пятница, 18 января 2013 г.

Impressions of China (Part IV): Christianity in China

Christianity first appeared in China back in the 7th century when Nestorian monks such as Alopen from Syriac-speaking Mesopotamia brought the Luminous religion to the Central Kingdom. This is recorded on the famous Nestorian Stele of 781.

The Roman Catholic church began its own mission somewhat later in the 13th century, later renewed in the 16th century by Francis Xavier and others. As a testimony to the Roman Catholic church in China  there is a huge Gothic-style church in Jinan (photo) on the campus of Shandong University. The Russian Orthodox Church opened its mission in the 1682 based at the Russian Embassy in Peking.

The first Protestant missionary was Robert Morrison in 1807 based in the port city Canton, as at that time the Empire was closed for foreigners. As a result of the shameful Opium wars, treaties in 1842 and 1858 opened China up for the import of opium, also affording entry for thousands of foreign missionaries, the most famous being Hudson Taylor. Foreign influence, including missionary work, was a bone of contention in the 19th and 20th centuries and was a factor in at least two bloody, mass uprisings (Taiping and Boxer rebellions).

In 1914 there were 1.5 million Romans Catholics and 250 thousand Protestants in China (with a total population of 400 million). The Chinese church was established - with every prospect of further growth. However in the wake of the Revolution of 1949 all foreign missionaries were deported and the church subjected to persecution.

Fast forward to 2013 and the situation has been completely transformed. Not only did the Chinese church survive the ordeals of the Cultural Revolution, it thrived and grew as an indigenous movement and currently represents anything from 40 to 100 million people. There are government-approved Protestant and Catholic denominations, officially numbering 18  million and 6 million adherents respectively. There are also uncalculated millions of Protestants and Catholics who worship outwith these structures, a conservative estimate being an additional 30 million and 7 million respectively - and maybe in reality many more.

On Christmas Eve we attended a carol concert at a state-approved Protestant church, along with various foreigners (hence the non-Chinese at the front of the photo). At a guess the building holds a thousand people and it was full an hour before the 7pm start. People were standing at the back and there was a big video screen and speakers to relay the service to those outside. All ages were represented including families with children. While waiting for the concert to begin, the congregation were led in singing Silent Night and other famous western carols in fervent Chinese rendition. The concert began with a brief and somewhat scripted address by the pastor wearing an anorak (it was pretty cold in the building!). The main part of the service was a succession of performances by choirs of various ages, including a children's choir. Towards the end there seemed to be rather out-of-place pieces on the theme of 'the united peoples of China' - a ballet-style dance and a humorous piece by Uighurs (Turkic people native to China). However overall the impression was of a vigorous church celebrating the Saviour's birth for all to hear.

Speaking to non-Christians (Jiao Li, my sister in law Miao Miao and others) during our visit, the impression I got was that Christianity is present, accepted and growing, but, certainly among those non-Christians I met, not represented among their immediate circle of family and friends and something of an unknown entity. There appear to be only a handful of state-approved churches in a city of 4-6 million and no sign of any unofficial churches. Modern Chinese are open to talk and ask questions  about God, raising the questions themselves, but also clearly with very little previous knowledge. This would also be true in relation to the more traditional Buddhist faith, apparently practised only by a small minority especially among young people (despite the presence of a huge shrine complex in the city - photo). One imagines that materialism and the demands of everyday life currently take up the time and energy which might be devoted to spiritual searching or the practice of faith.  

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