This is the first of several weekly postings on my recent 18 day visit to China.
Awe, Emptiness and Strange, Uneasy Feelings
I’ve struggled to find adequate words to describe my impressions and feelings that grow out of my 18 days in China, this great nation of 1.3 billion people whose philosophical and religious foundations are markedly different from my own. I was awed by the beauty of the mountains and intrigued by the history of the people, whose fierce national pride was evident everywhere. Yet, I often felt empty touring the country, led by guides that took great pride in China’s historic landmarks, but had so little to say about the meaning or vision of China today.
I became aware of many cultural differences from the West, though not as many as I had assumed. In fact, what surprised me the most—and even troubled me—was how at home I often felt. I came away sad for the Chinese people, challenged to look more closely at the emptiness in my own life and culture, and resolved to let my light shine more brightly.
If all the Chinese people see when they see America is our materialism and economic prosperity (we were told repeatedly that everyone in China thinks of Americans as rich), then we have failed them. If all they see in me is a nice person with lots of money, then I have failed them. I came home asking myself, “How can I let Christ transform me more thoroughly, and shine through me more brightly?”
In Beijing, home of the 2008 Olympics, I toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. A huge portrait of Mao hung from one building, repainted every year to keep it looking new. When asked about the June 4, 1989, our tour guide simply replied that she was too young to know anything about what happened there—leaving us with a curious and disturbing ellipsis in our introduction to China.
The “9999” buildings/rooms of the Forbidden City, once the exclusive abode of emperors and their entourage, are now ghostly reminders of a bygone era, sparsely decorated, without vibrancy or much symbolic meaning for a modern China. I felt empty touring this great historical site, wondering what connection remained between the ancient dynasties and symbols and the modern communist culture. I was to feel empty often as we toured China, seeing and hearing about the great symbols from a bygone era alongside new skyscrapers and an improved standard of living for many, yet with no sense of purpose or meaning other than getting ahead for themselves and their nation.
The Temple for the God of Heaven excited me. I thought that perhaps here was evidence that the ancient Chinese had worshipped the Creator God of the Judeo-Christian tradition under a different name. Apparently not. The Chinese God of Heaven was a fertility god, someone to whom the Emperor offered sacrifices in order to procure good crops. The worship of this god also provided a basis for a type of emperor cult, whereby the ruler was honored as the son of the God of Heaven.
When walking six miles on the Great Wall of China, a 4000 mile Wonder of the world, built to help protect China from northern invaders, I again felt a mixture of awe and emptiness. I was inspired by the beauty of the mountains, exhausted by the near vertical climbs and descents, and impressed by the massive accomplishment. I was also horrified thinking that an estimated 2-3 million people died building the wall. The wall played an important role in its day, but had little purpose for modern China. Why were we shown the wall, but given no reflection on what such choices meant for the Chinese people, especially all those who died?
In Xi’an (pronounced Shi-an), we got a chance to see the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, thousands of skillfully crafted, clay military figures buried under ground by the first emperor of China. Xin (pronounced Chin) unified the nation in 221 B.C., became ruler at age 13, and began creating these warriors then. The craftsmanship is amazing. Infantry, cavalry, archers, chariots, and horses were built and placed underground, because he thought that he would need an army in the afterlife. I could not get an answer as to how he thought this great terra cotta army would help, but he apparently he believed they would. He used 720,000 criminals and prisoners of war to build them and place them in position.
Meanwhile, he required local farmers to work half a year to provide food for himself and others in his court. One year after his premature death, and after one of his sons killed 17 of his brothers and other relatives to secure his succession, the peasants rose up in a violent revolt. The guide offered no commentary, but the peasants from the past did. They broke into his underground system and smashed almost all of the thousands of terra cotta figures, as evidence of their rage.
Shanghai was very impressive. The Bund—a riverside street lined with reconstructed buildings in the British style, first built after Great Britain forced its way into the city to set up commerce in the mid 19th century—was striking and beautiful. Across the river were huge, modern buildings, most of which have been built in the past decade or two. The largest is the Pearl TV tower, over 1500 feet high!
As China has become more prosperous over the past 10-15 years, many good things have been happening for the people. Many are still poor indeed, but I was told that the standard of living is improving markedly for many, fewer are going hungry, and more goods and services are becoming available for more people, even though the average person still doesn’t have a lot of money to spend.
Yet, buildings are going up at a breakneck pace and an increasing number of five star hotels are appearing in Shanghai and Beijing especially, and not just for foreigners. Market places are swarming with Chinese tourists, with only a smattering of Westerners to pay the marked up prices. Stores in tourist areas sell name brand clothing (or knockoffs) at American prices or higher. KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks are all there, too.
On the surface, Shanghai is becoming New York, with far more people. Modern China, especially in the urban areas we visited, looked very western in many ways. I was told that if I were to get out more into the country, especially into Tibet and other western regions I would see much more of the ancient Chinese culture, but where I was visiting, I saw the effects of globalization. In spite of great philosophical and religious differences between East and West, modern commercial China and America are starting to look more and more alike.
Is this a good thing?
Next week: Chinese Religion and Culture–Growing Spiritual Interest in a Religious Vacuum