the shenzhen gospel

Swedish missionary, Theodore Hamberg arrived in Hong Kong on March 19, 1846. The following year, he joined what became known as the Basel Mission, focusing on converting Hakka communities to Christianity. Indeed, Hamberg was the first to draft a dictionary of Hakka into a western language. Hamberg died in Hong Kong in 1854, however, his efforts to bring the gospel to Hakka people prospered. Located in Langkou Village, Dalang Street, Bao’an District, Shenzhen — and yes, I do enjoy the dense specificity of Chinese place names — the Langkou Gospel Hall (or Church) was built twenty years after Hamberg first arrived in 1866.

The first pastor of the Langkou Gospel Hall was Charles Piton, who served the congregation from 1866 through 1884. The next few years, there was no foreign pastor at the Church. However, in 1891, the German missionary 骆润滋 (and if you know his Western name, please let me know) came to Langkou from the Hong Kong Mission. That same year, the mission also established the “Devout and Chaste” Girls School (虔贞学校), moving from Hong Kong further inland.

During the Mao era, the church and school buildings were used as schools and administrative centers. In 1984, the central government allowed for religious services and the Langkou Gospel Hall reopened as a church. In 2003, the community broke ground to build a new church on neighboring land. The school building was used until 1986 and then abandoned to squatters until recently, when the Dalang Street government decided to restore the school and church as historic buildings. Presumably construction will begin in several months and early next year, the school and former Gospel Hall will reopen as public cultural centers. The Church will continue its mission, including exhibitions that document the history of Christianity in Guangdong generally, but amongst Hakka communities specifically.

Below, impressions of a visit to pre-restored Devout and Chaste Girls School and Langkou Gospel Hall, which is currently occupied by a migrant worker family, who earn their living doing piecework for a nearby factory.

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daoist china: weibaoshan

Another commercial center on the Tea and Horse Route, Weishan (巍山) is located about 75 minutes from Dali. Weishan was the first capital of the Nanzhao, but was soon replaced by Dali, which has a more temperate climate because located on the banks of Lake Erhai (洱海).

One of the main Weishan tourist sites is Weibaoshan (巍宝山), which literally means “Treasure Mountain Wei”. The mountain has been designated a national park and walking paths that thread from and between Daoist temples have been laid. Contemporary Daoists have occupied many of these temples and it is possible to stay the night there for a donation. However, the architectural treasure is the Long Spring Retreat (长春洞) which was constructed between 1779 and 1799 and is dedicated to the Jade Emperor, the Lord of the Underworld.

Sites like Weibaoshan vex me. I studied Chinese language and history in order to experience places like Long Spring Retreat, as if the poetry and philosophy of classical China still animated everyday life. However, 17 years in Shenzhen have taught me that even if the contemporary cultural mix includes Daoism, nevertheless capitalist forms and modern desires more obviously structure human relationships and desires in China.

And yet, if not for capitalist forms, I could not have visited Long Spring because I not only needed to purchase a ticket to enter the park, but also get myself from Shenzhen to Dali, Dali to Weishan, and then from Weishan to the mountain. Alas, none of those plane rides and car trips  manifest the Daoist virtue of regulating my life by according to natural rhythms. Instead, they more properly manifest the US American virtue of satisfying individual desires through post-industrial convenience.

The point seems to be remembering to take time to reflect on our place in the world, not only as individuals, but also as a species. What does it mean to be human? What does Long Spring Retreat teach that we cannot learn through Shenzhen’s rush to reproduce and exceed the material wealth of North America?

Impressions below.

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the 5.12 beichuan incident, nuclear war games, and why the party fears religious organizations

The Party’s refusal to either share power or make political decision making transparent and open to public debate creates mistrust: just what have they got to hide anyway, inquiring minds want to know. In addition, through its control of cultural resources, including the arts and the right to convene, the Party has demonstrated a refusal to acknowledge any viewpoints other than those that shore up the influence of high-ranking officials.

Neitizens and western journalists have responded to Party control over and access to information with reports that (more often than not) conflate conspiracy theories with the “truth”. Not unexpectedly, citizens spend an inordinate of time trying to piece together a big picture out of rumors, veiled allusions and gut feelings. Sadly, the more the Party doesn’t say about Beichuan or Bo Xilai or Chen Guangchen, for example, the more accusatory rumors circulate via the net, weibo, and text messages and with them the festering anxiety that no one can be trusted to speak truthfully. Thus, in today’s China, common sense has it that Party members don’t tell the truth because the truth would harm them politically, while the rest of us are incapable of telling the truth because we don’t know it.

Keywords of the day – trust (信任), good faith (诚意), and loyalty (忠诚) – pivot on the relationship between a healthy society and how good our word might be. The characters for person (人) and word (言), for example constitute 信, the first character in the compound for trust. The character word (言) also appears in sincerity (诚, literally “word” “is realized”), which is an element of the expression good faith (literally “sincere meaning”) and loyalty (faithful sincerity). Moreover, the question of belief (信仰, literally a person who trusted and admired) resonates throughout all levels of society and the most trusted forms of organized alternative to Party disinformation and rumor mongering tend to be religious – Tibetan Buddhism, Xinjiang Islam, and popular Buddhism, Falungong, Christianity in Han communities.

“A Report on and Lessons from the 5.12 Underground Nuclear Explosion at Longmen Mountain, Beichuan,” a recent Epoch Times (大纪元) article illustrates the co-dependent relationship between belief, opposition, and efforts to figure out the truth. The Epoch Times, of course, is the official Falungong news outlet and the article author Lu Deng is the spokesperson for the Chinese Christian Democratic Party. The gist of the article is that the Party used the 5.12 Wenchuan earthquake to cover-up the fact that on the same day, it detonated a nuclear devise at Beichuan, destroying an entire region. Based on a few facts, knowledge of how the Party operates, and deductive reasoning, the argument is compelling and compellingly legal:

The article reconstructs the events of May 12, 2008 by giving a quote from Feng Xiang’s decidedly poetic and vague blog and then re-interpreting it in terms of a nuclear blast. For example, in February 6, 2009 post, Feng Xiang wrote, “In 80 seconds, the mountain collapsed, the ground split open, the mountains shook and the earth moved, the river changed its course. The green mountain lost its color, and all I see is disaster. This was Beichuan’s most devastating moment. A level 8 earthquake, with level 11 destruction”. According to Lu Dong, the phrase “the green mountain lost its color” refers to the fact that all the mountain foliage was burned. Lu Deng also analyzes sections where he asserts that Feng Xiang’s original text, including references to a Chief Pan of the Anti-Chemical Corps of the Second Artillery (二炮防防化部隊隊長番号) have been changed.

As an opening witness, Feng Xiang  (冯翔) is a compelling figure because his position within the Party hierarchy placed in a position to learn the truth, while his loss as a father and a teacher gave him moral authority. Feng Xiang was a teacher and then a vice minister in the Qiang Minority Autonomous County, Beichuan Ministry of Information (北川羌族自治县宣传部). His eight-year old daughter died in the Wenchuan earthquake. Subsequently, his efforts to uncover the truth about her death led to charges that an underground nuclear explosion rather than the Wenchuan earthquake caused the Beichuan disaster. The truth of his position was confirmed through allegations that Feng Xiang was harassed into committing suicide when he attempted to bring this story to the public.

Lu Dong then moves on to analyze corroborating evidence from other sources; it is an “open secret (公开秘密)” that the damage at Wenchuan was minimal and the strength of the quake insufficient to have destroyed Beichuan. In his book “The Epicenter was in Human Hearts (震中在人心)” Mainland author, Li Ming claimed that the Wenchuan quake gave Party officials an excuse to cover-up the real disaster at Beichuan. Web reports suggest the same pattern of information: Wenchuan was serious, but not a disaster and certainly not enough to have decimated Beichuan. Moreover, web posts included reports that indeed anti-chemical corps had gone into the Longmen Mountain Nuclear facility. In addition, local eyewitnesses said that the heat from the blast burned off the skin of water buffalo. Blogger Xiong Furong said, “The geologists may have different explanations for what happened here, but for us ordinary people, we know it was a detonation (熊芙蓉說,“地質專家對此可能有各種不同說法,但對我們普遍人來講,這就是爆炸。)”

Examples from media reports are brought in: a video on youtube; reports from 21st Century Economic Report (21世紀經濟報導) that the mountain continued to reverberate through the night; Southern Weekend (南方週末) reported that the tremors were so strong that villagers clung to each other to keep themselves from falling into the sinkholes; Western China News (華西都市報) reported that in the Green tablets river basin, there were nearly 10 kilometers of cracks in the mountain, some of which were 42 centimeters deep; and even Party media acknowledged the extent and scale of Beichuan exceeded that of Wenchuan. Beichuan TV broadcast, “The entire 2869 km2 County Area was destroyed, 10s of thousands of buildings were destroyed in mudslides. Over one million square meters collapsed and over 100 areas effected by mud. (北川電 「全縣境內2869平方公里受災,出現了數萬處塌方,泥不流和大滑坡。垮塌百萬立方的特大滑坡達100多處.)” A quote from an elderly gentlemen summarizes and ends this section, “The earthquake had the force of the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima (能量相當干400顆廣島原子彈.)”

Lu Dong is relentless in his case. He notes differences between the pattern of damage at Wenchuan, which fell away from an epicenter and Beichuan, which fell in a different pattern, away from Longmen Mountain. Evidence from the Tangshan earthquake is brought in. Even at Tangshan, after the quake subsided there were some buildings and trees standing. In contrast, at Beichuan everything collapsed: 498 kilometers of highway, 6066 kilometers of ordinary roads, 1503 bridges, 131 power stations, 8,944 kilometers of electrical transmission lines, 26,000 kilometers of fiber optic cables, 597 water reservoirs, 9,416 kilometers of channels, 282 broadcast stations, and 2,432 different sites of geological disaster.

Even more disturbingly, after the 5.12 Beichuan disaster, doctors from Sichuan Medical University, the University of Illinois, and Imperial College released studies documenting that many people and animals in the disaster area suffered from radiation poisoning. In addition, specialists suggested that iodine 131 is a radioactive isotope that could have caused spontaneous abortions similar to those seen at Beichuan. However, the Sichuan Party Secretary ordered a blackout on all reports on over 100 fetuses that had died in utero.

If all this wasn’t enough, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency reported that an earthquake did not adequately explain the yellow color and condition of vegetation in Beichuan. Lu Dong ominously concludes, however, that these conditions were consistent with the effects of a nuclear blast. And yes, ongoing Party inspection tours and scientific reports from Beichuan seem consistent with the after effects of a nuclear blast and not an area healing from a natural earthquake.

Clearly, Lu Dong believes that there were underground nuclear experiments at the Longmen Mountain Facility and that an accident occurred. He is a compelling rhetorician, concluding his argument with the reminder that Hawkish General Zhu Chenghu (朱成虎) has threatened to use nuclear weapons to destroy the United States if the country should ever help Taiwan and calling for the Party to meet face these accusations in court.

And there it is. The reason that the Party fears religious organizations.  The unstable situation of chronic Party secrecy and corrosive public suspicions has created an environment in which many people “don’t feel safe (没有安全感)”. However, religious groups continue to investigate and make public charges (if even from abroad), rather than hiding behind anonymous weibos and innuendo. The Chinese Christian Democratic Party has thrown down a political gauntlet in a Falungong newspaper, which also publishes pieces that support the Dalai Lama, forcing those of us living in murky half-truths and deliberate cover-ups: when all is said and done, who do you believe?

怀疑: A Cross Cultural Parable

This and next weekend, the teachers of the Shenzhen University Department of Acting are performing a Chinese adaptation of Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, or 怀疑 as it is translated. After the show, several friends approached me and asked me what I thought of the acting. I said that I had enjoyed the performance. They looked at me strangely and pressed, “No, really, what did you think?” Evidently, they didn’t like it so I asked what they thought. Answers included, “I keep hoping that they’ll make me get nervous with the anticipation of waiting to see the show.”

“And you don’t feel that way?”

Flat out, “No.”

Another mentioned that he thought the actors were doing the best they could. But. But?

“They just don’t get the story. I mean, I don’t feel it with them.”

“What about the story?” I started asking, “Is the question of Doubt/ 怀疑 important to you?”

A considering look and then, “The actors are supposed to make me care about the topic. That’s their job.”

As the title suggests, Doubt is a teaching story, figuring the incessant problematic of faith in rigidly dogmatic Sister Aloysius’s certainty that the personable Father Flynn sexually abused Donald Muller, the school’s first black student. The story is set in the Bronx, during the fall of 1964 and the historical background matters because the characters also function allegorically for larger social shifts and ruptures. In 1962, Vatican II opened, but would not close until 1965, when the Council famously challenged the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world, acknowledging that truth could exist outside the community and declaring that the mass could be given in vernacular languages instead of Latin. Sister Aloysius embodies these past certainties and the Church’s previously unquestioned authority in all things moral, which tended to be, well everything; she suspected children of harming themselves to play hooky and saw sexual abuse in slight gestures. In contrast, Father Flynn represents the newer, hipper face of the Church; he plays basketball, wants to sing secular Christmas carols, and likes his tea sweet, perhaps even, too sweet, hmm?

Similarly, even though Donald Muller never appears onstage, his shadowy presence signals that like the Catholic Church, New York society was also changing and nowhere more than the Bronx. In 1963, Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway was completed. The bridge displaced families and businesses, was a constant source of noise and air pollution, and catalyzed the decline of the South Bronx from a district of family neighborhoods and businesses to the poorest district in the United States, despite its proximity to Manhattan. In fact, the South Bronx erupted into American national consciousness in 1977, when during a baseball broadcast, Howard Cosell exclaimed, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is burning!” Sister James and Mrs. Muller are left to deal with the spiritual and practical aftermath, respectively. Sister James agonizes over the meaning of faith when innocence has been shatter and Mrs. Muller begs to protect her child despite his “differences”. Donald is black and may or may not be “that way” — his father and former classmates regularly beat him because they suspect he is — although Stonewall was only five years in the future, 1969.

Contemporary history also shapes reception. In 2002, the Boston Globe broke the story of sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. Shanley first staged Doubt and won the Pulitzer in 2005. Soon, productions had been mounted in Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, and New Zealand. Roman Polanski directed the play in Paris; it was also staged in Venezuela and London. In 2008, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffmann performed the antagonists, Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Clearly, Shanley’s nuanced exploration of moral ambiguity resonated with English-speaking audiences precisely because it resonated at so many levels — historically, spiritually, and personally. Or as an older Catholic friend summed up his response to the play, “Of course he did it and yes, she’s a bitch. But still, none of that changes the truth…” And implicit in this statement, reverberating through our souls is the desire to believe, to have faith. And yet, we doubt. As Shanley elegantly described our situation, “For those so afflicted, only God knows their pain. Their secret. The secret of their alienating sorrow. And when such a person, as they must, howls to the sky, to God: ‘Help me!’ What if no answer comes?”

And therein lies our cross-cultural rub. For my Chinese friends there was no story except as conveyed by the actors. 怀疑 means doubt and suspect, and is often used to describe situations when someone may or may not be lying, as in, “I suspect she’s actually dating him,” or “I suspect he’s hiding something.” In the final scene, when Sister Aloysius cried, “我怀疑!” the audience seemed confused, unmoved by the Sister’s predicament. Maybe had cried, “无地自容” the audience may have understood that the foundation of her life had shifted, and she would never again act from life-affirming conviction. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, for those of us raised Irish-American Catholic, a profound chasm separates religious doubt from secular suspicions. We are taught, after all, to render unto Caesar, but in the last instance, when forced to choose, to vote our conscious, so to speak, we move within and against the heart’s fragile certainties; we yearn to be one with God and he is silent, but we must act as if he had answered our call. Thus, in the final scene, when doubt brings Sister Aloysius to despair, I understand. I am with her regardless of the quality of the acting. The acting was sufficient to move me because, as Stanley reminds us, “Doubt can be as powerful a bond and sustaining as certainty,” which I amend with the cross cultural caveat, “especially amongst former Catholics…”