China Travel Diary

By David Marshall

roofNanjing Road, Shanghai.


I recently took a trip along the coast of China. There were several things I wanted to find out on this trip. First of all, I wanted to ascertain to a better degree, by continuing an empirical but not terribly scientific survey I had begun some years before, what Chinese believe. You can hear some surprising stories when you ask total strangers questions lsuch as the following:

One of my desires in taking this survey is to determine from a grass-roots, rather than from church or government membership counts, how many Christians there are in China. But what I learn from non-Christians I often find even more interesting and helpful. Many people really open up, and I learn a lot; the asking of questions, said Confucius, is always the correct rite.

Secondly, I wanted to visit Pu Tuo Shan, an island off of the coast where Guan Yin was supposedly born. This goal didn't work out on this trip, but I did end up visiting Tian Tai temple in Zhejiang Province instead, the 1400 year old temple where the Tian Tai sect of Buddhism was founded.

Third, I hoped to continue gathering material on how the Church in China is using (or is not using) what are called "redemptive analogies" from traditional Chinese culture in their art. I used this material for an article on the subject.

And fourth, I was also hoping to gather more information, including hearsay or whatever I could find without working too hard or sticking my neck out too far, on Fa Lun Gong, the Buddhist sect that has been so harshly attacked by the government over the last year. (I had recently interviewed a couple members of the sect in Seattle, and begun to read enough of the literature by founder Hong Li Zhi.)

The places I visited on this trip were Shanghai, the city of Wenzhou, Tian Tai, and Ningbo. What follows is a mixture of notes on things that caught my interest and some of my research notes. I've also written a paper, Gospel Art in Mainland China and the Sinofication of Christianity, that may appear on this site later, if I can get permission from the publishers.

September 22-23, 2000

Church in Huang Tiani New Western-style churches are rising all over the Wenzhou area. This is a Catholic church in Huang Tiani.


Landing in Shanghai, I found a small, inexpensive hotel just off Nanjing East Road. This road has become a pedestrian mall leading through the heart of the city, from People's Park to the Bund along the Huang Po river. Along this mall seats have been arranged, and it was pleasant to sit in the evening, as thousands of people passed by, window shopping, eating in the restaurants (including Mcdonalds and KFC.) The mall and Peoples' Park were good places to talk with a cross-section of local people.

The first night, I interviewed three people who came up to me while I was sitting at the pedestrian mall along Nanjing East Road. The first two were in their early twenties, an attractive and friendly couple. They said they were "atheists." "Religion is a kind of spiritual sustanance," he said, repeating a common phrase (jing shen ji tuo) that can mean "crutch." But then both related stories of the supernatural from their own experience or the experience (in her case) of a respected law professor, and made it clear they were "agnostic" not in the hard-core sense of skepticism that can't quite formally disprove God, (like Bertrand Russell) but only in the sense that "Our teachers told us there is no God, but we're not really sure. . . " Both expressed some openness to the idea of a life beyond death. (After death, "Maybe we'll go to another world?") One mentioned near-death experiences as a reason for considering this posibility. The young man's hero was Ghenghis Khan, because of his abilities and influence on Chinese history. The woman liked Wu Zetian, the Tang empress. (Many ambitious Chinese young people seem less shy about worshiping success detached from any merits of what was accomplished than Westerners. Likewise, in his youth, Mao Zedong wrote of his admiration of figures as diverse as Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, George Washington, and even Jesus . . . For good or ill, they had influenced history, and that was Mao's great desire. I think this also explains some of Mao's own resurging popularity.)

The third person, a 29 year old man who asked me for a souvenir Japanese coin, "the kind with the hole in it" (50 yen), was a Protestant Christian. He had become a Christian through listening to a pastor about eleven years ago. The historical figure he admired most was Martin Luther. He said the purpose of life is to "follow Jesus," and that after death, "I hope we'll be in heaven."

The following day, a Saturday, I interviewed a few people in Peoples' Park, a sprawling conglomerate of paths, gardens, consessions, a pool with elephant ear (yutou) plants growing in the middle of it, a newly forested hill, and lots of places to sit; Shanghai's Central Park. A 70 year old man scraping by on miserly retirement benefits told me his hero was Tang Lizhong, a Taiwanese singer. He had no faith. A 23 year old man had practiced Tantric Buddhism for seven or eight years. He said his heroes were Siddhartha and Jesus, because they had "solved the problem of life and death." After death, a person receives according to what he has done in his life. He believed in a Creator, but had not experienced any miracles. The purpose of life, he said, was "enlightenment." He had been to church, but considered Christianity "yang jiao."

I wandered past a traditional Chinese pool and up a little hill through some trees, and then talked with a middle-aged man reading on a bench. After a while, a younger man passing by joined what turned out to be an extremely revealing conversation.

The older man was over 50, and from Shanghai, as have all of my subjects so far. He said his family religion was Muslim (he was of the Hui minority), but that "I respect Christianity," and had had this interest "ever since I was small." His hero was Lu Xun, the greatest modern Chinese writer. He said he believed in Deism. (Ziran Shenlun.) His parents had, however, experienced miracles. The purpose of life, he believed, was to serve people.

He was a college teacher, and did research on religion. He told me, "The world needs Chinese culture. Chinese culture needs Western culture, especially the Christian spirit. Put them together, and they become complete." In response to my question about whether Christianity was an alien teaching, he replied, "For Christianity to become Chinese, this is the salvation of China."

As we were talking, the second man engaged us in conversation. He asked me, "What do you think of Fa Lun Gong?" It turned out he not only had been involved in the sect, but continued to practice it. Believers did not meet in open places as before, he said, but continued to meet in small home groups. He also had an interest in Tantric Buddhism. He was obviously well-educated and intelligent, and also somewhat open-minded too (which is another thing entirely) and did not seem totally convinced of the truth of Hong Lizhi's claims. At this point the older man noted that he was writing a paper on Fa Lun Gong; probably from the government's perspective, though he fell rather silent from about that point. The two men did not seem angry or suspicious of one another however; at least the younger man continued talking fairly freely.

In the late afternoon, I visited Mu En church just across from People's Park, and talked with a young female preacher named Yang Min. She gave me information about an English-language service that meets in the afternoon on Sunday at another church in Shanghai. It is only open to people with foreign passports, and has about three hundred people on a typical Sunday. I took the subway there, and talked for a while with African and Singaporean Christians who are in leadership there, and scheduled a appointment with Pastor Xie of the Chinese congregation for Sunday morning.

September 24

In the morning I attended the Chinese service at the International Church. Before the service I talked with Pastor Xie, a young pastor from Wenzhou who was preaching that morning to two services of about 7-800 each. He told me that in Cang Nan county south of Wenzhou, where he is from, Christians use traditional Chinese antiphonal singing styles in their worship, and that the churches seemed more Chinese than those in Shanghai. He gave me a couple names of people to look up. He was between services, and a television crew was waiting to interview him, but we talked for quite a while; he didn't seem rushed.
Pastor Xie's sermon on integrity was very good. He quoted from the Bible, and also from Chinese thinkers like Confucius and Mencius, gave practical examples, and spoke with great power.

Afterwards I returned to Peoples' Park and found myself surveying a group of people at the English Corner that meets there on Saturdays. (In many Chinese cities, people who want to practice speaking English meet once a week in a park or other public place to practice.)

In the afternoon I returned to the church for the English service. The people leading the meeting made a big issue of the fact that the service was only for foreign passport-holders. I know they needed to do this, or they would not be allowed to meet at all, but it certainly was an unpleasant way to begin a meeting. Anybody here who is Chinese, please leave. I understand the Chinese government's caution about foreign leadership of religious services in which Chinese are involved. But it certainly is ironic that the Chinese government practices such discrimination against their own people in the name of self-determination. And in Shanghai, of all places, where the British once put up an infamous sign in a park that read, "Chinese and dogs not allowed."

September 25

I enjoyed the overnight train ride to Wenzhou, saving money and time by sleeping on the top bunk, though I didn't get much sleep. In the morning, as it began to get light outside, I found the train was traveling through mountains towards the coast along the Ou River. Villages with stone houses, built well above ground level to avoid flooding, were surrounded by fields. Occasional spurs of the mountain range thrust the line we were traveling on almost to the river. I gazed across the river at the road that leads towards Wenzhou, remembering how I was stuck there for several hours on my only other visit to the city, about ten years ago. That was before Wenzhou had either train or airport. I noticed a few churches and temples in the towns before we passed two bridges that span the river and the train turned to the south and entered the outskirts of the city.

Perhaps it was because I was tired, but Wenzhou did not impress me favorably at first. Coming from ultra-modern, bustling Shanghai, with its sleek, spic-and-span subway, gaudy post-post modern architecture, and fashionably dressed women, Wen Zhou and its environs seemed a bit of a let-down. I saw several pools of water with industrial coloring and heard a few arguments by the locals, who seem a rather expressive tribe.

I took a taxi to the Cheng Xi church in the center of town, down an attractively ancient street that specializes in small womens' clothing shops. Inside is a small Christian bookstore, where customers can choose from about two hundred titles. Most of the books are devotional literature and commentaries, Bibles and hymn books.

The city of Wenzhou actually turned out to be a lot more charming than first impressions led me to believe, and cleaner on the inside than the out. The city has preserved a lot of old store fronts and houses with stone gateways and tiled roofs and narrow back lanes. My plan, however, was to go on that day to the town of Long Gang further south, where Pastor Xie was from, and return later to Wenzhou. So I got on an express bus out of town.

Few Chinese drivers are in need of ascertiveness training, and certainly not the driver of the express to Long Gang. Vearing neither left nor right, he staked a claim to the stripe in the middle of the road, blasting vehicles that challenged his ownership out of the way by the force of his horn.

On both sides of the road the view was blocked by dreary new concrete buildings, businesses, factories, and apartments, though I think there was farmland beyond. Some of the factories strongly reminded me of those I had seen in rural Taiwan a decade or two ago. Wenzhou, like eastern Taiwan, consists of a long and productive narrow strip of lowland between the mountains and the sea.

Long Gang (Dragon Harbor) is a noisy town of a hundred thousand south of Wenzhou. Unlike Wenzhou or Shanghai, there are no restrictions on honking your horn in town, and drivers save wear and tear on their brakes by constastly honking, even when they are passing ten feet to the side of a pedestrian, even at three in the morning. (Yawn! Did I mention my hotel room is right over the street?)

I took several long walks around town. Pretty new Buddhist temples were going up on every side; it appeared they outnumbered churches by perhaps three to one. Pastor Zheng, the young man who leads the county Bible school at one of the local churches, tells me only about one person in twenty in Nan Cang county are Christian; much lower than the rest of Wenzhou. However, as I walked, I found Christian posters on front doors of many of the local businesses. . . One style for Protestants, a distinctive style for Catholics. It appeared that the number of businesses identified in this way would total far more than one in twenty; perhaps even one in five. But of course he was only referring to Protestants. (The term Ji Du Jiao can mean Christians in general, but the pastor was probably only referring to Protestants.)

Hmmm. "Dragon Harbor." I haven't found the dragon or the harbor yet. Well there were some new Buddhist temples that may have had dragons on their roots.

In one part of town I noticed balloons flying above a bare plot of land, beneath which, thousands of people were milling around. A sign appeared: "Pay two kuai -- win 500,000!" I wondered, in passing, what attitude the local church might take towards the lottery.

About forty-five young people attend Bible training classes in one of the two Protestant churches in Long Gang. A young 27 year old pastor taught the class, speaking on Jesus' prayer in John 17; more sermon than teaching style. The students diligently took notes. The pastor parenthetically answered my question about how the church viewed the lottery in his teaching. "We (Christians) don't buy these," he said. "The two kuai is gambling, and the 500 thousand is greed."

One of the pastors showed me a picture of a church that the Christians in another part of Zhejiang are planning to build. Roman arches rise above columns like the U.S. capital building; Constantine would feel right at home. The building is set to cost the Christians in Yi Niao over a million dollars. Surprisingly, there are only seven or eight hundred people in the congregation; they want to build for the future. Nor is this along the rich coastal plain of Wenzhou; it's about half way to Hangzhou. (Which is, however, the wealthiest provincial capital in China.) How much would that be in the American context? 20 million dollars? That's a lot of faith.

At the end of class, the pastor made a series of announcements that revealed something of the commitment expected within the local church community. Don't take time off from class unless you absolutely need to. Keep worship down to a dull roar; remember, music is secondary to Bible training. Don't pray too loudly when people are sleeping: God can hear you OK. Better to show wisdom and love to the people around you.

Talking with Pastor Zhang, I got a different grass-roots perspective on the Fa Lun Gong from either the government or the Western news media. He told me about a young man nearby who joined the Fa Lun Gong and neglected his studies and work to pursue enlightenment. He believed anything could be attained through meditation. His parents ended up dying -- I'm not sure how, we were interupted before he ended the story -- and he had some kind of mental breakdown. Local Christians prayed for him and tried to help him, and he became a Christian.

I think TV is better here than in either the U.S. or in Japan. Now they have on a gently idealistic, and humorously realistic, story about a woman who teaches in a small town in the mountains. Before that was a period romance kind of like the Three Kingdoms. A few days ago I watched a lovely piece on Tang poems, with an explanation in modern Chinese, music, and classical scenery of the countryside.

I finally found the harbor, on the bank of the river not far from where it empties into the sea. A park runs along the muddy shore with a few boats stuck in the mud. I enjoyed a conversation with a group of young people hanging out in the park.
In the evening I attended a young peoples' meeting at church, and was asked to share for a while. About fifty boys and girls were in attendance. They seemed a very handsome group of young people.

September 26

I checked into Wenzhou Hotel, negotiating a pretty good price at the front desk for a comfortable room. After revisiting the Christian book store, and buying a book on the church in Wenzhou, I took a ferry across the river to visit some of the local churches in Yong Jia. After a couple of hours exploring the wrong area, I visited three churches closer to the river: a Catholic church that was still under construction, a slightly older Protestant church (that I discuss in the article on Chinese culture and Christian church art), and finally, after it had already gotten dark, a huge new Protestant church a couple miles from the ferry dock. The gate was locked, and no one had the key. I talked with a young man happening by; he told me some facts about the church. I asked him, "Are you a believer?" He answered a bit sarcastically, "No, I believe in superstition." A bit of religious tension here?

The figures the book gives for Christianity in Wenzhou are a bit lower than those Tony Lambert gives in China's Christian Millions, but they are also six years older. The total for baptized and unbaptized Protestants in the Wenzhou area (total population, about 6 million) is given as a bit over 400,000. Lambert's figure is 700,000. Neither figure includes Catholics, children, or perhaps people who belong to unregistered or secretive church groups. It would be reasonable to expect, based on these figures, to find something between 15 and 20% of the total population to be either Catholic or Protestant Christians; but there is a great deal of uncertainty built into those figures. One of my purposes in coming to Wenzhou was to see how accurate these numbers might be by means that would supplement the limitations of membership counts. And if these figures could in some way be checked for places like Wenzhou and Shanghai, I might be able to extrapolate what I find to the figures for China as a whole. (Though relevant factors affecting accuracy would be very different in less open parts of China, and in the countryside.)

I did not take my survey in Wenzhou, partly because I didn't find an appropriate place in which to conduct it. I did feel like my short visit to the area allowed me to gain a better feel for the number of Christians in various ways: (1) By talking to a small number of people I met at random about their beliefs, and the beliefs of their family members. (It was easy to do this inoffensively, since people often asked me what I had come to China for, so I could give an answer that would allow me to ask such questions in a casual way.) (2) By asking people in human service oriented jobs a question such as, "Out of ten people in Wenzhou, how many would you say are Buddhist? Christian?" (3) By simply counting churches and temples. Of course there is no reason why the numbers should correspond one-to-one, but in fact the ratio did appear fairly close, I think. (4) By taking note of crosses and Christian calendars outside of homes and businesses.

From these immensely unscientific survey methods, I came to a fairly certain conclusion that the large majority of greater Wenzhou citizens are nominal Buddhists; the elderly more fervent, younger grading away from commited to various shades of atheism who may go to a temple at times of stress.

In addition, it seems to me highly unlikely that less than 20% or more than 30 % of the people of greater Wenzhou would identify themselves as Christians in some sense. But many of these are hand-me-down Christians who are not practicing. All four "Christians" I met on the street -- two boys from Wenzhou I met in a park in Ningbo, a female taxi driver, and the young Protestant man at the Catholic church in Huang Tian -- belonged to this category. At the same time, it was also clear that the churches in Wenzhou, and they number in the hundreds, are filled with sincere and commited believers, including second-generation young people. It did also occur to me, at the same time, that an organization like YWAM or Campus Crusade might be a big help here.

September 27

The local people admire great cathedral-style churches that can be seen for miles around rising five, even six stories high above some prosperous local towns. Today I left Wenzhou to travel north to Tian Tai, the mountain-side temple where the Tian Tai sect of Buddhism was founded. On the way through the countryside of Yueqing City, I got off the bus to take a closer look at one of these buildings. Some believers escorted me through the courtyard, through the front entrance, through the sanctuary and a beautiful conference room above it, to the sixth floor. There we stood on a balcony outside, the wind blowing gently off rice fields, thick with ripe grain, and surveyed the world around us. Nicely complementary three story houses and cottage industries rose above the fields in all directions. To the Chinese, I noted to my guide, a Mr. Chai, this was the countryside, but the population density here was probably greater than in American cities.

This church had 300 families. Before liberation there were only a few believers in town. The number of believers has steadily increased. Though more slowly in the past few years, it is still on the upswing. Five to six hundred people attend on Sundays. They spent three million yuan, or about $400,000, on their new church, or an average of about $1300 per family. (This is not much less than the total for the new headquarters building for the Hubei Christian Council in Wuhan, which also will serve a congregation of perhaps a couple thousand, and be used as a training center for a province of 60 million. Money in China is concentrated in some areas more than others.)

Objectively speaking, I would have to admit the building is beautiful. I liked the smell of new wood in the sanctuary, and the three-story building for cooking and for people to stay next door was in very tasteful tiles. The stylish metal fence that protected the property seemed a bit stand-offish to me -- blocking the rest of the village out, as it were. But then, every temple in China has a wall around it. Yet all around arose new Buddhist temples that looked at home in the rice fields. And church architecture is a revelation both of who the people who build it are, and of how they perceived the God they worship. It seemed as if the church had made the jump as in Constantine's day from home fellowships to Roman theatres, reflecting little from Asia culture or their own experience in this beautiful statement of their faith.

I tried to bring the subject of Chinese culture and the Gospel up with my guides a few times, but they didn't seem to understand my question. After all, they were Chinese, building what they wanted in the way they wanted. I was the (probably unprecedented) foreign visitor.

Stone monument to construction of churchChinese landscaping at a country cathedral: "In the beginning was the Word."


Right in front of the church, however, I did find a fascinating oasis of Chinese culture. It was a stone monument, about ten feet high, to the construction of the church. All around it was a traditional Chinese rock landscape. On the side facing the church was a legend explaining that the church had been dedicated Christmas Day, 1999, and the monument built New Year's of 2000. Towards the outside, the village, was a single huge and lovely Chinese character, "Love." On the left and right of the monument were engraved two favorite Bible verses, John 3:16 (on the left) and part of John 1:1. The latter is really interesting because it talks (in Chinese) about the tao who was before all things, was with God, and was God. It also seemed obvious to me that the monument itself was a reflection of an ancient Chinese dialogue about the meaning of the tao, the uncarved block, the origin and unseen source of all things. (I hope to put my article, Gospel Art in Mainland China and the Sinofication of Christianity, on this site some time in the next few months, which discusses this in more detail.)

Yueqing, the furthest north administrative district in Wenzhou, was one of the wealthiest-looking places I've been in China. Gaudy and adventurous houses with castle-like frills stand up four and five stories from the rice fields. (Who can say restrained is the Chinese style?) Yet two old women came up to me at the Yueqing bus stop to beg, and seemed glad to receive bananas or a cold drink for their troubles.

I took a few buses and, after a little misdirection, found my way to Tian Tai, the town but not yet the mountain. I got off the bus and a pedicab driver took me to a rather sleazy hotel (not immoral, just sleazy), which I checked into, being too tired to consider other options.

Tian Tai was more overtly poor than Wenzhou, though I met no beggars. Most people were on biscycles rather than motorcycles. There was a lot of construction going on, but mostly with bricks, then mortared over with a more simple facade. These look nicer than the old grey concrete buildings, but seem less interesting than the big block stone homes in old villages, some of which have an upper floor of wood. Grey tile is still used for many of the new roofs; the most obvious element of continuity in the varying styles.

The following morning I took a local bus to the Tian Tai temple, which is only two or three miles from town. It's a huge and magnificent complex, very peaceful. A misty rain was falling on large old trees. Squirrels ran across tree branches and tile roofs. Cicattas echoed the catophonal chants of the mostly-elderly pilgrims. Red candles burned brightly in front of many of the temples. Birds scampered through the trees, scattering hard black berries on my head as I took notes.

Tian Tai was founded during the Sui dynasty -- that's 1500 years ago, and quite early in the history of Buddhism in China. Here, as elsewhere, the most popular temple appeared to be the one in the center on top, about four or five levels of temples above the front entrance, dedicated to the goddess Guan Yin. There was a small crowd of elderly visitors in front of her images, chanting and making requests.

I was not very successful in interviewing people at the temple; the monks seemed a bit busy, and the one I did seemed unable to explain why he had chosen that brand of Buddhism. Most of the monks walked with heads lowered, eyes expression-less, and no extra motions. It is an expression that does not encourage casual approach.

The temple cook approached me, however, as I was photographing a stone monument that told the story of the temple. He said he'd been a temple cook in Shanghai from the age of ten. (Now he looked to be 60 or more.) He affirmed that his temple in Shanghai was also of the Tian Tai sect. I asked him what the difference was, to which he had no answer. He offered to show me a "secret treasure" (mi zhen), some kind of relic, I gathered. When other people came up the stone steps from a lower level of the complex, he fell silent.

There were two groups of monks and nuns at cultivation meetings; a group of about twenty younger monks at one, and a slightly larger group of older men and women at the Miao Fa("wonderful law") Hall, chanting in a very repetitive and emotionless fashion. Oddly, as the older folks within meditated away their stress, outside one monk loudly bawled out a patient-looking and somewhat older monk. (In an accent that sometimes gave me the illusion of almost understanding.) But I couldn't really follow the conversation, and decided too it wasn't mine to follow.

On the way out, I stopped at the bookshop, where easy-listening comtemporary Buddhist music of the kind that is popular among overseas Chinese Buddhists was being played. I went up the road for a walk in the direction of some other temples. I went off the main road and followed a mountain path to a village about a mile away. The fields were yellow with grain. Most of the houses were made out of stone, and the combination was rather attractive, but the people were obviously not well off. I stopped and talked to an old man sitting and doing some work besides a little stone temple to Guan Gong (popular god of war, commerce, triads, etc). I only understood about a third or half of his strongly accented speech. He told me the people in the area were very poor, and hardly had enough to eat; he was indeed very thin. He didn't want money, however. He gave the impression that something had happened recently to impoverish the village, or perhaps the area, more than usual, in recent years. (Yet the provincial capital has a per-capita income approaching $5,000. Almost you wonder if China isn't due for a communist revolution. . .)

It was also interesting that, with a great center of the Buddhist faith next door, the local people had built this little Guan Di temple, associated more with Taoism and folk belief. I wondered what they thought of the temple.

I only asked one person in Tian Tai about a church, a matronly lady of about 50. She told me she wasn't a believer, but that Christianity was good, there were a lot of Christians here, and she would be happy to show me the place. After leaving town, I did indeed noticed three churches in the next few dozen miles. The last of these was a simple house beside the road with the legend: "X Zhou (town name) Jesus hall." Clearly the Gospel is spreading in this part of Zhejiang as well as the Wenzhou district.

Further north, as we approached Ningbo, the number of churches, and also temples, seemed to peter out.

My overall impression from my visit to Ningbo was that Christianity isn't as strong here as in other cities in the area. There are four Protestant churches in the city, (three in each district divided by the river, and one for the Seventh Day Adventists and Local Church people to share) and at least one absolutely magnificent Catholic cathedral, but according to Pastor Fan, only four thousand Protestant Christians in those churches. (Though he implied there were others elsewhere.) The youth pastor, Gao, told me there were about a hundred people in the youth group at Bai Nian (Hundred Year) Worship Hall, as opposed to (I think he said) a thousand in Hangzhou, where he comes from. Maybe thirty came last night; but I got the impression that was fewer than usual, probably because of the holiday.

Ningbo has a couple nice parks in the center of the city, with refurbished tea houses and reflecting ponds. I found them the easiest place to meet people; and I met all kinds. Sitting on the second floor of a little pagoda, reading Journey to the West, I was approached in succession by a truculent fan of Chairman Mao (in China, of all places!), a call girl, a very persistent fortune-teller, and three young men from a Ningbo television station who wanted to know what I thought of the town! (Good thing I shaved this morning. Funny thing is, I had just been wondering a few hours before -- believe it or not -- what I would say if I were interviewed on t.v. about what I thought of Ningbo! So I was slightly prepared, but what could I say? I'd been in town only a day.)

I decided not to hang around that park after dark, though. Nothing against reporters.

My on-going attempts to gather empirical evidence for a guestimate on Chinese spirituality were pretty weak here. I interviewed only about six people. The maid who came to clean my room told me, "We're Buddhists," making it clear she was speaking more for China than for herself. ("I'm not so 'na ga.'like that" i.e. pious, fanatical, what have you. ) Anyway, her generalization showed me that in her circles, at least, Christianity was a rarely exercised option. She said she liked Zhou Enlai.

The fan of Mao (he admired him for his "humility" of all things), said his mother was a Catholic. He believed "in myself."

As I was talking to the Mao fan, the call girl approached and joined in the conversation. Her favorite historical figure was the Tang poet Li Bai, because "He has culture and wisdom." She thought "nothing is left" after death, and that religion "hasn't given me anything worthwhile." She told me however that she sometimes prayed to God, and sometimes to Buddha; that she believed in God, and that her belief gave her comfort, as the Mao fan (overtly) and her male comrade (with a bit more restraint) laughed at her. I told her a story about how God had provided for me at a difficult time in my life in return. Mao scoffed loudly at my side.

Rural houseA poor rural district in Tian Tai north of the prosperous Wenzhou region.



My last brief interview was with the taxi driver who brought me to the bus station. He told me he had no beliefs, and that emphatically included the communist party. (Not unusual for a taxi driver in this emphasis.) His mother was, however, a Christian, and had been since soon after the churches reopened. (Perhaps in the late 1980s.) "To be honest," he told me, "I think maybe Christianity in America is not like this, but here it is sometimes unscientific. They believe God heals the sick. If you get sick, you pray and God will cure you." I told him that in fact, science had arisen in part from Christian presuppositions (I'd just been reading an interesting book on the subject called the Soul of Science), as well as thanks to the influence of Chinese inventions. I also told him that, in my experience, God does answer prayer in extraordinary ways sometimes.

I also briefly interviewed two young men from Wenzhou, mentioned earlier, smoking and chatting in another park. Christianity appeared to be a part of their family identity.

September 29

After returning to Shanghai, I conducted a number of interviews with workers in my hotel, English students at Peoples' Park, and a few young people celebrating the Chinese National Holiday on Nanjing Road.

I interviewed a young college teacher who was selling plastic toys on Nanjing Road. She said she's trying to put together her own religion from elements in each she likes. She specifically mentioned "love" as the part of Christianity she wanted. She told me two of her students had been in Fa Lun Gong, and that one had quit. I mentioned the figure of ten thousand followers in Shanghai that another interviewee brought up; she said "No way." Lots more than that. She didn't care much for Li Hong Zhi. (Nor did anyone else I met other than followers of Fa Lun Gong, though some said they thought the government had gotten carried away in its crackdown.)

Later I also interviewed a mellow-looking young blue collar worker from Shanghai, now working in Canton and home for the holiday, who had two rather plain but affectionate girlfriends in tow. When I mentioned "religion," (I hadn't quite caught on to the nature of the relationship at that point), he said, "Lot's of people believe in Christianity, especially women." He himself had no religion.

So far respondants to my survey in Shanghai break down as follows. No religion, 15. Buddhist, 7. Christian, 4. Christian-influenced or nominal Christian, 2. Falungong or former Falungong, 2. (The latter two were also included among the Buddhists.)

I couldn't defend my methods or results as scientific in any sense, yet I am inclined to think they give a helpful and suggestive, though doubtless somewhat skewed, picture of what people believe in this city. (Especially since I am not only asking about personal belief, but about what friends and family believe as well.) It am pretty well convinced that the number of those who practiced Fa Lun Gong was higher than the government statistics imply; though also that those who are commited religiously to the movement was smaller then and much smaller now. It also appears to me that the number of those who consider themselves Christians may be higher than membership counts might imply; but that may reflect the predominance of intellectuals in my survey in part. What I find especially interesting is the variety and the details of the stories people relate about themselves.

October 1

Street celebrationCelebrating on Nanjing Road, Shanghai, during the National Holiday, October 1, 2000.


Nanjing East Road has been tremendously crowded the last couple days. You have to walk slowly, and with the flow of people, to make progress in either direction for the whole mile or so from the park to the waterfront, and then along the waterfront. What kind of people? Mostly young people in clean t-shirts out to have innocent fun. Wearing angel hats, monkeys on their backs, haloes, sharks, glow-in-the-dark red hearts, or plastic towers like the monumental tower across the river that defines modern Shanghai. Hitting each other on the heads with plastic blow-up swords or hammers. I let the survey rest; there were too many people, and no one was in a serious mood. I bought a Shark head for the boys, put it on my own head, and swam with the flow of merry-makers, taking pictures of people acting silly. Foreigners were a welcome part of the fun. I spent a lot of time just chatting with people. The college students who were selling the toys were really nice -- "We're getting practical experience," one told me. I did interview the one young teacher mentioned above.

Street celebrationMore celebrants on Nanjing Road.


Nan Jing East road was colorful, with crowds, neon Chinese signs and interesting buildings, but The Bund, or Wai Tan ("outer beach") was really worth seeing. On the near side of the river, all the buildings were colonial classics, banks that had been constructed before Liberation as China's financial landmarks, and these had been scrubbed and were lit up with soft white lighting. The far side of the river, however, represented the future of China: the post-modern skyscrapers, that would be glistening were it daytime, but instead were a lit by colored search lights. The tallest, perhaps a t.v.tower -- restaurant, was probably over a thousand feet, with a globe near its base. Between, were the crowds, and the river.

The next morning I went to the airport and flew home.


Copyright (c) 2000 by David Marshall.