Monday, August 17, 2009

Church in China

This week I want to give a glimpse into something, which for many, is a complete unknown in China, the presence of open religion. Unfortunately in today’s society China receives a lot of criticism. Much of which comes from people who have never even visited the country. The media portrays China as a dangerous country in which its citizens live a sheltered life, are controlled by a strict government, and are denied the basic freedoms that we have become accustomed to in a country like America.

Yes its true that the government controls the Internet, blocking certain websites from the public sector. It’s also true that there are problems of food shortage, sweatshops, child abduction, and poverty here in China. Unfortunately these problems exist over the entire world, even in the great nation of America. Since the founding of the communist party sixty years ago, the Chinese government has maintained a national status as an “atheist” country. I view this as the ultimate definition of separation between church and state. The government has no official stance on religion but rather allows its citizens to choose for themselves what religion, if any, they want to practice. Buddhism is by far the most popular religion in China, but others such as Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, Judaism, and Christianity are all openly practiced throughout the country.

This past week I was able to visit one of the most famous Christian sites in all of China, the “Our Lady of She Shan” Cathedral. The cathedral’s history dates back to the 1860’s when the area was first used as a religious site. In 1925, a Portuguese Jesuit started building the current cathedral. Built in the shape of a cross, the project took over ten years to finish and upon completion served as the most famous Catholic building in the Far East. Visitors to the cathedral start at the base of the 100m “She Shan” hill and walk up a zigzag route to the top. This path to the top of hill represents the Via Dolorosa (Latin for “The Way of Suffering”), which is the path Christ took on his way to his crucifixion. About halfway up the mountain is a modern mid-level church where mass is celebrated daily. Also located on the hill is the Sheshan Seminary where future priests from the six eastern provinces in China and Shanghai City are currently being trained.

During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the cathedral was severely damaged, and all the stained glass windows completely destroyed. In 1981 the Chinese government oversaw a complete renovation of the church restoring it to its original condition. The Sheshan Cathedral currently serves as the only active pilgrimage site in all of China. During the month of May, hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics from all over China come to visit the cathedral.

The Sheshan Cathedral is an important part of Shanghai’s history and interesting enough is only a few kilometers from my golf club. It’s a great symbol of Christianity in China and one that I get to see everyday while at work. Another interesting fact is the church has been coordinated into our golf club’s logo, branding Shanghai’s top golf club with the city’s oldest symbol of religion.

Hopefully this post shines some light onto one aspect of life here in China. Over my last 2½ years of living in China, I’ve been able to observe a lot of interesting things and I personally find China to be more similar than different to America when it comes to issues such personal freedoms. Some people might disagree with me on that statement, but hopefully they’ve had a chance to come and visit China and gain their own perspective. What do you guys think?

Here's a breakdown on the pictures:

#1 - The view of She Shan hill and the Catholic Church as seen from the motorway
#2 - At the base of the hill, the start of the "Via Dolorosa"
#3 - The mid-level church where daily mass is celebrated
#4 - A beautiful sight here in China, locals gathering for a Sunday mass at the local cathedral
#5 - The exterior view of the Sheshan Cathedral
#6 - The alter of the Sheshan Cathedral, featuring the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus
#7 - The beautiful interior of the Sheshan Cathedral
#8 - The Sheshan Golf Club logo, featuring the famous Sheshan Cathedral
#9 - Another church here in Shanghai, the "Xu Jia Hui" cathedral is one of the best-preserved cathedrals in Shanghai and is located directly in the heart of Shanghai's largest shopping districts. Notice the striking contrast between the church, built in 1910, and the modern high-rise apartment building in the background.

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