300km/hr to Beijing

Saturday, December 5th

by David Jones

Today the delegation rode China’s ultra-fast train from the ancient, southern capital of Nanjing to the modern, northern capital of Beijing. After two intense days of consultation at the Nanjing Theological Seminary, today brought a lighter schedule: a four hour train ride, a walk through Tiananmen Square, and a visit to the Forbidden City. Put another way, today was a journey through old China and new China, and, moving from the resting place of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Nationalist Revolution to the seat of power of Communist China; we rode, very obviously, against the political backdrop of a century of dramatic transformation. Reaching speeds of over 300km/hr on the train, the rapid pace of change across China and within Chinese Christianity, and the complexities and tensions resulting from this change—deepening with every passing day—preoccupied me (and, I imagine, many other delegates) from morning to night. We have heard a great deal from our hosts about the ongoing struggle of Chinese Christians to contextualize or indigenize or inculturate—many terms are used—their Christian Church to Chinese society; it is mesmerizing to dwell on this process in the midst of China’s opening to the world.

Tiananmen Square 2 - Alan
Tiananmen Square – photo by Alan Lai

In any case, arriving in Beijing brought this into focus. Shanghai teems with commerce, not unlike New York City. The young people dress well and conspicuously, as our young people in our cities do, a fashionable vanguard of a consumer-driven culture. Suzhou, a city of manageable scale only after the disorienting scale of Shanghai, seems, at once, under construction and distinctly realized. Nanjing, with its modest population of eight million, seemed almost—almost—familiar to my Toronto-cast eyes. Along the way the taste and texture of the food has marked our progress; the jellyfish and eel of the port city of Shanghai has given way to the salted duck of the Yangtze River of Nanjing as we’ve made our way north. Our Chinese Christian hosts have demonstrated the hospitality to which many in our Church aspire to in fellowship or tea time in parlours across our own country. Every dish at every meal has been identified for us by CCC TSPM guide SHI Mei-Ying or by Rev. Chris or by Tony or Leo in Shanghai. Every city, every Chinese Church encounter, and every cultural excursion has been kindly led by a sister or brother in Christ, and the peace of Christ has been always identified and honoured.

On the Train 1
Gail Thornhill and Janet Gear – photo by Alan Lai

I have heard my fellow delegates discussing the experience of “un-learning” as well as the food and the impressive scale of China. We all arrived with certain prior knowledge and prior ignorance of this giant country. By now, after four cities in seven days, the delegation is well prepared, even altogether given, to future possibilities of relationship and sharing; prior assumptions have been supplanted by fresh inquisitiveness and authentic embrace.

Yet, when we ride at 300km/hr, glimpsing rural hardships and quiet landscapes between seemingly random high-rises and cranes endlessly and loudly at work—when we travel from Shanghai to Beijing at an impossible speed in a country undergoing unlikely change—I, at least, feel totally overwhelmed. What is the vision of the Chinese Christian Council? How does it mediate between such disparate forces as Western-influenced conservative evangelism in its congregations’ pews and a majority Communist atheist culture? Meanwhile, what is the vision of the Communist Party for China? What does the gilded capitalism of Shanghai have to do with the Party’s founding? How does the Chinese Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement chart a course of progressive post-denominationalism in its uniquely complicated context? Hurtling towards Beijing, or striding across Tienanmen Square, everything in China is moving so fast.

On the Train - David
As the train flies past – David Jones
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