I still recall the day that I met a Chinese Christian in Shanghai. A bearded man who loved to narrate while a pianist provided accompaniment to his vocals (I did that once at a gathering, playing Für Elise while he narrated something – I don’t remember what). An entrepreneur whose company worked in the B2B industry (something about matching client needs with the services provider whose specialities aligned most closely with the former’s requirements). He often quoted passages from the Bible in our conversations. He went to church every Sunday.
Curiously, in my conversations with other Chinese Christians, the subject of foreign missionaries in 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century China is recalled with fondness. Notably absent is the linkage of missionary activity with imperialist doctrine; notably present is its linkage with charity. In a country where historical narratives are moulded according to party doctrine, why the romanticization of the country’s experience with evangelism?
In my conversation with a chauffeur in Shanghai, there is a similar romanticization at work: the depiction of Mao as a great figure, a leader intolerant of corruption, whose righteous indignation often resulted in the execution of one malfeasant official or another.
Then there are the Buddhist temples and Taoist pagodas scattered all over China. All painted in vibrant red and whose roofs are usually cast in golden hues. Jing’an Temple, whose golden roofs can be seen glittering from afar on a clear day, is, nominally, a Buddhist Temple. Qingcheng Mountain, a couple hours’ train ride from Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province, is bedecked with Taoist temples and shrines, many of which are painted in vibrant hues, and whose exteriors and interiors are often decorated with faux-gold linings. Both are hardly faithful representations of the two religions.
In Jing’an Temple, the only statue of any historical interest and significance is housed in a side chamber, shunted into a forgotten corner, while a larger, gaudier replica occupies the temple’s central position. Throughout the complex, various gold jewelers vie for attention peddling their golden jewelry. And in that dark, forgotten corner, the statue of Buddha rests, its head concealed by the low entrance ceiling.
At the top of Qingcheng Mountain, I nearly got decapitated by falling roof tiles, as workers were working on repairing the small pagoda; the exterior walls were already painted with a gaudy red, giving the impression of a bleeding torso.
When the dominant visual representations of Buddhism and Taoism have degenerated to gaudy monuments, is there any surprise that some members of the privileged social elite have sought to distance themselves from these philosophies in favour of quoting the Bible?
Ironically, that seems to be the extent of their understanding of Christianity. It is easy to preach to others “to turn the other cheek,” but much harder to actually do it. Remember the bearded entrepreneur? When his child was bullied by another kid at school and the teacher refused to acknowledge that bullying exists in the classroom, he resorted to hitting the kid. “I would love to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” he told me once over dinner. “What are your thoughts on the current situation between Palestine and Israel?” I asked him, to which he had no response.
Perhaps most shocking, however, was his denigration of the Chinese philosophies in favour of Christianity. To paraphrase what he said in a conversation we had over six months ago: “None of the Chinese philosophies teach people how to treat others morally; only Christianity does so.” And when I started to present counter-arguments to his claim, he cut me off by continuing his monologue.
Some religions may be monotheistic, but none ought to be construed as monolithic. Any singular interpretation of any religious text has one inherent flaw: the interpretation is done by a human being.
It is rare for a Chinese Christian (in China) to be challenged in his/her convictions, as most people in the country are not familiar with that particular faith, hence affording the Christian an illusion of spiritual sophistication, of the moral high ground. And when that narrative is disrupted by a person with some knowledge of the faith (I had a missionary visit me on a weekly basis when I first immigrated to Vancouver), the conversation becomes a dance of “but the Bible states,” and “don’t you see the contradictions between your words and actions?” An aversion to friction emerges from these encounters, a refrain of my attempts at meaningful discussions about religion(s).
In China, Gaud has replaced God, as Buddha sheds a silent tear.
And yet it may be in China that I have found my salvation – I now understand some of my parents’ anguish and pain, as they see their spiritual, philosophical, and cultural heritage continually ground to gaudy gold-dust and self-serving epithets.
Now, I must strive to ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain. And that begins with my own introspection.
See you next week,