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

What are the biggest differences?

Well, the most obvious one is that there are no press secretaries here. There’s no communications office to call. The state Environmental Protection Agency does not have media outreach; the only way you’re going to be able to talk to people there is by developing relationships and real friendships with people—a relationship tree. The Chinese word guanxi gets at this. It’s often translated as what we call “having connections.” But it’s much more than that. It takes a lot of time to develop, unlike in the States where you can usually find a direct route right to the top. In China, the person at the top is usually not the most informed person; the person you really want to talk to is more often the second in command, or the vice chair. I don’t want to overstate it, but it’s really hard to do a story in this country without those relationships and friendships.

But for that matter, even the whole concept of friendship here is different. For example, when I was reporting on the Catholic Church, I started very, very small. It was something I had wanted to write about for a long time, so I started developing some relationships and trust. The first time I ever wrote about the Church, it was just an innocuous article for a Shanghai city magazine about the city’s international Catholic population; truthfully, that was about the only thing I could have done. Had I called up the Church and said right off the bat, “Hi, I’d like to do something about you for The Atlantic,” that would not have worked. Not here. Doing a smaller story first allowed me to come into contact with some of the players, get to know them, and develop those relationships. Reporting here is really so different—it’s hard even to compare the two.

Looking through some of your earlier writing, I noticed that you’ve written on religion before. Do you have a particular interest in the subject?

I do. I like writing about religion. I find it to be an interesting topic. My specific interest in Catholicism in China comes from my seeing it as the perfect laboratory through which to examine how Chinese civilization interacts with Western civilization. I think there’s probably no institution that epitomizes the West more perfectly than the Catholic Church. Certainly, it’s the oldest Western institution. The role it’s played in China—as far back as the sixteenth century—and the role it continues to play today is just fascinating to me. In addition to that, I find religion interesting in its own right; I also like talking to religious people—especially religious leaders—because they tend to be thoughtful people.

How did you first cross paths with Jin Luxian?

The first time I wrote something about the Church in Shanghai—that piece I did on international Catholics for City Weekend, I got to know a priest who became quite helpful to me. This priest was really supportive of my piece. Over the course of our interviews, I asked him to explain to me how the English mass was first established in Shanghai. He gave me a little bit of the history and then said, “But you know, I think you should talk to Bishop Jin about this because he can give you a much better sense of things.” I thought to myself, Wow, getting the story straight from the Bishop sounds pretty great. He gave me Jin’s phone number on a little piece of paper and told me to call him. I was nervous, so the number sat on my desk for a day or two until one afternoon I took a deep breath and decided to call. I got him on the phone right away and told him about my conversation with this other priest and conveyed my interest in talking to him about the Chinese-language Mass. I could hear papers rustling about on his desk and finally he said, “Why don’t you come by at such-and-such time on Thursday.” So I did. I showed up at the cathedral at the appointed time, was met by a nun at the gate, and led into his office in back.  When I look back on it, given the way things usually operate here, it’s just so utterly absurd that it turned out so well. I’m not sure that I’d recommend trying to do things that way all the time.

Was it very difficult getting Jin or others to open up to you? How hard is it to form these necessarily close relationships?

Journalism really is so much about luck much of the time. I was just fortunate that the first couple of priests I came into contact with had already had extensive contact with foreigners. They were willing to talk to me and they liked my initial idea of doing a story about life in Shanghai for international Catholics. And they liked how that piece turned out. All that made it possible to take the next step and go a little further with the Jin stuff. So, on the one hand, I got lucky. On the other hand, it does take several years to develop and build these kinds of relationships. The analogue is my social life—the relationships I’ve cultivated over time with my Chinese friends. The longer you know them, the deeper the relationship becomes—and the more trust develops. It’s one of the most gratifying things about being in China, actually. You can really see your relationships develop over time.

Speaking of international Catholics in Shanghai: How different is it to practice religion in China than elsewhere? What’s different, for example, about a Catholic Mass in Shanghai?

Nothing. That’s what’s so interesting about it. They have the same Mass American Catholics do; the same sacraments. And that is precisely what Jin wanted to establish. It’s perhaps his most important legacy. He feels it’s a real accomplishment to have set things up in Shanghai and elsewhere in China such that the Catholic sacraments are available to whoever wants them. You can go to Mass on Saturday night; you can go to Mass on Sunday morning. And those Masses are not going to be any different from Masses in the United States or in Europe—except that they’ll be in Chinese, of course. That’s not to say that there’s no local character to the Masses here. But at the end of the day, a Mass is a Mass. That comes as a tremendous surprise to expats here. Even in Shanghai, they’re shocked.

Why do you think that is?

I’ve given that some thought. One of the reasons, I think, is that non-Chinese—particularly Europeans and Americans—have ascribed a very different narrative to what’s happened here since 1949. The West still views China as existing in the same state of things as it did in 1949. They think, China in 1949 vs. 1970? It’s all just a Communist (capital “C”) state. But that’s not really accurate anymore; China’s a very different place today.

A second reason really has to do with simplicity. Most people in the U.S. don’t have much interest in Chinese Catholics, and so a very simple story about an underground loyal to Rome, and a “Patriotic Church” loyal to the Communist Party, suffices. Of course, the actual story—the more complicated one—can’t be explained in a single sentence, or even a single paragraph. So it goes missing.

As Catholicism—and other mainstream religions, for that matter, have increased in strength, what has happened to the more traditional Chinese philosophies, like Confucianism and Daoism? Have they experienced their own resurgence, too?

The way it works here is that there are five State-recognized religions, each of which has its own administrative apparatus: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism (it’s worth noting here that all of the Protestant sects have been placed under one umbrella—an interesting story in its own right), Daoism, and Islam. Daoism is receiving a lot of support from the Chinese government right now. There is also a bit of resurgence happening with the Confucian classics. I don’t think the government tries to hide or suppress this. After all, Daoism and Confucianism were the official philosophies and religions of the Emperor precisely because they support a very ordered concept of the universe, governed by a powerful authority at the top. So it’s not surprising to me that there's a lot of government support for these two philosophies. The really interesting revival though, in my opinion, is the resurgence of many traditional minority religions—things like animist beliefs and stuff you find out in the countryside. That stuff is coming back in a strong way. I don’t know much about it—it’s something I’d like to explore. But overall, I think it’s absolutely fair to say that China is experiencing a huge religious awakening.

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Abigail Cutler is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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