By Sarah Kim
Written in Chinese, China literally means the “Middle Land.” The country does occupy a huge portion of the land in the middle of the globe with its 1.3 billion large population. That’s four times the U.S. population, and 20% of the world population.
Last May, I have had the privilege of visiting China, made possible by the Brown Grant (General Ministries, UCC) for a continuing education excursion that was attached to my trip to Korea, which I will discuss in my next report. I met our host Rev. Dr. Xiaoling Zhu (Global Ministries, UCC) in Beijing and traveled to Shanghai and Nanjing with ten members of the Asian Pacific Forum, a group of ecumenical church leaders from various locations in the U.S., who works with Asian partners on global ministries. Together we visited Yanjing Theological Seminary (Beijing), China Christian Council (Shanghai), and Nanjing Union Theological Seminary (Nanjing), to learn, share, and strengthen ties for collaborative work around theological education and church and social ministries.
Although I had lived in South Korea in my childhood and have visited Japan as adult, I was unsure of what to expect of their neighboring country in visiting for the first time. As a major power in Northeast Asia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) boasts deep, magnificent historical roots, evident in the richness of its culture, tradition, language and philosophy; but the communist nation also has suffered much in its years of modern history.
Historically, China treated Korea (back then Korea was one, not divided) as an extension of its state, much like how it is treating Taiwan, and more so, Tibet now under One-China policy. China also has been at war with Japan many times, resulting in the Japanese occupation during WWII. Korea was also occupied by Japan during that time—for as long as 36 years—then was attacked shortly after by North Korea whose military support came from the communist China and the Soviet Union. So, the feelings go to and from all directions, which adds to the tension and the complexity of the balance of power in the region.
Shanghai cityscape (May 2013)
My initial impression was how amazingly big the country is. Beijing and Shanghai redefined the term “big city” for me, with enormous commercial buildings, apartment complexes, factories, and train stations. UCC President Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Black, who was in China during the week before I was there said in a sermon, “You have to go to China to see what’s happening in the world,” referring to the proliferating factories in China that are practically supplying all the goods in the world. With so many people in the job market, labor is cheap in China; and with an open economic policy, the newly risen capitalists—a selected few, I might add—are in the advantage of reaping the benefits, inevitably increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.
When our group visited the China Christian Council (CCC) in Shanghai, we learned about the rapid urbanization that is happening in the nation and its implications for the church. CCC reported that by 2012, urbanization reached 50% in China. It is projected that by 2025, 2/3 of China’s population will live in the cities, and by 2030 it will reach 80%. This seems to be an inevitable trend given that all the (factory) jobs are located in and around the cities while rural areas are being deprived of resources for development.
China Christian Council (Shanghai)
The impacts of urbanization are many: 1) changes in lifestyles; 2) decline of the rural churches; 3) diversified church membership with more young people and rural migrant workers; 4) increased need for pastors for growing urban churches; 5) the need for churches’ involvement in social ministries. Rev. Zhu pointed out the problem of the lack of trained pastors in China despite the rapid growth of Christian churches since the end of the Cultural Revolution some 30 years ago. Among the 22 theological education institutions that are currently in operation in China, only one of them—Nanjing Union Theological Seminary located in the city of Nanjing—offers graduate level degree program in theology.
During my visit to the Yanjing Theological Seminary in Beijing, I had the opportunity to ask the President: “Can your students, upon graduating from school, fill the positions in the churches?” Rev. Dr. Yin Gao’s answer was no, because the students are still “too young, without much experience,” since Yanjing is a bachelor level college and not a graduate seminary. It’s a small wonder that many urban churches with thousands in membership are often dependent on the leadership of one trained pastor if not voluntary lay leaders without much theological training.
Chapel at Yanjing Seminary (Beijing)
Evidently, theological education and leadership formation for ministry are urgent issues in China. The faculty at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary—NUTS, as the largest theological institution, has a total of about 300 students in bachelor and graduate degree programs—who received us warmly shared with us candid stories about how investing in a faculty personnel or a student in training sometimes can end up being a disappointing endeavor when they don’t come back to China to serve after studying abroad through the financial support of the seminary.
At Nanjing Union Theological Seminary (Nanjing)
After long hours on the bullet train, buses, and taxis traveling through three cities in one week, I needed to take a deep breath, with a tinge of discouragement, at the face of the situation of China and its churches. “You’ve only seen the cities with fancy buildings and big roads, you haven’t seen the rural area, it’s embarrassing,” said Rev. Zhu bluntly, hinting at the horrid conditions of poverty in the countryside. His statement was such a contrast to what my friend, a Beijing resident, said to me: “My boss is so rich, he owns all the buildings on the entire block.” She was referring to the wealthiest district in Beijing where the hotel she works at is located. Apparently, some are billionaires in China, while the most of the population live in various degrees of poverty. There continues to be much fluctuation and turmoil in the nation with so much ongoing economic activities and constant migration of population. For some, such turmoil serves as opportunity for fortune; for others, it’s madness for survival.
I would like to end this report with a notion of hope. I believe the hope lies in the hearts of the people of China. I say this with a dose of grief, in remembrance of the bloody oppression they had to endure during the Cultural Revolution where any talent of artistry unique to the Chinese people and the profundity of their religious and philosophical traditions had been oppressed, stripped away, and annihilated by its own government. In my view, this was even possible because of the goodness—or naiveté—that defines the character of Chinese people. Bertrand Russell once assessed the Chinese way of life as having the following characteristics*: 1) production without possession, 2) action without self-assertion, and 3) development without domination. These characteristics are, Russell adds, “virtues chiefly useful to others, and vices chiefly harmful to oneself.”* Unfortunately, unprepared goodness has a tendency of becoming vulnerable in the face of evil, as evidenced by our own biblical traditional narrative.
What is disconcerting is the possible demoralization of inherent goodness that threatens hope. Demoralization has many roots, the primary one being the economic reason, followed by socio-political policies—e.g. the One-Child policy—that prohibit natural ways of being human. Meanwhile, such predicaments always engage us back to our own roots—to our connectedness with the Ultimate Reality, the Source of Life, in the name of God, and to seek answers in the Divine wisdom. The remarkable growth of Christianity in China is not unrelated to the nation’s rapid economic growth; in light of the negative externalities of urbanization and centralized capitalism, people’s hunger for transcendental experience is bound to deepen, their passion for truth and salvation destined to heighten.
As an adherent to progressive theology who believes that God is still speaking, I do not have all the answers on how to engage China’s fledgling Christianity or how to be helpful with its shortage of theology and trained leaders. But these questions have allowed me to reflect on the theology of accompaniment. Theology of accompaniment places emphasis in the “being with” rather than “doing for” when it comes to living out the spirituality of Jesus who lived with the poor, the sick and the marginalized. In saying so, I may be risking the criticism of lacking action in the face of great need. But I would rather take the criticism than to impose theological understanding and praxis that have grown out of the Western context over the millennia. As such, it is my prayer that the Chinese people think—hopefully without closing doors to the West for open dialogues—for themselves, in terms of who God is and what God does in their context. It is my hope that they will soon be able to share what they discover—the theological understanding and practices that are indigenous to their lot and true to who they are as people of a great nation. That would be the mark of diversity suitable for the greater faith community in God we serve in unity.
Statue of Confucius @ Confucius Temple (Nanjing)
One of the best vegetarian dishes of all times.
* Bertrand Russell, The Problem of China (Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2007.) pg. 10.