A Chinese shrine to… Jesus?

Hong Kongers erected two shrines at different locations on their barricades in their battle against police and thugs: one to Guan Gong 关公 (aka 关羽 and 关帝, a ubiquitous Chinese folk deity especially worshiped by police, triads and restaurant owners), and one to Jesus.

(None of the HK images below are mine; click each for its source.)chinesejesusshrine.png A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?Comparing these shrines provides a fantastic little opportunity to explore contextualization and syncretism — big words for talking about how ideas, practices and objects are adopted by a culture, and whether or not their core meanings survive intact. But first, the pictures.

A Tale of Two Shrines: Jesus & Guan Gong

The Guan Gong shrine has all the images, statues, fruit, booze and incense offerings you’d expect in a typical Guan Gong shrine, the setting notwithstanding:

guanggongshrine1 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?guanggongshrine1 detail A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?The signs say:
[White, far right & left] — 关帝绝不保佑助纣为虐香港警察
Absolutely no way Emperor Guan will bless and protect Hong Kong police who are accomplices of evil-doers
[Pink, right] — 忠义神武
The Mighty Divine is quick to benevolently protect those who are loyal and righteous
[White, middle] — 亵渎神灵
Those who profane the gods will surely suffer the wrath of heaven
[Pink, left] — 威显
Bravely and powerfully protect the nation and the people
guangongshrine1 detail2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

It’s not really all that remarkable in itself, though it is kind of funny the way it’s being used against police and organized crime thugs. Supposedly one can often find shrines to Guan Gong in Hong Kong police stations, where they worship him for protection. Destroying the shrine invites a curse on oneself and one’s family.

Tsang says demonstrators built the shrine to the general to send a message to their antagonists: Guan Gong is on our side.

“We want this god to punish whoever tries to hurt unarmed citizens,” says Tsang

A Chinese shrine to Jesus understandably raises a few eyebrows (and opens a few shutters); it’s not like you see one of these everyday:

jesusshrine1 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
The vertical writing says (right to left):
上主正义[xx] The Lord manifests justice & dim0cr@sy
基督平安自由 Christ bestows peace & freedom
jesusshrine1 detail A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

Turns out there’re at least two Jesus shrines, though in this case it seems shrine isn’t a terribly accurate descriptor. Key details suggest that there are much bigger differences between these two shrines than merely the name and picture of the deity involved.

The Jesus shrine has swapped out the incense, food and booze for flowers, pretty candles and an open Bible. It’s seems the Christians have ditched the offerings — gifts intended to predispose Guan Gong to look favorably upon his worshipers and act for their protection and fortune more than he would otherwise (a bit like giving a doctor a hongbao?) — for decorations and worship aids (Bible, icons), meant to look nice, inspire other Christians and help them focus when worshiping, rather than somehow elicit protection and fortune.

I can’t know for sure just from these photos what exactly is going on here because I’m not there to see how each of these “shrines” actually function in practice. But just from what we can see in the pictures it looks like an interesting contextualization of Christianity rather than syncretism, where Christianity appropriates an aspect of Chinese culture (they’ve made their ‘shrine’ conform to Christianity) rather than Jesus being treated like he’s just another traditional Chinese deity.

jesusshrine2detail A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
(Personal pet peeve: images of pasty British Jesus in Asian churches.)

These two shrines physically display a core distinction between Christianity and traditional Chinese religion: the way in which one relates to God/the gods.

Christians relate to God as the children of a perfect, loving, authoritative parent, or the subjects of a just and benevolent king. It’s in God’s character to always act for the good of his people; gifts can’t make God love more. Prayer is as much to influence the Christian as it is to influence God’s behaviour, who listens like a loving parent listens to a child and may or may not act in response to the child’s request.

With Guan Gong and other traditional Chinese deities it’s more like currying favour (but not seen in a negative way); gifts that show reverence make the deity more predisposed to provide protection or fortune. It doesn’t mean that Christians can’t use incense, for example, but when they do it means something different (if they’re being faithful to a broadly defined, international Christian orthodoxy).

ThaiChristianincense A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
An interesting attempt at contextualization in Thailand, where Thai Christians have incorporated some Thai/Buddhist forms into their worship practices while trying to maintain distinctly Christian meanings.

You can’t influence (or manipulate) Jesus, according to Christianity, in all the same ways that you can traditional Chinese deities according to traditional Chinese religion.

jesusshrine2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Reading the Bible… in the middle of the road.

That’s not the only fundamental difference between following Jesus and appealing to Guan Gong, of course. And it’s no surprise that each shrine’s respective signage conveys mutually distinct messages.

“There is this Christian spirit,” says Cheng, who wears a yellow ribbon pinned to his shirt pocket — a symbol of the movement. “You are more willing to suffer. Social justice means more to you.”

worshipservice A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Singing hymns… in the middle of the road.

jesusshrine3 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Praying at an altar… outside government headquarters.

Contextualization & Syncretism

Simply put: Syncretism changes the essence of the thing; contextualization allows the essence of that thing to be accurately expressed within the cultural context. Contextualization is concerned primarily with meaning; preserving the meaning of a thing in a new cultural context often requires significant changes to form.

(In the images above some unnecessary cultural ‘forms’ that have been directly imported, like British Jesus and ancient iconography. Direct cultural importing is not contextualization; contextualization uses local, rather than foreign, physical or intellectual forms to express meaning.)

jesusguangongcomic A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Guan Gong: “You’re here, too?”
Jesus: “Had no choice, Carrie Lam made me.”
jesusguangongthreeposters A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
The text above Jesus says:
“People who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, because they will be satisfied.”

If the essential meaning of the thing being adopted stays more or less intact, then it’s contextualized. But when the core meaning of the thing is damaged or “lost in translation” due to it’s cultural incorporation, it’s called syncretism. Even though in reality the line between the two is not always crystal clear, and it’s maybe more accurate to think about degrees of syncretism rather than purely either/or, the difference between them is huge.

mao temple A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?One curious example of syncretism is the way Chairman Mao is becoming a Chinese folk deity. When average Zhou Chinese Mainlanders take Mao Zedong — who I assume enjoyed being treated like a god but was nevertheless violently anti-religion, anti-traditional-Chinese-culture and anti-capitalism — and turn him into a Chinese folk deity, it’s syncretism because it’s not faithful or compatible with what Mao was about. Atheism was mandatory. You can’t get much more un-Maoist than selling Mao folk deity figurines on the open market.

As a god he’s not as popular as Guanyin 观音, Laughing Buddha 笑佛, Cai Shen 财神 (the money god) or Guan Gong but you can buy him in the god shops, and you occasionally find him occupying spaces usually reserved for Laughing Buddha. It’s “Maoist” in the sense that it involves a lot of Mao — his image and name and greatness — but it’s not Maoist when it comes to the actual teachings of Maoism.

gods2mao A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Our local traditional market has more than one place selling Mao alongside Buddhist, Daoist and even Hindu gods.
maocaishenposter A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Mao with Cai Shen, the god of wealth, on the walls of our neighbourhood baozi shop. According to the stories, Mao supposedly refused to even touch money.

Syncretism is misleading because the integrity of the central meaning is lost while superficial elements are still adopted. The new idea gets swapped out for an old one, but the old idea dresses up as if it were the new idea.

mao temple2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?Promoting Mao as a folk deity is not promoting Maoism; Maoism is against folk deities. Sticking a BMW logo on a Flying Pigeon bike doesn’t change the quality or nature of the vehicle, no matter how many people you convince to speak and act as if that bike was a luxury car. Swapping out a Chinese restaurant’s prosperity god statue for a Jesus figurine won’t make the shrine Christian; it just creates a new Chinese folk deity who looks like Jesus and is called “Jesus” but in any way that actually matters (according to Jesus) isn’t Jesus.

Doing that is bad — i.e. inaccurate — because the Jesus of Christianity and the deities of Chinese traditional religion are two different kinds of thing. And they each have a different kind of relationship to people; the way people relate to Jesus (according to Christianity) is different from the way people relate to Chinese folk deities (according to traditional Chinese religion). “Prayer” in the Christian sense of the word, as Jesus presents it, is a different kind of thing from “prayer” in a Chinese folk religion sense of the word. (Now if we swapped a God of Wealth statue for a Santa Claus figurine…I could get behind that. ;) )

The examples above are not awesome because they’re too obvious. In reality, syncretism is usually more subtle. The people doing it often don’t realize it, and if they care at all then they’d probably be offended and scandalized if they found out (not everyone cares). What people think they’re doing or say they’re doing is one thing, but their actual behaviour and the function of their language (rather than the surface meanings of their words) is another. What are they actually doing? Or what are they actually communicating by making those statements in those contexts? Are they, for example, really trying to promote and realize Maoism in their society, or just creating a Mao-themed object towards which they can express the worries of life and wish for prosperity and health? Or are they (second example) really trying to become the kind of people and live the kind of life to which Jesus invites them, or are they weekly participants in a religious-themed, self-help-dispensing, cultural values-affirming, family-friendly weekly social club? When it comes to Christians, if they’re the latter they probably still imagine they’re the former, and you’d have a heck of a time trying to make them see a difference.

There are four ubiquitous Chinese deities we routinely see in Qingdao: Cai Shen 财神 (prosperity god) and Guan Gong 关公 in the restaurants, Guanyin 观音 on necklace talismans, and Laughing Buddhas 笑佛 on business counters and dashboards. Lots more about Chinese deities and Mao below.

Mao as a god (literally & figuratively) in contemporary China:

Peruse the Chinese deities for sale:

How Christmas and traditional Chinese religion could so easily get along:

P.S. — It took a little while, but it seems at least some mainstream news media has finally discovered that Christianity is a significant factor in the Ongoing Event Which Must Not Be Named. See more from NPR, FP, SCMP and CDT.

P.P.S. — A pre-dawn police raid on Oct. 17 has resulted in the unceremonious departure of Guan Gong. I’ve not seen what’s become of the Jesus shrine.guangongcleanup1 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
guangongcleanup2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

P.P.P.S. — Feel free to offer input/corrections on Guan Gong worship and traditional Chinese religion in general. Obviously I’m not as familiar with that as I am with Christianity. And since traditional Chinese religion isn’t formally theologized, details can be hard to nail down.

Facing Ebola… in Chinese [updated]

kentwalking Facing Ebola... in Chinese [updated]

A Chinese friend translated missionary doctor and Ebola patient Kent Brantly’s public statement, which he wrote from the Ebola isolation unit at Emory University Hospital. I’ve pasted both it and the original English version below, plus some related links (Chinese & English). Click the photos for sources.

Ebola = 埃博拉病毒 (also sometimes 伊波拉)
Kent Brantly = 肯特 布兰特利

这是这位感染埃博拉病毒的传教医生肯特布兰特利在隔离室写下的书信。跟大家分享一下,并请代祷:“现在我从我的隔离室写这封信,这里的医生和护士提供了他们所能提供的最好的支持和治疗。我每天都在强壮的成长,并且非常感恩上帝的恩典,即使现在我正在经历这样一个邪恶的疾病。

serving2 Facing Ebola... in Chinese [updated]我的妻子安芭和我,以及我们的两个孩子,不是为了战胜埃博拉病毒的目的而去利比亚的。我们举家搬到利比亚的目的,我们相信是上帝想让我们在当地的一家医院去通过服侍当地的利比亚人而去服侍我们的上帝。

通过这件事情,我认识到:跟随上帝,有时上帝会把我们带到一个我们所意想不到的地方。当埃博拉病毒开始在利比亚蔓延的时候,我所工作的医院开始接待大量的传染了埃博拉病毒的病人。我握着这些病人的手,并且亲眼目睹着他们的生命被疾病夺去。我见证了埃博拉的残害性,并清楚的记得每位失去生命的病人的面孔和他们的名字。

当我也开始感到有反应的时候,我立即隔离了自己并做了测试,3天后,结果显示阳性。当我得知我被传染了埃博拉的那一刻,我清楚地记得当时内心的平安,一种我内心深处,超越自我理解的内在的平安。上帝在提醒我,也是他多年来一直在教我的,那就是上帝一定会给我所需的一切让我去保持对他的信心和依靠。

现在,两周过去了。我现在在一个完全不同的环境中。我的专注,同样的没有改变——那就是追随我的上帝。当各位在为我和南希(另一名埃博拉被传染者)向上帝祷告的时候。当然,请为我们的康复而祷告。但是最重要的是,祈祷我们会对上帝的呼召而保持我们的信心,即使是在这样一个艰难的时刻。”

A related Chinese article 《了无遗憾?》
“”肯特‧布兰特利医师(Dr. Kent Brantly)因救助病人而染上伊波拉病毒,他坚持把可能救他一命的实验血清,让给另一位染上伊波拉的女宣教士。这不是女士优先的时刻,而是生死攸关的时刻;而这血清是从他所救活的一个病童身上抽取血液制成,只有一剂,他比任何人都有资格使用它来增加自己活命率。但他坚让。

他为什么那么勇敢?是什么原因让他在生死存亡之刻,选择无私?

kenteyesgear Facing Ebola... in Chinese [updated]他是去年10月加入利比亚宣教医疗团队,带着妻儿搬到赖比瑞亚。他美国同事分享布兰特利医师写的电邮,自述面对伊波拉病毒肆虐,真是感觉“惊恐”。也难怪他有这样的反应,短短时间内死于伊波拉病毒已经有七百多人,只要染上,死亡率是90%,且传染率极高。

教会朋友问他怎样面对?他回答:“上帝会救助我,即便祂没有救我脱离,我生命已经为祂而活,我没有遗憾。”

他72岁老母亲说:“这是压力非常大的时候。肯特是美好的年轻人,十分有同情心,他做的正是他预备自己一生要做的事。他把自己的生命交付在仁慈上帝的手上,上帝支撑着我们,给予我们爱来面对。我们不断地为他祈祷,也恳求大家为他祈祷。他是勇敢的人,他尽其所能服事他的上帝。请大家为他祷告。”

让我们为布兰特利医师脱离险境、恢复健康代祷!然而,也在面对最近各样灾祸(诸如接二连三空难、以巴和乌克兰和叙利亚战事、台湾高雄气爆、云南强震等)时,不妨反思自己是否能像布兰特利医师一样,确定人生了无遗憾?”

A third Chinese article: 《勇敢的心——感染埃博拉病毒的美国医生布兰特利的故事》

Kent’s statement:
“I am writing this update from my isolation room at Emory University Hospital, where the doctors and nurses are providing the very best care possible. I am growing stronger every day, and I thank God for His mercy as I have wrestled with this terrible disease. I also want to extend my deep and sincere thanks to all of you who have been praying for my recovery as well as for Nancy and for the people of Liberia and West Africa.

“My wife Amber and I, along with our two children, did not move to Liberia for the specific purpose of fighting Ebola. We went to Liberia because we believe God called us to serve Him at ELWA Hospital.

“One thing I have learned is that following God often leads us to unexpected places. When Ebola spread into Liberia, my usual hospital work turned more and more toward treating the increasing number of Ebola patients. I held the hands of countless individuals as this terrible disease took their lives away from them. I witnessed the horror first-hand, and I can still remember every face and name.

serving Facing Ebola... in Chinese [updated]

“When I started feeling ill on that Wednesday morning, I immediately isolated myself until the test confirmed my diagnosis three days later. When the result was positive, I remember a deep sense of peace that was beyond all understanding. God was reminding me of what He had taught me years ago, that He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him.

“Now it is two weeks later, and I am in a totally different setting. My focus, however, remains the same – to follow God. As you continue to pray for Nancy and me, yes, please pray for our recovery. More importantly, pray that we would be faithful to God’s call on our lives in these new circumstances.”

Ebola crisis links:

Ebola Crisis in West Africa
Ken Isaacs, Vice President of Programs and Government Relations for Samaritan’s Purse, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee concerning Ebola in West Africa.

Ebola: My last day in the isolation zone (MSF)
“I enter, take in the scene and stop to look back at Sara, who has yet to see what lies before me. She said later she knew it would be bad from my eyes.”

Fighting Ebola for Us All (NYT)
don’t see Brantly and Writebol as reckless curiosities who somehow brought Ebola upon themselves. See them as leaders on the front line of an effort to help and protect Americans and Africans alike.

Infected Ebola Doctor Kent Brantly Is an Endangered Hero (The Daily Beast)
Even atheists could find a guide to goodness in asking themselves What Would Kent Do?

I’m the head nurse at Emory. This is why we wanted to bring the Ebola patients to the U.S.
These patients will benefit — not threaten — the country.

Americans with Ebola should be welcomed home (CNN)
There are two epidemics in the world today. The first is a troubling spread of the Ebola virus in poor countries in Africa…But the second epidemic is a more dangerous one.

Ebola, research ethics, and the ZMapp serum (WaPo)

Ebola in Africa and the U.S.: A Curation
That I am anti-Ebola panic — and especially anti-Ebola media scrum, which was disgraceful — does not mean I am not concerned about Ebola where it is authentically a problem, which is in the expanding epidemic in West Africa. It is a dreadful outbreak, it needs attention…

Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?

guantouroof Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?There’s an official campaign on in Zhejiang 浙江 province, home of “China’s Jerusalem” (a.k.a. Wenzhou 温州, the epicenter of traditional Chinese Christianity), in which the government is either forcibly removing crosses from the tops of the church buildings or simply bulldozing them. One Catholic news site had documented 64 demolitions as of May 21. A Protestant human rights advocacy group puts the current total at around 360. And it continues with another one reported this week (Telegraph). Demolition crews come in at 3am, and churches are warned that if they don’t allow their cross to be removed then their whole building will be demolished just like that that huge, new, famous one. Church members are putting up resistance, though so far it’s been ultimately futile (see here for the first big clash that made international news, in which church grannies occupied their church building).

guantouprotest Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?

Why? If you answer, “Because they were in violation of building codes! We don’t tolerate that sort of thing in England and neither should the Chinese!” then YOU FAIL China 101 (and this panda facepalm is for you). pandafacepalm Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?If this campaign really was about public safety, building codes and zoning laws as the government claims, then they’d be flattening most of Zhejiang province, not zeroing in on churches (duh — I know I shouldn’t read the comments under news stories, but I still couldn’t believe how many times I saw this idea pop up). If you answer, “Because China’s run by atheistic anti-Christian Communists and it’s just like when Mao was alive!” then you’re slightly closer to the truth, but you’re still headed for summer school.

But the direction of your pet prejudices doesn’t matter because (as often happens) government documents have been leaked, showing us exactly why they’re going after churches. Ian Johnson, a 20-year veteran of Chinese state-religion reportage whom I’ve cited before for his reportage on the FLG, confirms in Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire (NYT) what seasoned China people should have been able to figure out from the details in Tom Phillips’ earlier reporting (Telegraph). I’ll quote bits of Ian Johnson’s latest to fill in the three bullet points below, but you should read the whole thing; there’s lots of important detail I’m leaving out here.

First, what started all this?

The church’s problems seem to have begun with a visit to the region in October by the provincial party secretary, Xia Baolong, a close ally of President Xi. Visiting a new economic zone north of Wenzhou, Mr. Xia was reportedly disturbed that a religious building, especially one seen as representing a foreign belief, dominated the skyline. The next month, members of the congregation said, they were told to remove the cross atop their church’s steeple.

“Xia Baolong came to inspect last autumn, and he saw the cross,” said an official in the Wenzhou government’s religious hierarchy. “He said: ‘Take down the cross. It’s so high, and it’s not appropriate.’ But the people said: ‘Well, we’ve already put it up there, and from a faith point of view, it’s our faith, the cross. How can we take it down?’ ”

sanjianghighwaybefore Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?
sanjianghighwayafter Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?
sanjianghighwayafter2 Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?

“Public safety & zoning violations”? Srsly, guys?

The government has defended its actions, saying the churches violated zoning restrictions. However, an internal government document reviewed by The New York Times makes it clear the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity’s public profile.

The nine-page provincial policy statement says the government aims to regulate “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” religious activities, but it specifies only one religion, Christianity, and one symbol, crosses.

“The priority is to remove crosses at religious activity sites on both sides of expressways, national highways and provincial highways,” the document says. “Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings.”
[...]
Officials argued that the church violated zoning rules, but the provincial policy paper suggests that argument was a tactical cover. The paper, called “Working Document Concerning the Realization of Handling of Illegal Religious Buildings,” said the policy would face international scrutiny so officials should be careful to cloak their effort under the guise of cracking down on building codes. “Be particular about tactics, be careful about methods,” it said, urging officials to focus on the idea of “illegal construction.” “This is crucial to investigate and prosecute from the perspective of laws and regulations to avoid inviting heavy criticism.”
[...]
“They said, ‘This will be your last church for 20 years, so make it big,’ ” said a member of the Sanjiang congregation involved in the negotiations. “They also told us that the development zone was a big project and needed a big church as a sign of how this was an outward-looking community.”

An official in the city’s religious affairs bureau acknowledged that “officials said it could be bigger, but perhaps this was a mistake.”

guantoucrossdown Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?

Why single out Christianity?

Protestantism is also linked to a national debate about “universal values.” Some Chinese Protestants argue that rights such as freedom of expression are God-given, and thus cannot be taken away by the state. These beliefs have led many Protestants to take up human rights work. A disproportionate number of lawyers handling prominent political cases, for example, are Protestant.
[...]
The leveling of the Sanjiang Church came amid growing tensions not only between Christianity and the Communist government, but also between Christianity and other religions. It was preceded by a local petition accusing the church of destroying the area’s feng shui, geomantic principles that underlie traditional Chinese folk religion.
[...]
Increasingly, those other religions are receiving greater support from the Communist Party. In March, Mr. Xi praised Buddhism for its contributions to China.
[...]
Just a decade ago, the Communist Party condemned fortunetelling, feng shui and many traditional funerary rites as “feudal superstition.” Now, these are protected under government programs to support “intangible cultural heritage.”

ChinaSource sums it up in It’s About the Space:

…while space for Christianity and religious belief IS expanding in China, it is still the government that has the power to determine the limits of that space. And every once in awhile it needs to give a visible demonstration of that power.

The on-going church demolition and cross-removal campaign is about the growing ideological and physical space that Christianity is occupying in China; this campaign is “a shot across the bow” of Protestant Christianity.

The Chinese authorities don’t mind tolerating a Christianity that is effectively socially marginalized — i.e. it stays out of public consciousness. But Christians will expand into as much space as they’re allowed, and in the more tolerant cities and provinces like Qingdao in Shandong and (formerly) Zhejiang, that space continues to grow. Sometimes newly developing business districts like to accessorize with a fancy church building; it makes them feel open and cosmopolitan. This was the case with the Sanjiang church above, which the Zhejiang government made an example out of. It’s also what appears to be happening fifteen minutes from our neighbourhood in Qingdao, where an elaborate new church building with fancy stained glass and a river sits beside a big new park and a block away from a shiny shopping centre in a sea of construction.

But in Zhejiang province at least, the local Christian presence has exceeded the current limits of the government’s comfort zone. At the highest levels Christianity is perceived as a tool for foreign antagonists, partly because of Communist China’s ideological heritage, and partly because in China as elsewhere throughout history, the connection between human rights and Christianity is becoming increasingly clear — Christianity is disproportionately represented among China’s human rights agitators.

Also from the Ian Johnson and the NYT:

P.S. - Here’s two related things — an explanation of the Chinese words for “church”, and a translated bit from a Chinese pastor, calling for Chinese Christians to re-think their focus on church buildings in light of the recent conflict. (Chinese Christians — and local governments developing new districts — do tend to have a ‘thing’ for fancy church buildings.) At the very least, it’s an interesting anecdote for how Chinese Christians are processing this particular campaign:

When it comes to our faith, the word jiaohui (church, congregation, fellowship) is not the same as jiaotang (church building). It may be possible to deal violently with a jiaotang, but not with the jiaohui. Christians shouldn’t be so sad. Maybe this is a good time to reflect and wonder if we have put too much focus on church buildings. With this jiaotang now destroyed, we should focus our efforts on building the jiaohui.
[...]
The church (jiaohui) is not a church building (jiaotang). The original meaning of the term church (jiaohui) is “a people called by God gathered together.” The key terms are “called by God,” “people,” and “gather together.” It does not say that that “gathering together” must be done in a church building (jiaotang). Protestant theology has always emphasized that the key functions of the church (jiaohui) are “preaching the Word” and “properly administering the sacraments.” These two principles define what a true church (jiaohui) is. It says nothing about a building.

cranecrossbanner Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?

P.P.S. – For some further perspective on persecution, consider that at the same time Zhejiang province is bulldozing church buildings, this woman just gave birth in shackles on death row and will receive 100 lashes before she is hanged… because she’s not Muslim.

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

[UPDATE: After supposedly striking a deal to save the church building, gov't seals off access and tears it down. Scroll to bottom for more photos and quotes.]

* * * * *

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 [UPDATE]

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

…specifically, by painting “demolish” and “illegal construction” on the outside of the building. I suspect that got church-goers’ attention:

chai Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from govt bulldozers [UPDATE]

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 the 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 [UPDATE]

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.

Update: Demolition

(Images and quotes from this Telegraph article and @tomphillipsin.)

Near the root of this conflict are provincial and local gov’t concerns that Christianity in Wenzhou is growing out of control:

Provincial authorities deny they are waging an orchestrated campaign against Christian places of worship. However, Feng Zhili, the head of Zhejiang’s ethnic and religious affairs committee, complained earlier this year that Christianity’s spread had been “too excessive and too haphazard”.

See where this church sat along the highway:

sanjianghighway Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from govt bulldozers [UPDATE]

And so they got the occupiers out and neutralized, sealed off access, and brought in the excavators:

After mounting their high-profile occupation in early April, many protesters withdrew from Sanjiang church after its leaders appeared to have negotiated a compromise with the government.

However, that deal appears to have broken down in recent days with reports that some church leaders and worshippers had been harassed and detained by security agents and officials.

“All the roads are blocked, you can’t get close to the church,” said a local Protestant leader, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the government.

Photographs sent to The Telegraph and posted on social media sites showed at least four excavators that appeared to be ripping down large sections of the church’s exterior.

sanjiangclose Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from govt bulldozers [UPDATE]

Other images showed black police vans, military trucks and security agents standing on the main road outside.

sanjiangmilitary Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from govt bulldozers [UPDATE]

Church members told The Telegraph authorities had attempted to silence the congregation and said they believed their communications were being monitored. “My phone is not safe,” said one.

Asked to comment on Monday’s demolition, a propaganda official from Zhejiang’s Communist Party Committee said, “I don’t know” before the line went dead.

(Full article here.)

sanjiangside Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from govt bulldozers [UPDATE]

There are still appeals to Beijing, even from the head of China’s gov’t-controlled seminary:

In an unusual step, Chen Yilu, the head of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, spoke out against the provincial government’s “crude and hard-line” handling of the Sanjiang church crisis.

In a strongly-worded commentary that has been circulating online, Mr Chen said the incident would damage the Communist Party’s image as well as harming “social stability”. He called on Beijing to “intervene as soon as possible to avoid further deterioration”.

But, as they say, “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (皇帝).

sanjiangdown Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from govt bulldozers [UPDATE]


More from this particular soapbox:

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:

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.