Churches of Shanghai : They open a window on the country's political and religious past

Urrows is a free-lance writer who lives in San Mateo and has taught music in Hong Kong, and Shanghai and Guangzhou, China

The exasperated voice barked at me from behind the steel gate: "Ming dian! Ming dian!" (Come back tomorrow.)

A three-mile walk had left me invigorated and in a good mood. It was a sunny Saturday, a classic Shanghai April morning of cherry blossoms and blue skies. A snack of xiao long bao (meat-filled dumplings) bought from a vendor along the way had kept me going on the path that led south from my hotel in the old Chinese city.

I persisted. "I have come from Mei guo (America), from Ba si do (Boston) to see your church. Won't you let me in for just a minute, please?" A pause ensued; an eye-level trapdoor shot open, and a voice below two narrowed and suspicious eyes said in a cautious voice: "Ba si do?" "Hai-hai-hai" (Yes!).

I have yet to understand what specific magical power the name Boston commands over the Chinese, but I have discovered it to be the open sesame to China's churches on more than one occasion. I may never gain a definitive explanation, but I speculate that perhaps it is connected with an international perception of Boston as a seat of higher education or as the cradle of the American Revolution, which in China is viewed in Marxist terms as a classic, anti-imperialist uprising. Whatever the reason, I have been permitted access to a number of churches around China over the years, which has yielded some intriguing knowledge.

For example, tourists in China rarely see, or even consider, the interesting ecclesiastical architecture left by Western powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a country where religious activity is tolerated to a greater or lesser extent by the mood in Beijing, a tour of churches may seem darkly comic, or at least incongruous.

Not a bit. China's churches are windows into the history of China's relationship with the West. They are survivors, not only of the Cultural Revolution, which despoiled them, but also of the centuries of China's often reluctant opening to the West.

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The earliest Christian missionaries arrived in China at the end of the 13th century. By 1305, a boys choir was organized in one of Beijing's early churches. But these early incursions met with resistance from the rulers of China who followed Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist traditions. It was not until the late 17th century, with the arrival of Roman Catholic Jesuit missionaries skilled in mathematics, the fine arts and the manufacture of firearms, that Imperial China began to tolerate foreigners. With toleration came evangelism and the establishment of churches. Today, many pre-revolution buildings survive, including churches that served expatriates and local residents until 1949, when the communists took over.

Considered entirely apart from their function, these churches are often impressive, although sometimes jarring presences, in their respective neighborhoods. And these neighborhoods, almost all of them off the beaten track, give a glimpse of everyday life and manners that choreographed tours often do not address. As a student of Western religious music in China, I have found a bit of church-hopping there to be an interesting and rewarding undertaking.

If you can visit only one church in Shanghai, it should be Zikawei. Zikawei (or in official Mandarin, Xujiahui) is located about five miles west of the city center, It is the remaining monument to one of the largest Jesuit missions in the Far East, which at its peak included a college, an orphanage, a seminary, a vocational institute, an important library and, since 1872, the Zikawei Observatory.

The land upon which the Zikawei complex was built was given to the Jesuits by the family of an early and influential Chinese convert to Catholicism, Paul Xu, who died in 1634 and is buried nearby. The present church, seating more than 2,000 parishioners, was designed and built by the British-run Shanghai Building Co. between 1906 and 1910.

With its twin spires soaring to 161 feet, it is an imposing red-brick structure, "inclining [in style] to medieval French," as English architect and Shanghai resident W.M. Dowdall remarked upon its completion. Walking through the vast and sparsely adorned interior space, or strolling the carefully tended grounds, one has little sense of the terrible destruction this church, like so many others, suffered about 30 years ago.

In mid-August of 1966, a group of about 100 Red Guards, radical students, broke into Zikawei. A former Red Guard to whom I was introduced, told me what happened next: The students rounded up the priests and shouted slogans at them. Then they began to smash everything they could find in the church. They built a huge bonfire on the north side of the complex and made the priests carry statues from the church and put them on the fire.

The students then ransacked the chapter house, throwing 200,000 books, many irreplaceable, into the flames. Before going back to their dormitory and holding a self-congratulatory meeting, they beat up the priests. My informant added, "I don't think any of them died that day." Later that year, the twin spires were torn down, and Zikawei was turned into a grain warehouse.

After Deng Xiaoping's rise to power in the mid-1970s, news of a policy of religious toleration trickled down to local church authorities from Beijing's Central Committee. Churches were reclaimed and rebuilt by their congregations, and in some instances the local government authorities, recognizing their possibilities as tourist sites, helped defray the costs. Zikawei was rebuilt in the late 1970s, and the spires were restored in 1982.

I visited a 6 a.m. service in which a dozen elderly Chinese women had come to recite the rosary in Latin. The priest asked if I were a Roman Catholic. When I told him, "Unfortunately, no," he scowled but let me sit at the back of the church. After so many years of persecution, elderly pastors can be expected to be a bit suspicious of people they don't know.

In a different part of town, but no less interesting than Zikawei, is the old Roman Catholic church of Dongjiadu (sometimes spelled Tungkadoo). Near the Huangpu River, on the far side of the old Chinese city (delineated on most maps by a circular pattern denoting the former presence of the city walls), it is less famous than Zikawei, though considerably older. In fact, until the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, when China cut itself off from the West, it was on every tourist's itinerary. Noted not only for its graceful and classic Jesuit looks and superb acoustics, it originally contained an organ, built by the Jesuits at Zikawei, in which the pipe work was constructed entirely of bamboo.

Today, Dongjiadu sits behind a wall of ramshackle buildings, scarcely visible from muddy Dongjiadu street. (It was here that I uttered the incantation "Ba si do" to gain entrance.) Like countless similar Jesuit buildings around the world, it is a marriage of elegance and restraint with form and function. The pews and church furniture are simple and practical. The elaborate high altar of polychromed wood is representative of many that graced rural churches throughout the Roman Catholic world in the 19th century. One typically Chinese anomaly is the statue of St. Francis Xavier, the church's patron, in the altar's highest central niche.

The downtown area of Shanghai offers one additional major church, the former Holy Trinity Cathedral, an Anglican church. Construction on this building, which eventually included a detached bell and clock tower, since destroyed, and a school, still standing, began in 1866. The great British architect Sir George Gilbert Scott designed it in the "Railroad Station Gothic" style favored by mid-Victorian architects. (Scott designed London's St. Pancras Station, as well as numerous provincial English churches, and also rebuilt the chapter house at Westminister Abbey.)

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Consecrated in 1869, it served the members of the British community for 80 years. Since 1949, the city has engulfed it on every side. It sits on valuable real estate near the mighty commercial interests and retail bazaars on the main thoroughfare, Nanjing Road. It is hard to imagine it as it once stood, with its meticulously landscaped lawns, graveled paths and low, stone fences, an island of heavenly calm in the bustling, corrupt and seedy port, which at the turn of the century called itself the Paris of the East.

The churches of Shanghai, needless to say, will never rival the great indigenous tourist attractions: the Willow Tea House, the Yu Garden and shops in the old Chinese city and the Jade Buddha Temple. The churches have more in common with the Bund, one of the world's great riverside roadways.

The Bund is the mercantile analog to the churches--now a fossilized ribbon of stone masonry, former banks, clubs and consulates, like much of Shanghai, overlaid with a frosting of Art Deco. But it is changing swiftly.

Old Shanghai is being dismantled gradually. The old pre-1949 order is changing to the new. The churches and cathedrals of Shanghai will probably survive, but see them now while parts of Shanghai still sit in an architectural time warp. The booming China economy, however unstable or badly managed it may be, will bring changes. In light of the intense pressure for new development land, capitalism, rather than Red Guards, may succeed in making these churches only a memory.

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GUIDEBOOK: Church-Hopping in Shanghai

Getting there: Northwest and China Eastern Airlines fly direct, with one or two stops but no change of planes, from LAX to Shanghai. Connecting service with one change of planes is available on United. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at about $1,325.

Shanghai churches: Services are typically held early on Sundays, often at 6 or 7 a.m. for Roman Catholics; somewhat later for Protestants. Visits to churches on days other than Sunday are possible, though staffing can be irregular during the week.

Of the three churches in this story, only Holy Trinity is within comfortable walking distance of major hotels (though Zikawei is near the Sheraton). For Zikawei and Dongjiadu, a taxi is the best option. Ask the driver to wait and return you to your hotel.

Dongjiadu Cathedral (also called Church of St. Francis Xavier), 175-185 Dongjiadu Lu (street).

Holy Trinity Cathedral, corner Jiujiang Lu and Jiangxi Lu, Shanghai; near the main shopping street, Nanjing Lu.

Zikawei Cathedral (also called Xujiahui Church of Our Lady), 231 Caoxi Bei Lu/120 Puxi Lu.

Also worth visiting: Moore Memorial Church, 316 Xizang Zhong Lu. Built in 1932. Interdenominational church, named after K.P. Moore, a turn-of-the-century benefactor from Kansas City.

International Church, 53 Hengshan Lu. Formerly known as the American Community Church. Built in 1925. Probably the most active Protestant congregation in Shanghai.

For more information: China National Tourist Office, 333 W. Broadway, Suite 201, Glendale 91204; tel. (818) 545-7504.

--D.F.U.

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