This was a busy day of worship, wonder at what we were observing–and some winter in the form of continued chilly weather–a daily high in the upper ’20s!
At 7:50 AM we were in our bus and headed for the 8:30 service at the large Chong Wen Men Church in central Beijing. The church was established in 1870 when it was called Asbury Church–the first church constructed by American Methodists in northern China. Like many churches across China, this one was closed to Christian service during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when it served the state as middle school. It was opened in 1982 and now holds five services on Sundays–four in Mandarin and one in Korean. About 3,000 believers are, as the church literature states, “plugged into ” church activities here. Some 300 new believes are baptized each year. Additional to the Sunday AM services, the church sponsors a Bile study on Tuesday, a “Spiritual Growth meeting” on Wednesday, prayer meeting on Thursday and “sisters’ and “youth” fellowships on Friday. The church complex also includes a book store where Bibles (all Chinese; Chinese-English, etc.) are available at reasonable prices. We also saw CD’s, “Songs of Love” by the church choir for a reasonable RMB 10 (about $1.30) each, a few of which our group purchased.
We were warmly welcomed to the church by a “Brother Frank” who spoke English and ushered us into a special visitors’ section at the back of the sanctuary which was equipped with headphones for simultaneous English translation of the service. The sanctuary also included at the front two large video screens which provided information on hymn numbers, Scripture verses, and–in Chinese–a quite complete text of the sermon–this that was delivered by a woman of perhaps 35 years of age. The service began with a nice piano prelude doing “Spirit of the Living God”, followed by an opening prayers by another lady pastor, New and Old Testament readings (from Deuteronomy; I Corinthians 9: 1-8). Then came the Lord’s Prayer in unison by all attendees, a nice number by the “Sisters Choir” clothed in white robes in green collars, a responsive ready, and a 45-minute sermon entitled “The Mission”. The thrust of the mission was a seemingly earnest plea to all Christians to examine their lives and determine, during the coming new year, what more needed to be done to better serve one’s “mission” to be a true servant of God.” “When we leave the service this morning, we are subject to the entanglements of the world, What is our heart for God in these situations?” Although the presentation seemed a bit repetitious, it was clearly scriptural and heartfelt in presentation. At the end of the sermon we were touched by the congregation singing to us–and a few other visitors–a Chinese version of “I Love You with the Love of the Lord”! The service ended with a nice 7-fold “Amen” by congregation and choir. I, as usual, was touched by these services at Chong Wen Men–many of the older Chinese attendees had to suffer substantially over the years because of their faith and the careers of some of the younger people were almost certainly constrained by their church involvment!
Back on the bus we headed for Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world–almost 100 acres in size–and, in some respects, the heart of cultural and political China. It was here that the tragic governmental crackdown against dissidents took place on the night of June 3-4, 1989–a night that had particular poignancy for Shirley and me because we (then resident in Beijing) had visited the square only a few hours before the assault. Today the Square is under extremely close security watch, with police in large numbers, backed up by several police vans on the ready to quell and pickup almost immediately anyone who, through any actions, might be perceived as a disturbance or security threat. We had a group picture taken in front of Tiananmen (“Heavenly Peace Gate”) which was then developed, place in nicely-formatted souvenir booklet and made available at our hotel that evening for RMB 100 (about US$16).
Following the Square visit we proceeded through a large tunnel under Chang An Avenue (the large E-W street that divides the square from the Forbidden City) and found ourselves, along with very large numbers of other visitors, in the large complex that was the living quarters for several emperors and their entourages of eunuchs, concubines, along with princes and princess. (A fascinating account of all of this is Pearl Buck’s 1936 literary masterpiece, “The Imperial Woman”–featuring in particular the wily, and perhaps evil, Empress Dowager Ci Xi.) The Forbidden City, a construction of the Ching and Ming Dynasties, covers some 75 acres an contains several major structures and housing accomodations for the very large family and staff of each emperor. The major structures bore some interesting names such as Harmony Gate, Complete Harmony Gate and Supreme Harmony Gate! A topic of particular interest to our group was Guide Bill’s account of how young women were chosen to be concubines in the royal household!
After a passable, but hurried lunch at a spacious restroom catering to tourist groups, we moved on to the Summer Palace located a few miles to the NW of Beijing’s major city center. Empress Dowager Ci Xi’s construction of this complex began in 1888 and concluded with the creation of the infamous marble boat now situated at the north end of Kunming Lake. Overlooking the palace area on the hill created by excavation fill from Kunming Lake is a graceful Buddhist tower from which Ci Xi reportedly gained her inspiration–and perhaps the devious decisions for which she was well known. We were amused by some of the signs above the urinals in the men’s rest room: “Stepping up closer helps make the place cleaner!’ It was reported that some locals preferred “Half a step closer for mankind means one step forward for civilization!” An amazing feature of the Summer Palace is the Long Corridor, extending more than 2,000 feet along the Kunming shoreline, with some 1,400 paintings in the ceiling beams, all different and portraying feudal life in China. Much of the Summer Palace was burned/damaged by those nasty British and French troops in the 1860s in overreactionary revenge for killings of westerners during the 1940s Opium Wars.
Some of my “take aways” from today’s activities would include: (i) despite some continued restrictions by a watchful state, the Chinese Church today seems to be doing well; (ii) the extravagant structures of the Summer Palace and Forbidden City and the incredible behavior of its past residents must stand out in history as some of humankind’s most bizarre actions; (iii) the pace and extent of infrastructure development in China must be seen to be believed; and (iv) there is an urgent need to seriously consider more stringent limitations on the number of private automobiles permitted in Beijing!
Jim from Beijing