On the way to a bar at Sanlitun, the most fashionable district of Beijing, a girl dressed up to the nines like she’s about to go clubbing stopped me and asked, “Would you like to hear about Jesus?”
I never expected to hear this in this part of town. Out of bafflement, I refused gently and walked on.
Do I look like someone who needs salvation? In fact, I would like getting to know something about Jesus, but perhaps not from them.
In fact, according to friends around me, most of us have encountered such experiences whether it’s in a mall, on the street or some random party. These “self-claimed” preachers would just bump into you and require your attention to listen to their preaching.
How Christianity came to China?
Christianity has at one point been a rather lonely religion in China, when believers gather in rather confined groups. In fact, if questioned by any of my foreign friends, I would say China is more or less a secular country on the whole, with a large population of atheists. According to the White Paper of the religious situation in China, the country now has a Christian population of over 38 million, with around 6 million Catholics, altogether 3.17% of the total population (1.386 billion). However, according to the Guardian, the actual total number might double to 60 million.
Most of the central provinces are still more or less immersed in a Buddhist atmosphere. Almost every geographical region has a famous Buddhist or Taoist mountain. Comparatively, Christian or Catholic churches are not so great in number.
Back in the day, western preachers already found their way to the mysterious oriental land, as early as in Tang Dynasty. Nestorianism (Jing jiao), an early branch of Christianity left its marks in an era of Chinese history, that is most open and receptive towards foreign influences.
In the 29th year of Wanli era, Ming dynasty (1601 A.D.), Italian priest Matteo Ricci and Spaniard Diego de Pantoja traveled all the way from Europe to Beijing, bringing with them the Map of the World, piano and most importantly the Bible as precious presents for the emperor. They also earned their permanent residence in the capital city, which laid an early foundation for the entry of Christianity into China. During that time, Christianity established its limited presence among royal families and intellectual elites.
We also had a rather different “preacher” called Hong Xiuquan from the Qing dynasty. He was a leader of a rebellious army of farmers. After he failed the national selection exam for the fourth time, he set up the first-ever “God worshiping” organization. He is the self-claimed second son of God and little brother of Jesus. He began to call Jesus “Heavenly brother”.
In the mid-1900s, he traveled specifically to Guangzhou to study Christianity, but failed to be baptized due to his “impure faiths”. Most of his “teachings” were influenced by the earliest Christian homilies Good Words exhorting the Age, though they are mostly for the benefit of his ruling and rebellious uprising. It was originally written to overthrow the Qing dynasty, rallying forces of the general public. The language was so plain and simple so that every ordinary commoner could understand them. Like what’s written in the Ten Commandments, it lectures people on avoiding vicious behaviors like killing, stealing and gambling. Most importantly, the creeds he created for his believers point out “the heavenly father is there for us all, and everyone under the heaven is brother and sister.”
He told all his brothers and sisters, “we shall share every piece of farming land, food, clothing and money. Equality is everywhere, and every one of us will lead a well-fed and well-clad life” More like an idealist brainwashing anarchy than a religious group.
He particularly likes the word “brothers”, because it gives out a feeling of democracy, universal harmony and that he’s somewhat better than the brutal reign of the Qing government. However, there is at least one thing that makes him less of a brother of Jesus, is that he himself had numerous wives all his life, as sex servants waiting to address to his every need.
How do Christians preach in China?
My two best personal experiences related to Jesus in China were not in Beijing. Back in my hometown, a second-tier capital city in the North, Sunday evangelical churches were mostly crowded with housewives and grey-haired ladies. I remembered going to some of their events and gatherings. The choir’s singing was indeed very moving and tear-jerking. The regional priest gave us insightful lectures on the interpretations of the Holy Bible. However, I failed to resonate with the feelings of those present when they talked passionately about how Jesus would save you from some plane crash and incurable diseases. During the spring festival, those believers would also put up those traditional Chinese couplets, except what’s written on them would be Jesus related.
After all, it’s a good thing that they find Jesus. Whether they are cured by Christianity, or reach a state of inner peace brought by sharing a faith is unknown.
Later in college, I had a junior schoolmate who was a truly pious believer. At some point, she seemed to be a little bit mentally depressed, and was rather sensitive when it came to socializing with people. She would always post on social media, about tenants from the Bible Corinthians, like “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” She told me it is a person’s despair that leads her to God.
I remembered she would tell me the biggest differences between Buddhism and Christianity, is that compared with Christianity, Buddhism is a lonely religion, and that monks and secular believers would spend years practicing alone and at some point finally come to enlightenment in a remote temple in the middle of nowhere. However, Christians are more easy-going and like to be with people, and love to share everything. The very bustle and excitement of being together with people heals her depression. Their gatherings every week worked, in a sense, as a loving support group session, where people would tell stories about getting over a close relative’s death, a cheating boyfriend or even small things like struggling to lose weight.
I just went to their Easter baptizing event on April 20th, while they had three of those attendees baptized by an experienced priest. “Do you admit that Jesus died for our sins, and resurrected on the third day?” He asked while taking some water from a white plate to wet their hair. I was deeply touched by the personal story one of the girls told in front of everyone, about her broken relationship, which lasted for ten months several years back. But it devastated her, and until recently she knew from other friends that her ex got married, and she prayed for his happiness in marriage and let him go at heart in the end. She said it’s Jesus that helped her get rid of all the worst memories.
But still, I’m not sure if it’s just a cultural thing, that it is still a novelty in the Chinese culture, that usually our spiritual enlightenment doesn’t come from sharing groups.
After all, a religion helps a person find peace at heart, or at least somewhere, whether it’s with people or without.
However, there are also more radical Chinese preaching groups that I’ve come across. They see the Bible as their only source of truth and believe every word of it, with no room for interpretation. Once, my friend questioned them about the Lamb of God, about God’s test for Abraham of sacrificing his child’s life, most of them would say if it was me, I would unquestionably pick up a knife to kill my son.
Churches in China
During my short stay in Macao several years back, Mazu temple of course still enjoys booming pilgrimage from the fishing families, and they have specially shaped whirling incense that resembles a fisherman’s bamboo hat. However, more densely located are the Christian churches, built in a Portuguese style as it is the former colony of this European country. According to current studies, a lot of those fishermen by sea-side regions converted from their original religion Mazu (Chinese goddess of the sea, usually worshiped in Southern sea-side areas) to Jesus.
In those Portuguese style churches in Macao, they have Mass every week, I had wanted to attend one out of curiosity but wasn’t lucky enough to come across it. However, in order for their wishes to be heard, visitors are allowed to light their own candles in front of Jesus statuettes. I quite like the atmosphere, no crowded worshipers or visitors, no tourist groups. Just utter peace, as if it was a small town in Europe, with old ladies selling pork burgers on the street. It is what a religious town ought to look like, I imagine.
Back in Beijing, some youngsters welcome certain Christian rituals not for the sake of their beliefs, but because they think it’s really cool and trendy, like going to the church for Christmas or a wedding ceremony.
In The Church of the Saviour, colloquially referred to as Xishiku Church, the largest and oldest Catholic church in Beijing, two huge stone lions are guarding the gate, which creates an interesting combined view of western and eastern culture. Most importantly, there is a confessional, one of the reasons visitors flood there. It excites outsiders thinking so many confessions are made in that small partition. Believer or not, it seems really reassuring to have someone listen to your sins and tell you that you are going to be saved after all.
Wandering about the 798 art district, I just bumped into yet another civil missionary asking me if I want to hear about Jesus. I said no, sort of mechanically, when I realized I should have just said, “Yes, What about him?”
What about Christianity in China? Well, at least Christians are not alone.
Featured photo credit to churchstorys.blogspot.com