Since headlines about religion in China tend to be of the ‘latest crackdown’ and ‘human rights abuses’ kind, I’d like to offer something more positive.
In December, the construction of a 3,000-seat church in the city of Qufu was announced. Of itself, the story is unremarkable, but Qufu’s claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Confucius and the spiritual home of the system of ethics and ritual known as Confucianism. Building a church just two miles from the hallowed halls of its most important temple could easily stir up resentment, and indeed neo-Confucian scholars have put their names to an official objection.
In response, Chinese websites such as Yesuwang (‘Jesusweb’) have pointed out that the proposed Holy Trinity Church isn’t a new imposition but a rebuild of one that was demolished after “Liberation”. At the same time, Christians are quite aware of the scope for opposition to its 42m spire: China’s ‘Religious Affairs Regulations’ of 2005 (unsurprisingly) require religious groups not to upset ‘social harmony’, a catch-all that could be invoked by upstaging Confucianism, which has been enjoying a revival in recent years. Just days ago, in fact, a 9.5m bronze statue of Confucius himself was erected in Beijing. And not just anywhere, but on the iconic Chang’an Avenue (remember that photo of the man and the tank? Right there) within sight of Mao’s portrait. How things change: it's well within living memory, during the Cultural Revolution, that Red Guards smashed Confucius’ statue in Qufu and vilified him as an evil fraud. The positioning of this new statue could only have been okayed at the highest possible levels, and is another clear sign that traditional Chinese religion is being fast-tracked to acceptability.
To return to that church, I’d like to add an observation to the commentary flying around the net: there’s no requirement in Christianity for places of worship to be intrusive. The tendency for Chinese churches to model themselves on the architecture of the Midwest – unimaginative, unsympathetic, whitewashed, concrete boxes with corrugated steel roofs and high spires – might unintentionally help to fuel the same ‘them-and-us’ mentality that we see with plans for mosques in English cities (or indeed Ground Zero). A church is the people, not the building, and a low-rise, plain meeting hall might be a better long-term option. This story is far from being over, and I await Qufu’s next move with interest.