China Reflections

Last week Nate pointed to some of the entries on my other blog about my visit to China. Far from being an expert on China, most of what I know was learned during that week, often from tour guides or Chinese law students and professors. On the other hand, merely being in a place results in a type of learning not available in books. How many words would it take to describe the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that accompany a trip to the Silk Market? Or the experience of standing atop the Great Wall? I can show you pictures of the food in Beijing’s Night Market, but unless you have had a similar experience, it is very difficult to imagine being offered centipede or silkworm. An essential aspect of the experience simply cannot be articulated. Perhaps this is the reason that I find guidebooks so much more interesting after the visit.

China.worshipOften during my trip, I wondered when Mormon missionaries would be allowed to proselyte in China. The topic of religion arose only once in my discussions with Chinese students, and it caused enough discomfort among them that I decided to refrain from pushing the issue. Indeed, the only evident display of religion — unless you classify Mao worship as religion — during my time in China was found in the Lama Temple, pictures of which appear here. (By the way, having almost completed a year of Old Testament study in Seminary at the time of my visit, I was struck by the similarity in worship between these Buddhists — incense, chanted prayers, golden idols — and the ancient Israelites.)

China.buddhaWhich brings me back to the original part of this post, the part about learning that which cannot be articulated. My sense of the Chinese people whom I met was that they are extremely proud of their heritage and extremely confident in their future. Their massive population alone — a fact often noted, as if to remind upstart Americans where the real power on this planet resides — seems to provide them with a sense of destiny. Why would these people, with no tradition of Christianity, embrace the Gospel? I left China with the impression that a dramatic change would be required to bring China to the Gospel feast. Russell’s comment below, about the need for some people to change their cultural assumptions, comes to mind.

My only other experience with this sort of issue comes from my service as a missionary in Vienna in the early 1980s, when the Iron Curtain still looked impenetrable. If you had told me at the time that the countries behind the Iron Curtain would have full-time proselyting missionaries within a decade, I am not sure I would have believed it. That change, of course, was prompted by the massive social dislocation that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union. It is hard for me to imagine changes in China without similar events.

6 comments for “China Reflections

  1. Yes, it will certainly be interesting to see how China (not to mention India) plays out over the next few decades. I saw somewhere recently (a comment here, I think) a remark that we’re not really a worldwide church at the present — we’re more of a hemispheric church, with something like 85% of members living in North and South America. We’re awfully pleased with our 10 million members, but we wouldn’t be a blip on the radar screen in China or India. The sheer amount of work that remains to be done is amazing, when you think about it.

    By the way, it’s nice to have you back in the country and in the bloggernacle.

  2. On the other hand, I’m told that the house churches and indigenous eclectic movements (Falun Gong exemplifies them) are growing at all speeds. Perhaps a country of over a billion is big enough to have self-confident xenophobia and a Great Awakening all at the same time. Dare we hope?

  3. I took a class on Chinese history and culture at BYU, from a former mission president in Taiwan. (Or maybe Hong Kong–I don’t remember.) Anyway, he told the class about his “exit interview” with Elder Oaks, in which they discussed rather frankly the options and future chances for growth of the church among the Chinese people. My professor argued (and perhaps he was enjoying a moment of contrariness here) that he could think of numerous good and legitimate reasons why your typical Chinese man or woman wouldn’t want to embrace the gospel. According to his telling, Elder Oaks didn’t care for that answer. He concluded that perhaps people like himself–people thoroughly familiar with and sympathetic to the local culture–shouldn’t be called as mission presidents; successful proselytizing missions, he told us reflectively, probably depend upon a certain degree of cultural ignorance or naivete.

  4. I just finished an old book (pub. 1989) called The Geography of Contemporary China. As you may well recall, 1989 was rather hectic for the Chinese. Add rapid mondernization and westernization to a dictatorship that pits its urban ‘open door’ populace against its rural slave class and toss in a healthy dose of rising expectations and I think we should be prepared to witness the buckling of that regime from within. And, and, and…

  5. Kaimi,

    It’s interesting how you talk about LDS population numbers and how we wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar screen in China or India. Years ago I read a book about Islam called Sacred Rage that I think estimated there are 20 million Muslims in China. I just did a google search on Muslim population in China (to sort of check my memory) and it appears that 20 million Muslims in China is a low estimate.

    My point is that when I read that, I realized there are more Muslims in China than there are Mormons in the world. And I don’t usually think of China as a Muslim country. The church is growing fast and we are proud of our growth in comparison to other Christian denominations — but comparisons with the populations of China and the Islamic world can give us a much larger and global perspective that might cause us to pause a little. Like you said, we are just a blip on the screen.

    Sounds like an interesting exit interview and discussion about proselyting in China that you talked about. My Chinese-American wife (daughter of Chinese immigrants) and myself have had quite a number of discussions of how to approach Chinese friends/family with the gospel. And often I feel that out of deference and respect for Chinese culture and norms we end up exercising a lot of restraint. I’ve sometimes felt that perhaps some naivete and the correct measure of boldness might be more successful than someone who knows the culture super-well. That knowledge of the culture (Chinese people, at least to me, are a pretty private and insular people in many ways) seems to create doubts or ambivalence that aren’t very conducive to missionary work. But that’s just my thought on the issue.

  6. OK. I do still have that book in my bookcase. My memory wasn’t perfect but the point I was making still works with the population number that was stated. The following quote is from “Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam” by Robin Wright, page 261. She writes:

    “China accounts for at least 14 million Muslims, three times as many as Saudi Arabia.”

    The copyright on this is 1985 and from what I was reading in my google-search, census accuracy and population estimates (at least regarding the Muslim population of China) are not always that accurate. Still, I think this is an illuminating useful little factoid for Mormons to consider when making demographic comparisons between ourselves and others.

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