“A bridge towards friendship”

Monday, December 7th

by Patti Talbot

Our last full day in Beijing, and in China, was just that: a full day indeed, rich with encounters with officials of the Chinese and Canadian governments, with academics and with Chinese Christian colleagues related to the Beijing Council of Churches.  The day began with a visit to the office of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), a branch of the Chinese Government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs.  We were graciously received by Ms. XIAO Hong, Director General of SARA’s Foreign Affairs Department.  Together we sipped jasmine tea in an exquisite reception room, part of a restored family residence of the Imperial Ching dynasty, built some 300 years ago.

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UCC Moderator Jordan Cantwell meets with Director General Ms. Xiao Hong – photo by Alan Lai

Ms. Xiao gave an overview of the role of SARA vis-à-vis the five officially recognized religions in China: Daoism, Buddhism, [Protestant] Christianity, Catholicism and Islam, explaining that SARA’s first function was to protect these religious communities, as well as provide oversight and guidance.  One of the purposes of our visit was to express appreciation for the official letters of invitation SARA had issued to our delegation at the request of the China Christian Council and National Three Self Patriotic Movement.  Moderator Cantwell described how we had been inspired during our short visit by the life and witness of the Christian Church in Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing and in Beijing.  She related how deeply impressed we have been by the fervent witness, the committed leadership, the efforts at theological reconstruction to continue to ground the Christian Church in China.

“Your words give me great encouragement,” said Ms. Xiao.  “Many foreign delegations come to China with negative views of the Christian Church and of China, that cause harm to good relations.  These perceptions may be shaped by media reports that exaggerate the negative and sensational, and give a very bad impression for those who don’t know this country,” she noted.  Ms. Xiao expressed the desire for more delegations like ours in the future:  “We need exchanges, dialogues and conversations like this we can better know each other, encourage and learn from each other.”

Next it was on to Canadian Embassy, and the official residence of the Canadian Ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques.  There we were greeted by the aroma of coffee and fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. Ambassador Saint-Jacques and colleagues were curious to hear our impressions and experiences of the Christian Church in China.  We found that we knew a lot more than they did about the Protestant Church in Canada – not surprisingly, perhaps.  We left with a commitment to follow-up.

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At the Canadian Embassy – photo by Alan Lai

The afternoon highlight was to the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. There we were received by Institute Director Dr. ZHUO Xinping, a long-time colleague of Ray Whitehead, who has functioned as our delegation’s China consultant and elder.  It was lovely to see Director Zhuo’s delight in welcoming Ray, and his insistence that Ray sit at his right hand – a mark of deep respect and honour.

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Institute Director Dr. Zhuo Xinping and long-time colleague Ray Whitehead – photo by Alan Lai

We enjoyed a couple of hours of engaged and lively conversation.  Director Zhuo had brought several of his academic colleagues with him – all of them young, and engaged in a range of research areas.  A few examples:  Professor TANG Tsao Fong and Professor LIU Shi, both of the Institute’s Department of Christian Studies.  Part of their recent work and research involved exploration of the musical traditions of different Chinese religious traditions, highlighting the relationships among them. Professor WANG Ying spoke about her writing in the area of comparative studies between Buddhism and Christianity in China.  Professor WANG Ai had recently returned from Oxford University and studies in New Testament.  Professor SHI Wun Tang, doing comparative studies between Confucianism and Christianity, had recently published a book entitled “Confucius encounters Jesus,” and moderated an open online discussion forum on the same topic.

 

All of these scholars – and others outside academe – reflect the growing interest in China about religions and spirituality, from Christians and non-Christians alike.

I was struck particularly by the reflections of Director Zhuo about the current moment in China.  We know that the legacy of the Opium Wars, the Unequal Treaties and the experience of Western colonialism has left Christianity in China with what Director Zhou called an “historical shadow”.  We know that the Western missionary movement to China of the 19th and first half of the 20th century was inextricably bound up with the Western colonial and imperial presence in this country.  Frankly, those Western powers did many bad things to China in the past, and Christianity was is part of that history.

Director Zhuo indicated that today China is at a crossroads in its understanding of Christianity.  Further, he noted that solving this “problem of understanding” well, in a considered and rational way, would foster the continued positive contribution of Christianity to Chinese society.  Firmly rooting the Christian Church in the soil of China, in its culture, context, history, society and politics is all part of this essential effort.  We have come to understand better this focus, named by Protestant Christians as Zhong Guo Hua [Sinicization/Chinization] of the Chinese Christian Church and theology in China.

The companionship of partners and friends outside of China is also important, Director Zhuo told us: “As a result of your visit, I hope you will be closer friends of China and the Chinese people, and our efforts to build a harmonious society.  The Church can be a bridge towards friendship rather than confrontation, for the construction of good relationships rather than the destruction of such relationships.”  The invitation to us was clear.

The privilege of meeting Director Zhou, others today and Chinese Church leaders throughout our visit have deepened our awareness of church and society today in China, and with it our responsibility to represent what we have heard and experienced with respect and sensitivity.

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Moderator Jordan Cantwell and Rev. Wu Wei of CCC Beijing – photo by Alan Lai

Our day finished as most have during this visit, in the company of Chinese Christian hosts, sharing delicious, specially prepared food and warm hospitality around tables of friendship and community. Our hosts tonight, Pastor WU Wei and Brother LIU Hongliang of the Beijing Council of Churches and Three Self Patriotic Movement, have become real to us not simply as “partners”, but brothers in Christ.

 

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