AUTHORHanna Gully Hanna Gully, originally from Andover, Massachusetts, is a member of the class of 2013 in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. She participated in the Berkley Center's Junior Year Abroad Network from Shanghai, China during the spring of 2012.
March 15, 2012
June 8, 2012
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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On the Private Practice of Religion in China
June 8, 2012 | 1 COMMENT
Yet, when I arrived in Shanghai I didn’t feel the presence of Christianity, or any religion for that matter. Though religious freedom is limited in China, it does exist, and I was therefore surprised by the lack of visual signs of faith. Shanghai possesses a few famous Buddhist temples and Christian churches but these places seemed to me more like tourist attractions than authentic places of worship.
Over time, I realized that though religion was not visibly apparent when driving around the city, that didn’t mean people weren’t following their faiths. Religion’s true home resided in people’s homes. As I got to know more Chinese families, and visited friends’ apartments I saw that people displayed their faith on crocheted artwork and in sacred spaces. They created areas within their homes that no only paid homage to their religion, but which allowed them to worship in the privacy of their own homes. I learned that religion does exist in China, you just have to look for it.
Of all the faiths, the Christian community has most energetically adopted the practice of worshiping inside the confines of the domicile. For years, Catholics and Protestants alike have been organizing an underground network of “house churches.” This struck me as curious, because I come from a small New England town, where churches were always fixture of local life. Public religious practice fostered a sense of community and belonging, and I wondered, what caused these Chinese people to turn to private worship?
To understand the answer to this question, we must first look at The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. The Constitution grants the people of China freedom of belief but not of practice. Chinese people are only allowed to practice five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Though the Chinese government permits the practice of five religions, it still restricts and monitors the practice of those permissible religions. For example, when I was looking for a church to attend for Easter Mass in Shanghai, some of the listing said worshipers must bring their passports because services were only open to foreigners. The government did not approve these services, and therefore Chinese people were not allowed to attend.
Additionally, some Catholics choose to worship in their houses because of their loyalty to the Pope. Chinese people aren’t allowed to pledge allegiance to anyone but the Communist Party, and as a result Catholics aren’t allowed to show devotion to the Pope. Furthermore, the Pope isn’t allowed to appoint bishops within China. These points of contention are just some of the many areas of friction between the government and Christian community that are causing believers to worship in private.
My observations of the Christian community showed me that although religion is not displayed in the way I’m used to, it is not only present, but thriving in China. People are so devoted to their faith, that they are putting their lives at risk to practice. Because house churches exist outside of government regulations, they are illegal, and anyone found to be taking part in the house churches is subject to severe repercussions. Despite these risks, people continue to organize and practice. Additionally, the house church community is robust. College students are aware of the underground network of house churches and are able to join if they feel compelled. Based on my observations, I can attest to the existence of a strong and devoted population of believers, undeterred by government regulations.
RESPONSE TO HANNA GULLY FROM JOOHEE KIM June 28, 2012
I've recently become very interested in China's underground House Churches (HC), which actually is not a recent phenomenon but has been around for decades. The private worship, like you touched upon, is mostly due to governmental regulation and persecution. The "public" churches are owned by the government, which is part of the Three-Self Patriotic Church Movement. The government heavily restricts what is taught, what is preached, how many are baptized, and even who can become Christians. All evangelism and outreach to children are discouraged. There are decrees that prohibit the preaching of certain portions of the Bible, like the second coming of Christ. The entire book of Revelations is banned as well.
There are so many fundamentals that have been blotted out from the official churches in China that many Christians don't believe that the churches provide sound doctrine nor get at the crux of their beliefs. Because Christians recognize that, many are turning to underground HCs, which are boundlessly persecuted. I know of a few HCs that are constantly being shut down and people are being continuously arrested and threatened for their faith. However, many are steadfast in continuing to joining a church that fundamentally teaches Christian truths. If I could recommend a book it would be, The Heavenly Man, a story about a forerunner who established multiple HCs in more remote parts of China and the vision/intricacies behind it.