A Bible for Beijing

By Pierre Fuller

A few weeks ago my mother learned at her Greenwich, Conn., church that, beyond church grounds, Bibles cannot be purchased in the People’s Republic. Her informant was a man from the Bible Society of Singapore who gave an evening talk on the state of Christianity in China at my parents’ mainstream Protestant parish. My mother soon asked her son in Beijing, me, about this fact over the phone and I couldn’t say either way: a Chinese-language Bible was not something I’d been actively looking for yet I could have sworn I’d spotted one in a shop a while back when living in China’s Northwest. Then again, that was a long decade ago. I am clearly no expert on the subject.

Then on a recent morning in a basement bookstore in the National Library in Beijing a volume with a black binding and gold lettering caught my eye. I pulled it off the shelf. In no shape to identify the Chinese word for “Genesis” or for “Psalms”, I checked the volume’s opening passage: “Shen shuo: ‘Yao you guang’, jiu you le guang,” it read. God said: “Let there be light,” and there was light.

I was holding a Bible.

I took the book to the counter – its look was so plainly familiar it could have had the stamp of the Gideons on its cover– and without so much as a glance at my selection the cashier, while barking into a phone, rang it up. At fifty percent off, I thought, they’re practically giving these away – and in the very belly of the National Library of the People’s Republic of China, no less (a bookshop, it must be said, that was hardly as glamorous as its location might suggest, a labyrinthine afterthought with an uninspired selection). So much for my mother’s stateside informant.

Returning to my research chores at the microfilm room upstairs I was reminded of a feature story I did for a Japanese daily a while back on the growing popularity of Christmas in China, specifically a very commercial version of it that I observed sprouting in 1990s Xi’an, the ancient capital. (One thing I was told by a church official then is that proselytizing in the PRC is legally limited to church grounds, but that hadn’t stopped the draw of crowds at one downtown Xi’an church on Christmas Eve 1999 from requiring crowd control as bodies spilled out of the doors during the service. Mostly curious students, I was told.)

Walking the city for material back then I came across a dramatic scene at a small church on the avenue running north from the city Bell Tower. A gaggle of old women were wailing at the steps of their church. At first I thought it might be a funeral; I quickly learned it was the funeral of the church building itself, a plastered structure suggesting 1980s construction. The building was condemned, the grounds beneath claimed for development, while the authorities promised to rebuild one for the parish in the outskirts of town. This meant a long commute to Sunday services and the women were adamantly opposed it. As for me, the foreigner with the notepad, I’d been sent by God himself, a teary-eyed woman announced, to let this be known to the world. The crowd around agreed. Overwhelmed, I escaped before any miracles could be expected of me.

A year later an underground film project brought me to rural Liaoning Province in the Northeast where we were invited to informally film an animated Christian service at a towering village church, its choir decked in white and red vestments as they sang before a congregation of several hundred. I recall our hosts sporting T-shirts emblazoned with “Jesus Saves” in red characters all that afternoon as they cooked us produce pulled, no doubt, from the neighboring fields.

I couldn’t have imagined a more idyllic atmosphere. But more significant was what occurred several days later in downtown Shenyang when the temptation to interview a 90-year-old man occupying his daily sidewalk perch at our apartment building’s side gate was too hard to resist. Naturally, our crew of three, Sony VX-1000 and boom mic in hand, attracted a crowd – and, soon enough, police, who escorted us back to our apartment to figure out what these foreigners (and one Chinese) were up to.

We’d just been in the surrounding countryside filming quaint rural scenes but also the homes of residents, some very poor. That meant there were videotapes all over the house. But the authorities didn’t even ask about that possibility. Some six hours at the precinct followed, many cigarettes passed around. The end decision was that we were to return with the offending tape (yes, we were allowed to take it home with us) the following business day. We did so, and sitting in a room with a plainclothes officer we ran through the content on a TV: the church service wasn’t deemed objectionable; the humble interior of a “peasant” abode? That had to go.

I could understand the logic. Why not broadcast a thriving congregation? But a reminder of the rural majority languishing in poverty? That’s no good. So we erased it right then and there and returned to our stockpile of other footage, our equipment intact, our visas unchanged. I would’ve thought the fist would’ve come down harder on us. Had we received special treatment because we were foreigners? Doubtless. But then we’d also been picked up precisely because we were white guys attracting a crowd to the otherwise innocuous interview of an old pensioner. And confiscating the equipment of these touring amateurs would hardly have warranted a call to Human Rights Watch. Someone could’ve made a few thousand bucks off our camera, easy. (A good thing no one thought of it, it was borrowed equipment.)

Looking back, the plight of that Xi’an parish deserved to be told, but I didn’t have it in me to write it then. Today, it strikes me as a scene straight out of Michael Meyer’s newly-published Last Days of Old Beijing, a moving account of the tragic face-lift and social dislocation of China’s capital. As in much of Meyer’s Beijing, the destructive forces on that ill-fated Xi’an church were a combination of cancerous developers given carte blanche to ruin and raise along with a cruel system of little warning to those affected, and no appeals. That plaster house of God could have been a much-needed clinic or neighborhood senior social parlor before the profits, “prestige” and conveniences of “development” tore it down. But I was hard-pressed to see Christianity in the equation.

As for my new Chinese Bible, it’d be a challenge for me to get through it, so maybe I’ll pass it on to a curious friend. Which brings me back to the Bible Society and its talk-China tour: It’s easy to get sloppy when you’re preaching to the choir. But if tracking Bibles is your business, at least get the facts straight.


Anonymous said...

The spread of Christianity in China is largely uninhibited, some say at an alarming speed.

Unknown said...

It's my understanding that the vast majority of Chinese citizens do not have easy access to Bibles. I understand China does not allow any bookstores except those owned by the state sanctioned 3 Self Church to sell Bibles. Chinese Bibles have no ISBN numbers and therefore can't be legally sold except for the special exemption I just mentioned. There are only a handful of official churches in huge cities like Beijing, and none in most cities. So, if you live in a city of 8 million or more, there may be 5 or 6 stores that sell Bibles legally. As you know, most Chinese live in rural areas.
Try ordering one from an on-line bookseller. You can get The Purpose Driven Life, or other Christian books, but not the Bible. It may be listed, but "sold out." Your discovery may be an exception to the rule.
The irony is that Amity Press in China is the largest Bible publisher in the world. Many of those are printed in English and go to Wal Mart in America. Go in to Wal Mart in China and try to find one. Once Wal Mart can sell them, the lady you mentioned in America can be assured most Chinese will have easy access to them. I would encourage you to see if you can find a Bible easily in China other than the one you stumbled across.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the Singaporean, while probably preaching to the choir, was technically correct in stating that Bibles are not to be legally sold outside of state-approved churches (or meeting points). However, I have also seen (very few) Bibles for sale in other places. As you know, what the letter of the law states is not always followed, even at the National Library. What is common is that stories about the Bible or even sections of the Bible are sold in bookstores all over China (which is what you MAY have been holding in the National Library). Either way, a bit of background research would've benefited this blog. Overall, though, I think the point is well made that while many (especially Westerners) try to muster up sympathy in American churches for the plight of Chinese Christians, the story told is NOT balanced and your version of events in Liaoning is a needed antidote to the cries of religious persecution heard so loudly in American churches.

Anonymous said...

the rural area is not a good example. if you're in rural China, it'll probably be hard to find a bookstore that sells Lenin's works too. I didn't check if many bookstore in China sell bibles (I did find that not many American bookstores sell Lenin), although bible-story books seem to be prevalent. The point is, if you want to get hold of a bible in China, it's nearly not that difficult, especially when there are so many Sunday churches. They are not really that underground. They are semi-open. And when I wrote a term paper on part of the bible in China (that was many years ago), I had no difficulty at all to get a bible and other reference materials in my school library.

btw, the bible is easily downloadable from the Internet.

Anonymous said...

A bit off-topic, perhaps. I just found it ironic that while Christianity has been declining in the West (on the whole), it is rising in traditionally non-Christian regions.

Anonymous said...

Bibles are readily available from pirate book carts in my area in Beijing. I see them most evenings on my way home, looking just as described in this post. The binding is about as familiar as it gets.

Anonymous said...

I was a college student back in 1990s. By some chance I got interested in Christianism and Bible. And also by some chance which I cannot remember now, I got the telephone number of a Christian organization in Beijing called "Hai Dian Tang". I called them and told them that I was interested in knowing Bible and asked if I could buy a bible from them. They immediately responded that they could offer TWO Bibles to me,and,, for FREE! That's a strange but good experience. A few days latter I got them nice and perfect by mail. I still don't know if I could buy Bible easily in bookstores since I never tried. But I am sure if you 'want' to have one, it's defenitely not as difficult as portrayed by someone whom I also encountered here in Europe.

Dylan Levi King said...

"Chinese Bibles have no ISBN numbers and therefore can't be legally sold except for the special exemption I just mentioned."

Just like other religious tracts and underground political pamphlets and bootleg Harry Potter books cannot be sold in China, right? Check out used book shops, streetside book sellers, etc. But, still, I imagine most are just passed from person to person (which I think is more civilized than being flogged at Wal-Mart alongside the frozen dumplings and Pepsi, like my homie Joe).

Unknown said...

It's Joe again. I just wanted to mention that for a Christian to learn about how to live the Christian life, the Bible is a basic necessity. It's the one and only manual. It's not just another book about Christianity, it is THE Book. American Christians often own several. They are in pews in US churches, and freely available, be it Wal Mart or Amazon.com. I think there may be a disconnect here in some commenters not understanding the need for every church member to have their own Bible in order to grow in the Christian faith.

Any Christian in American who wants to own a Bible can own one today, this minute. I don't believe this is true for most Christians in China, especially outside the state approved churches, which is where most Chinese Christians attend church, in the house church. So, it's my contention that most Chinese Christians don't live in big cities and do not have easy access to Bibles. That's different from having easy access to other stuff, because as I mentioned before, it's a key component to growing as a Christian. I understand that bootleg and illegal is standard operating procedure in China. I still challenge the easy access to those who want to learn the teachings of scripture and apply it to their lives, without owning a copy of it. I would encourage those who can to find Chinese house church Christians outside the huge cities and see if Bibles truly are readily available. I do respect and appreciate everyone's comments. Thanks for the friendly, candid dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I've bought a bible in China and seen them often. In both Xinhua Bookstores and private stores.

Anonymous said...

“It's Joe again. I just wanted to mention that for a Christian to learn about how to live the Christian life, the Bible is a basic necessity. It's the one and only manual. It's not just another book about Christianity, it is THE Book.”

Funny you would say that, given that it is rife with contradictions and unpleasantness.

Anonymous said...

For my part, when I once encountered a small christian group on the plane to China and realized they were intent on "underground" prostheletizing, I turned them in to the authorities upon landing in Shanghai. The christians never realized that I might be a militant atheist. Too bad for them but it felt good to be able to do something to stop the spread of their virus. Cheers!

Unknown said...

It's Joe a third time--sorry about that! We seem to be getting off-topic from "are Bibles readily available in China?" to indictments of Christianity. As per Anonymous's post earlier ("the spread of Christianity in China is largely uninhibited."), almost all growth of churches and Christianity in China is home-grown. All missionaries are by necessity clandestine, since they are illegal. I won't argue whether Christianity is a "virus," other than to say that it is a wonderful agent for good when done properly. Many people have had very bad experiences with organized religion, be it Christian or otherwise, so it's not surprising that someone would turn in a religious group to authorities. It's my goal to truly help people first, whatever their needs, then talk about Jesus second, or not at all if someone is resistant.
I want to mention a couple of examples of two Christian groups I am personally acquainted with in China. One works exclusively with women in brothels, simply caring for them, befriending them, being their friends, and eventually helping get them out of brothels. Sure they share their faith with them, but they will do this work whether the prostitutes become Christians or not. Another Christian group I know helps build schools, does water projects, etc. Sure they want to see these folks become Christians, but they are doing the work regardless or whether or not there is the first convert.
Again, I appreciate honest and free discussion. I desire for Christians to make a positive difference in the world today by both their words and their deeds. Whether or not one believes Christianity or the Bible are evil or good, the first needs the latter like a plant needs water and nutrients to grow properly. The goal would be one Chinese language Bible for each Chinese Christian. The reality, as I understand it, is nowhere near that goal. My impression is that many people commenting on this topic are not themselves Chinese Christians, nor have much first hand knowledge of Chinese Christians, especially outside the 3 Self Church in large cities.
For my part, I wish to be part of the solution here and not part of the problem, to demonstrate love and concern for people here on earth first, then their afterlife second. May we all exhibit a spirit of love and concern for our fellow man. We do need each other.

Anonymous said...

last May 13th (2009) in the morning I walked into a large book store on Wangfuching street - the Beijing Books Centre. I looked for a Bible in Mandarin to no avail. I spoke to several employees in the store and they told me (communicating with the help of a dictionary) that they don't sell Bibles. They actually suggested I go to a church if I want to get one.