Interviews July/August 2007

A Church for China

Adam Minter, author of "Keeping Faith," discusses his article about Bishop Jin Luxian, the future of Catholicism in China, and life as a writer in Shanghai

In 1577, the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci left Italy on a mission to bring the Christian faith to Ming dynasty China. He was neither the first Christian, nor the first Catholic, to arrive in the Middle Kingdom. But his arrival marked the beginnings of a Jesuit presence that would survive erratically in China for nearly four centuries.

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Articles from The Atlantic's archives illuminate the history of China's complex relationship with Christianity.

Everything changed in 1949 when the Communists came to power. Western religion—along with all else foreign—was unwelcome welcome in the PRC. Although Pope Pius XII had established an official independent hierarchy for China’s Church back in 1946 (making the China Jesuit Mission null and void), European bishops still retained control over more than 80 percent of the country’s dioceses. In 1951, the Communist Party expelled all missionaries and severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Chinese priests tried to convince the Communist government that the country’s Catholic Church could operate independently, but by 1955, Chinese Catholics had become targets as well, and over the course of two weeks that fall, more than 1,200 Catholic priests, nuns, and laypeople were arrested and detained.

Among those rounded up was Jin Luxian, a Shanghai-born Jesuit who had left his studies in Rome to return to China after the Communists took power. Jin spent the following 27 years under various forms of incarceration, during which time China (and the Catholic Church) underwent myriad changes. When Jin finally emerged a free man in 1982, he found himself in a society that bore little resemblance to the one from which he’d been snatched nearly three decades prior. Catholicism in China was now regulated by a Communist government agency known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Under the CPA, worship was permitted, but only within strict, carefully monitored guidelines. Shanghai’s St. Ignatius Cathedral, where Jin had been ordained in 1945, now looked like a shadow of its former self; during the Cultural Revolution, in which all religion had been completely banned, the Cathedral had been stripped of its stained glass, steeples, altar, and converted into a grain warehouse. It was now functioning as a Catholic church again, but as Adam Minter describes in his July/August Atlantic profile of Bishop Jin, things nonetheless felt amiss:

Open prayers for the pope were strictly prohibited, and scant mention of the holy father could be found in any of the crudely printed books used in the cathedral. Mass was still in Latin, unintelligible to most Chinese. The current bishop had been ordained without approval from Rome, by a Communist government determined to erase the memory of Shanghai’s still-incarcerated bishop, Ignatius Kung (Gong) Pin-mei. Everything was under the direct control of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Meanwhile, an “underground” movement had been established, composed of Chinese Catholics who swore loyalty to the Vatican, refused to worship in government-registered churches, and remained loyal only to Chinese bishops who had been ordained by Rome. Worshipping in unregistered churches was strictly illegal, and those caught often faced severe punishment.

Jin Luxian was faced with a decision: Should he ally himself with the official, CPA-sanctioned Church, or join forces with the underground church, recognized and supported by the Vatican? He was a devout Roman Catholic, but after an agonizing deliberation, requiring much prayer and consolation, he decided that it was of paramount importance to build a Church in which all Chinese Catholics could practice openly and without fear. In 1985, he accepted the CPA’s nomination and was ordained an auxiliary Bishop in Shanghai.

In his comprehensive article on Jin and the wrenching compromises he has faced, Adam Minter throws into relief not only the longstanding and often turbulent relationship between the Vatican and China, but also the remarkable character of Bishop Jin – a devoutly religious man who, despite having aligned himself with China’s official Church, has nonetheless managed to reconcile with Rome and to create a Church in which China’s faithful can feel free to be both Catholic and Chinese.

Adam Minter has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, and the Far Eastern Economic Review, among others. He has long covered China’s role in the recycling industry, and is currently working on a feature about how the U.S. and Chinese economies have been fundamentally transformed by the transpacific trade in American waste. “Keeping Faith” is his first piece for The Atlantic. We spoke by phone on May 24th.

Abigail Cutler


You’ve been living and working in China for quite some time. What brought you there?

I wish I could tell you it was a purposeful move. When I took my first trip here in 2002, I was working as a journalist in the Twin Cities, doing a little bit of trade publication stuff. I saw China developing from afar and thought there might be an opportunity for me to do some freelance work. I didn’t really know the mechanics of freelancing here, or much at all about China for that matter. And if I knew then what I know today I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to do it. Anyway, I lined up about two months of work and came over to Shanghai. I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t know the language. I had never even had an interest in China prior to arriving here in September 2002. I thought I would stay here roughly six months, complete the few assignments I came over with and, quite honestly, fall on my face. I thought I’d come over here and get a great story about how I had failed. But things worked out. There weren’t (and still aren’t) any rules. And there wasn’t anybody to tell me how to get things done, so I kind of figured things out on my own.

As a journalist, the great advantage of coming over like that is that it forces you to learn the culture and, to an extent, the language—though that’s not as true in Shanghai, I guess. It’s completely different than coming over as a correspondent with The New York Times or something, where you’d be very much ensconced in the western expatriate culture and all its cul-de-sacs, real and figurative. As just a journalist with the barest of lifelines to sustain you, you’re going to learn the culture really quickly. I didn’t know that at the time, but looking back upon it, I’m really grateful that I jumped in that way. Had I come over with more support—as a correspondent or something—I couldn’t have gotten in as deep with the culture, found the sources I did and cultivated those relationships.

So that’s kind of how it worked out. Those first six months went well. So I thought, Let’s do another three. Then it’s a year, and that year becomes two years, and then two-and-a-half years, and suddenly I realized, Wow, I’m here. I think a journalist really needs a couple years here to get their feet wet—to become comfortable working in this culture; it’s so different from doing journalism in the U.S.

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Abigail Cutler is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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