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We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Peking Duck


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Beijing school, Big Wild Goose Pagoda


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  World Financial Center, downtown Shanghai


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Airports ... and too much of the Shanghai tarmac

Religion in China a deft blend of God, McGyver

The Beijing airport was not the the place I expected to hear someone holler, "Go Cocks!" But the University of South Carolina baseball hat I kept latched to my backpack most of the trip caught someone's attention, presumably someone from close to home.

Cheered to hear a friendly voice, I pivoted to return the salutation and discovered I had been hailed by Vince Smith, a pastor at Beaufort's Community Bible Church. I recognized his face but couldn't quite place it. I was very familiar with the man standing next to him, however — Jim Cato, my former boss and Beaufort Gazette editor. I knew Jim would be in China about the same time as our group, but what were the odds we'd be in the same airport (there are three in Beijing) at the same time in a country so vast? I hadn't seen Jim in several months.

Of all the places to catch up.

Jim, a member of the Parish Church of St. Helena, was in China with Smith to arrange a mission this summer that they hope will include about 90 people from several churches in the Southeast, including St. Helena and Community Bible.

As unexpected as our meeting was, Beaufortonians and others from the Lowcountry make quite a footprint in China. Later that evening, at a hot pot dinner in our Xi'an hotel, we would meet Joe Harden of Yemassee, who was part of a small tour group. We also met a man from Charleston at the hotel and bumped into a group of students from Porter-Gaud School while visiting the Terracotta Warriors just outside Xi'an.

I also know or know of several Beaufortonians who have lived in China. Lillian Aldred, a teacher and the head girls basketball coach at Beaufort High School, taught in a Beijing school for Westerners for several years before returning home. Beaufort High School graduate Stephanie Brown lives and works in Shanghai. Beaufort High graduate Hayes Oakley and his wife teach school in Beijing.

Many Beaufortonians in China go to do humanitarian work. When I ran into Jim and Vince, they were on a side trip, flying to meet a friend who has lived in China about six years and is the head nurse in an orphanage. Another Beaufortonian, the Rev. William Jones Boone, was the first Episcopal missionary bishop to China.

The mission Jim and Vince hope to arrange is intriguing in its own right. Apparently, the English language is as difficult for the Chinese to learn as Mandarin is for us. Nonetheless, the Chinese, including senior citizens, are eager to try. Jim and Vince were working to bring over Americans who would teach Chinese retirees, but with a twist.

China's one-child policy has created a generation of over-celebrated kids, and not everyone likes the result. Our Xi'an day guide, Jessica, would scoff later that day at the parents who clogged the sidewalk outside a school, waiting for the bell to ring so that they could escort their darlings home. It stands to reason that if you only get one of them, you'd treat your child like a delicate egg. But Jessica, a parent herself, bemoaned spoiled brats who, despite being under tremendous pressure to perform academically, receive most material wants just for asking and never are made to cook, clean or do much in the way of manual labor. Parents and grandparents pour their aspirations into their precious young'uns and impart a wicked sense of entitlement in the process.

The government more or less agrees with Jessica that this is a problem. That's where Jim and Vince's group comes in.

In addition to the English language, American Christians can teach their pupils about generosity, about humility, about moderation. The government's hope is that cultural exchange will impart Christian traits that are in turn imparted to, and curative for, a generation of brats.

Preferably without the nagging Jesus thing, though — the party line in China, officially, anyway, is atheism, and the percentage of Chinese who call themselves religious is among the lowest in the world.

In many ways, Chinese communists have created the MacGyver of world governments. They cannot bring themselves to say they are embracing capitalism, but they bend it like a bobby pin to suit their purposes.

Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949 and brought Marxist regard for Christianity with them — which is to say they saw it as a tool of Western colonialism. However, it too, is now co-opted for state use, like a chewed-up wad of gum — the Communist Party doesn't particularly care for the taste, but it likes the idea of a handy adhesive that can keep morals glued to its ambition.

The concept of "face" is important in China. That perhaps explains why the government will adopt capitalist features but insist upon calling it "socialism with Chinese characteristics." Same with religion.

The hybrid names aren't entirely inaccurate. What China has isn't communism anymore, but it isn't exactly capitalism, either. And though they covet the benefits of Christianity, they try to be careful about letting too much of God's word seep out. For instance, the curriculum Jim's group will teach is government-approved and, presumably, not aimed at the pupils' eternal salvation. And Lillian — the daughter of the Rev. Steve Keeler of Sea Island Presbyterian Church — has told Debi that it was not unusual for her phone to go dead whenever a conversation with her father back home turned to God's plan.

The government’s take is clear: There will be no proselytizing in China.

Nonetheless, there are churches in China, though the government has grown fond of intervening into their affairs to appoint bishops and other clergy. One of the first things I noticed in the humble home of the woman in the Beijing hutong who cooked for us was the crucifix hanging from her wall and the framed prints of the Madonna and Christ displayed high on a cabinet, so that they seemed to preside over the entire room.

She said she there are about 7,000 members in her church.

Christianity has been a growing minority religion for more 200 years, Alvyn Austin writes in "China's Millions: The China Inland Mission and Late Qing Society." Growth has accelerated since the government loosened restrictions on religion starting in the late 1970s. Today, Chinese adults are permitted to be involved with officially sanctioned Christian meetings through the "Three-Self Patriotic Movement" or the "Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association." Many Chinese Christians also meet in "unregistered" house church meetings, according to an article on Wikipedia.


Of course, Christianity is still a minority religion in China, making up about 3 to 4 percent of the population. According to a Wikipedia article about religion in China:

Nowadays Shenism-Taoism and Buddhism are the largest religions in China with, respectively, 20 to 30 percent (of which 160 millions, or 11 percent of the total population of the country, are Mazuists and 18 to 20 percent of the population adhering to them, thriving throughout the country as the government is allowing them to spread. Almost 10 percent of the population is composed of those regarded as non-Han ethnicities who following their traditional tribal religions. … Muslims are 1 to 2 percent. The remaining section of the population, ranging between 40 percent and 60 percent, is mostly agnostic or non-religious; purely atheists are 14 to 15 percent. … Confucianism as a religion is popular among intellectuals.

The overwhelming secularist tendencies of the Chinese is explained in no small part by its recent dalliance with communism — "recent" in the sense that it has millennia of religious tradition and the commies have been in power since only 1949. Regarding religion as capitalist superstition, Mao Zedong and the party went to great lengths to wipe most vestiges of religion from society. Houses of worship, including pagodas, temples, mosques, and churches, were converted into non-religious buildings. Hostility toward religion was even more palpable during the Cultural Revolution, when thousands of buildings, manuscripts and other articles of religious importance were destroyed entirely.

Among the minority religions, Islam has a particularly long and interesting history in China. It has been present for nearly 1,400 years, introduced by traders traveling maritime and inland silk routes. Although today, Muslims live in every region of China, its practitioners have frequently been regarded as a political or imperial threat. For example, the Manchu government of the late 19th century adopted a policy of "washing off the Muslims." The Qing Dynasty that ruled during that period prohibited the Muslim practice of ritual slaughter of animals and pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim revolt was squelched by genocide.

Conditions for Muslims improved during the brief republic period, but hostility returned with the communists and the People's Republic. Mosques were defaced or destroyed, copies of the Koran burned. Muslims were accused of promoting anti-socialism. Though Chinese suppression of Islam has been relaxed, the Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang have been locked in opposition to the government, in no small part because oil and other natural resources have been discovered where the Uyghurs live. The Han Chinese have poured into the province, making the Uyghurs a minority in their own land, and a separatist movement has emerged.

Such movements are not dealt with gently in communist China. Just ask the folks in Tibet.


Today, there is an Epcot quality to many of the ancient religious sites in China. That's in no small part because so much of the country's historically and religiously significant sites were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and have since been rebuilt.

In Shanghai, our bus passed a sprawling Buddhist temple, built in traditional Chinese architectural style and gilded from sidewalk to rooftop. It seems out of place with more modern buildings that surround it, and a quick glance suggests this temple is ancient.

But Mr. Qin, our Shanghai day guide, tells us the building is less than 10 years old. Indeed, drawing closer, I got the odd sense I was looking at the exterior of an EconoLodge.

Mr. Qin is imbued with a healthy dose of Chinese skepticism toward religion. He explains that while doing good, the temple Buddhas also are doing quite well. Seems there is a reason the structure we're looking at is so large — money is pouring in from the populace at a rate that would make Jimmy Swaggart blush.

The monks and Buddhas are indulging in more than grandiose buildings — simple, sequestered life in the pagoda has been invaded by iPods, jewelry and gifts for girlfriends that the devout are not supposed to have, Mr. Qin says.

The amusement-park aura of the Chinese religious locations isn’t entirely a result of new construction, though. The pagodas and temples were full of gawking tourists, and I was one of them. For example, we happened to be at the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai on the day of a special bi-monthly ceremony. The main courtyard provided sensory overload. It was crowded with monks filing to the ceremony, followers kneeling in meditation. Incense vendors ringed the courtyard, and they were doing a brisk business. Several large, metal pots were stationed in the middle of the courtyard, and so many people burned incense in them that the air was overpowered by the aroma and the ash blown by gentle swirls.

Intermingled were tour groups, who viewed this much like the acrobats show we saw the night before — as if this was all placed here for our amusement. I felt a bit odd, but it didn't stop me from snapping about a hundred photos. In fact, I think they're among the best I took on the entire trip.

Such behavior was not exactly discouraged. Temple employees will treat you to a tea tasting, then shuttle you to the gift shop.

That seemed emblematic of religion in the new People's Republic, where spirituality seems always to have ulterior motives.​

This lady burned incense and prayed ... even as tourists flooded the shrine and gawked during a holy day.

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