China’s officially atheist government wants to build a Christian church in the hometown of Confucius (孔子) to help foster a relationship between an ancient philosophy and the country’s fastest-growing religion. However, suddenly, it’s not going so smoothly.
Confucian groups and 10 well-known academics are demanding that the Gothic-style church not be built in Qufu, Shandong Province, saying its size threatens to overshadow the world’s most famous Confucian temple and represents a foreign invasion of a sacred place.
“If a super-large Confucius temple were built in Jerusalem, Mecca or the Vatican, overshadowing the religious buildings there, how would the people feel about it? Would the government and the people accept it?” said an open letter from the protesters that was dated on Wednesday and posted on blogs.
Caught in the debate is the church’s pastor, a 75th-generation descendant of Confucius. The church means a lot because it will be in the philosopher’s hometown, a symbol of Chinese civilization, Kong Xiangling (孔祥玲) told Xinhua news agency this month.
After being attacked as backward during the era of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東), Confucius is experiencing a revival. A government-backed biopic starring Chow Yun-fat (周潤發) was released this year, and Beijing is promoting its brand of “soft power” under the philosopher’s name overseas, with a growing number of Confucius Institutes for culture and language learning.
Now, Chinese officials are pushing his birthplace as a place where ideas on his philosophy and Christianity can be exchanged. They’ve said the church will include a center to host dialogues on the two civilizations.
However, the academics’ protest brings up deeply held cultural concern about just what being Chinese means.
Confucianism, with its emphasis on morality, proper social relationships and ritual, is seen more as a philosophy than a religion, but it can be considered China’s most influential guide.
Among the country’s five officially recognized religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism — only one, Taoism, is native to China.
The governing Chinese Communist Party embraces Confucius for use in shaping what it likes to call a “harmonious society,” but it’s also stoked the nationalism that objects to the church in Qufu.
One of the protest letter’s signers, Confucian expert Chen Ming (陳明) of Beijing Capital Normal University, said that the friction between Western religions and peasants in Shandong a century ago led to the famous Boxer Rebellion, which swept through northern China and into Beijing in nationalistic anger against Western imperialism. Chinese students are still taught to see the era as a time of humiliation at foreign hands.
“Of course, I don’t agree with rejecting the outside world, but I also believe the necessary respect to the local culture is essential,” Chen wrote in an e-mail on Friday.
Wednesday’s open letter — signed by 10 academics and 10 Confucian groups — says the protesters don’t object to Christianity, but take issue with the church itself. It will be more than 41m tall and will be able to hold 3,000 people when it’s completed about two years from now, Xinhua reported. Officials have said Qufu has about 10,000 Christians and that the current makeshift church holds just 800 at most.
The academics argue that the church’s size could upstage the Confucius temple, located less than 3km away.
While its complex is more sprawling, the temple’s tallest building is about 45m high.
Qufu’s Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau director Kong Wei (孔偉) had no comment on Friday evening.
In an e-mail, Stephen Angle, a professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, said Chinese cities and architecture “take the relative statuses of buildings and their associated roles into account, and so there is indeed some ground for the concern that the church’s design may be inappropriate, given the location.”
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