locals’ advice, a coworker and I squeezed around back and forth through it during xiūxi time (aka after lunch siesta), when the crowds weren’t as lethal as in the morning. We weren’t aiming to document the whole thing, just look around and chat and take pictures of whatever caught our eye, and ended up with a lots of red and religious stuff (in which Chairman Mao makes an expected strong appearance), along with the usual things that make foreigners stop and take pictures.

gods1 [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!
财神,the money god, for sale.

(Aside from one pile of pig heads, there aren’t any other photos of piles of animal parts, though it was interesting to see shoppers inspect piles of cold, shiny intestines the same way you would check over tomatoes — i.e. with your bare hands.)

apples [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!
Apples grown with stickers to make the sun shine “riches” , “respect” , and “advance” into the peels.

Anyway, here you go!

More photos from this market: Licunji – Qingdao’s most epic market

Chinese New Year photo galleries:

Chinese New Year songs to learn:

Lucky Panties & Fu:

The 2013 Grinch Award (is for your educational benefit) [Updated]

[UPDATE: For sober and informed analysis of Christianity in China, ChinaSource.org is the best single source I know of.]

Just because a Chinese Christian is in trouble doesn’t mean they’re in trouble just because they’re a Christian. Their Christianity may have something to do with it, or it may have almost nothing to do with. China being as it is, the “whys” are usually a little more complicated and a lot more pragmatic. This is not the Mao Era.

Grinch The 2013 Grinch Award (is for your educational benefit) [Updated]I haven’t gone searching for instances of Christmastime crackdowns this year. But this one did cross my news feed, and it’s a fine example for helping people see that “China cracks down on a church” stories are not necessarily a case of a communist atheocracy’s thought police persecuting ideological dissenters. I’m not saying that ideologically-driven persecution doesn’t ever happen in today’s China, just that for any given instance chances are far greater it’s:

  • [a] motivated by something more tangible than ideology (like money, land or face; they probably aren’t being harassed just because they’re Christians), and
  • [b] initiated by local, not the central, authorities.

In this one, it appears that greedy local authorities won’t give a local church the land that’s owed them (land grabs are hardly uncommon in China), so the church has lawyered up, and the local authorities are not taking that very well.

If we look at the details the picture that emerges isn’t so much one of snuffing out Christmas or Christianity; it’s about fighting/punishing a local organization who refuses to let the gov’t take its land without a fight.

Crackdown stymies China church’s Christmas meeting

The canceled meeting at the church in Henan province’s Nanle county came during a month-long crackdown on the church over a land dispute that pits its popular preacher against the county government [...]

…their pastor, Zhang Shaojie, and more than a dozen of his aides have been detained by police for more than a month and denied access to their lawyers…

The case has drawn the scrutiny of rights lawyers and activists who say it exposes a county government’s ability to act with impunity against a local Christian church even if it is state-sanctioned. Supporters of the church say the county government reneged on an agreement to allocate it a piece of land for the construction of a new building, leaving them without a place of worship.

Now, it could be that this local government is on an illegal ideological witch hunt. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before in China. But, China being as it is, it’s much more likely that the local authorities see an opportunity to essentially steal land from a group whom they’ve calculated does not have the power to fight back and win. Land disputes in China are common as, well, dirt. Even we’ve known of legal, registered churches in land disputes with local authorities in both Chinese cities we’ve called home.

Anyway, point being that when you hear a Chinese church persecution story you must look at the details. These days Chinese Christians are relatively rarely persecuted for their beliefs themselves (generally speaking). More often it’s because of something related (or even unrelated): their church bucked the status quo, the government wants their land, they said something to foreign reporters that ticked off someone of consequence, they embarrassed the authorities by doing too much public charity, they caused trouble for the authorities by fighting injustice in the courts or media, there’s bad local history involving churches, the church leaders have bad/no guanxi, etc., etc. Some of those things are related to or a result of their Christianity, some aren’t. But either way, it’s much different from going after a group just because they call themselves Christians. In the above AP story, it’s apparently a legal, registered, “government-run” Three-Self Patriotic Church that’s in trouble.

Local officials don’t care what people believe; they care about money and about their careers — and if your group does something to mess with either of those two things (by not letting them rob you, or potentially making them look bad to their superiors), you risk retaliation.

Previous Grinch Awards:

***–> More on not thinking simplistically about Christianity in China: <--***

Cross-cultural Incarnation — your identity across cultures

Some Christmastime thoughts on trying to live authentically and meaningfully in a culture not your own. Because the Incarnation (God being born human as baby Jesus), whether you think it’s true or not, is an interesting way to think about living cross-culturally.

chinesechristmasnativity 017 Cross cultural Incarnation    your identity across cultures
(Chinese shepherds visit Chinese baby Jesus)

It’s one thing to study the transmission and transformation of ideas and behaviours across cultural contexts. Those are issues that anyone working cross-culturally has to deal with no matter what field they’re in, whether they realize it or not. But what about how crossing cultures affects your personal identity?

As the outsiders

Here’s a bit from God Spares Not the Branches, an insightful (understatement!) exploration of cross-cultural and development work issues via the story of an American post-grad who volunteers with a local anti-AIDS NGO in Ghana. Emphases mine:

“Bryce,” his father told him, “when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them. No matter how well you seem to become part of the people and their ways, you are not them. No matter how well they receive you and befriend you, your distinction is your reason for being there. When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface. That’s life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

As a lǎowài I automatically identify with Bryce; we’re the outsiders trying to fit in and the Chinese are “them”. Even when we’re feeling good about how well we’re fitting in, even if to the point that we could momentarily forget how different we are, they wouldn’t let us forget, because they remind us every single day. We’re routinely hit with a myriad of largely ignorant-but-understandable expectations of who we are and what we’re like. I wonder what receiving these “identity prescriptions” every day is like for expats who don’t have a strong understanding of who they are and what they’re about. I suspect I’ve maybe seen that show a couple times over our five years in Mainland China.

As the insiders

daochengleroushen Cross cultural Incarnation    your identity across culturesBut the Christmas holidays have made me re-read the above excerpt in light of the Incarnation. In Chinese Bibles it says, “The Dao became flesh and lived among us.” The idea being that the Creator, the Ultimate Being, became a human being. That’s a major living-standard downgrade, in what we could call the ultimate cross-cultural move:

He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges… [From Philippians 2:5-8]

This reverses the roles: God is the outsider and we are the “them”.

I’m not assuming Dan was thinking Incarnation when he wrote that section, but it’s an interesting angle to consider: Jesus as the ultimate model of cross-cultural identification and authenticity: leaving his home and completely taking on the language, culture and ethnicity of his host nation, while refusing to compromise who he is and what he’s about, even though he knows it will eventually result in rejection.

“…when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them . . . When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface . . . You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

Maybe Dan was thinking Incarnation; so much of that paragraph relates to not just the Incarnation but also to how we treated Jesus when he refused to conform to our expectations of what he should be. But I’ll save that for a “Resurrection Festival” post (复活), because I like to keep the meanings of my historically re-appropriated holidays clearly sorted (no crosses at Christmas!). ;)

More about culture & personal identity:

More about Christmas:

P.S. — About God Spares Not the Branches

godsparesnotthebranchescover Cross cultural Incarnation    your identity across culturesGod Spares Not the Branches gives an intimate look at the complexities of post-colonial West Africa. The events, places and people are so realistically detailed you can’t help but believe this fictional story is actually a collection of real first-hand accounts — and that’s because it pretty much is. Author Dan McVey lived in Ghana for over 20 years, raised his family there, and still spends half of every year there, mostly on his farm. He applies an insight born of first-hand, long-term cultural intimacy to a deep exploration of several interrelated issues (many of which are relevant to China) by embodying them in his characters and their experiences. If you’re more than a little interested in any of the following, I think this book is worth your time:

  • The legacy of colonialism
  • African corruption
  • Problems with international aid and development (like priorities set not by need but by the politics of the donor nations, dependency, etc).
  • Drastic societal change affecting behaviour norms and values
  • The impact on sexuality of economic and gender inequality
  • The influence of the internet, media and Western culture — esp. entertainment and consumerism
  • The cultural hurdles in addressing HIV/AIDS
  • African identity and spirituality, Christianity, Evangelicalism, Islam
  • Muslim/Christian interaction

Two things in particular stand out to me:

  1. Intimate detail and nuance — Dan has lived into this culture and society and conveys a much richer and more empathetic picture of the people and challenges they face than what the best journalists can deliver.
  2. Challenging all around — This is not merely a liberal scolding of conservative Western worldviews, dragging a fictional character through a Western culture war conversion experience in a world of stereotyped stock characters (like in The Help). There’s plenty that will make Western political conservatives squirm, but Dan’s allegiances aren’t dictated by the Western culture wars. His compellingly detailed, uncompromising portrayal of African reality refuses to flinch in the face of events that Westerners, right or left, have difficulty processing. Like a shocking exorcism account, written in the same finely detailed, eye-witness-sounding delivery with which he describes farms. He doesn’t insist the reader accept the account at face value, but he also makes it difficult to casually brush off.

Doing Christmas 2013 in China?

For your Christmas 2013 in China, here’s some Chinese Christmas music, art, vocab, memories, trouble and soapboxes.

chinesechristmasnativity 008 Doing Christmas 2013 in China?

Chinese Christmas Music

Chinese Christmas Art

Chinese Christmas Vocab

chinesechristmasnativity 010 Doing Christmas 2013 in China?

Posts of Chinese Christmas Past

Chinese Christmas Trouble

Christmas Soapboxes

chinesechristmasnativity 017 Doing Christmas 2013 in China?