China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2004/Aug

The Chinese Face of Christ

Many theologians and missiologists today are searching for the Chinese face of Jesus Christ. Christ has had many faces in China throughout the centuries. The pluralistic religious context in the country with its many folk religions and beliefs makes for rich possibilities.

Jesus, for some, has been seen as the incarnation of the Dao. Following Liberation in 1949, some progressive Christians have presented Jesus as a proletarian revolutionary, or as the Maoist “New Man”.

For many years, foreigners presented the face of Christ to the Chinese through the lenses of their European Christ, the Christ of the official Roman Church. Some non-Western scholars presented a different concept. Chinese artists in the past, like He Qi today, have sought to inculturate the face of Christ in their art.

The search for the face of Christ

The search to discover the face of Christ in China throughout the ages is so vital that it is being discussed seriously in some of the world’s most renowned China research centres. The China Zentrum and the Institut Monumenta Serica in Germany are jointly in the process of publishing five volumes entitled The Chinese Face of Jesus Christ. The Federation of Asian Bishops (FABC) has done extensive studies on the face of Christ in Asia. A recent book by David Aikman, entitled Jesus in Beijing also seeks to uncover the face of Christ.

For Asians, the face of Christ must appeal to the heart. Jesus Christ is seen as Wisdom, as Teacher, Healer, Liberator and Spiritual Guide, as the Enlightened One, the Compassionate Friend of the Poor, the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd and the Obedient One.

Discovering the Face of Christ

More than 50 years of Communist Party rule has not diminished the fascination that the Person of Christ continues to exert over China’s masses.

It is one thing, however, to fathom the face of Christ by studying how the image of Christ has been presented to the people of China throughout the ages, but it is quite another to discover the face of Christ in the people we meet in our travels and daily dealings with Chinese Christians.

Christ in China Today

I recently travelled to Northwest China with two staff members of the German office of Aid to the Church in Need. We had the opportunity to uncover the face of Christ everywhere we went.

We saw the face of Christ reflected in the seven bishops we met. All had suffered for their faith. Some had languished in prisons for years and today are struggling with the poverty in their dioceses and the pastoral needs of their congregations.

We saw the face of Christ in the young priests who travel alone over unpaved roads to outlying mountain areas on broken down motorcycles and who must rely on the generosity of the poor for food and a place to lay their heads at night. Their only passport to survival is the few Mass stipends that come to them from overseas.

We saw the face of Christ in young and elderly sisters who work beyond their strength to serve the people in poorly furnished clinics and orphans in makeshift orphanages.

We saw the face of Christ in seminarians studying in broken down, ill equipped seminaries and in the faithful laity who come to Mass daily, grateful to God for the little they have and willing to share that little even with us, total strangers.

Since my return I have reflected on the Chinese face of Christ in these people and now wish to share more at length something about two of them.

Bishop Liu Jingshan of Yinchuan

Bishop Liu Jingshan (John) of Yinchuan, Ningxia Province is 92. He was ordained a priest in 1942 during the Japanese occupation. In 1951, shortly after the Communist victory, he was arrested and sent to a labour camp where he spent 19 years taking care of pigs.

He was released in 1970 and returned to his hometown where he lived the life of a simple farmer. There was no question of returning to the church he had left almost 20 years before, since no churches were opened and his had been ruined during the Cultural Revolution. Of the 25 active priests in 1951, only one other was free.

In early 1979, the government decided it needed to start reopening churches. In 1983, Father Liu left the farm and made his way to the city of Yinchuan eager to start ministering to the people again.

In 1984 the government gave Father Liu a piece of land but no money and ordered him to build a church. The church was finally completed in 1987.

In 1993, Father Liu was ordained a bishop in the official Church but not before he had secured the approval of the Holy Father. In the room where he does most of his work, he has a big desk but straight within his line of vision on the wall there is a huge photo of John Paul II smiling down at him.

A unique personality

The bishop cuts an interesting figure. His eyes – he does not wear glasses – seem to smile all the time. He does not wear a hearing aid, and seems to have no trouble whatsoever hearing anyone and he certainly gives no indication of memory loss.

His bishop’s “cassock” seemed a bit strange until I later discovered that all the bishops in that area wear this “uniform”. It is a “mini” cassock since it only goes down to the hips, but it has all the right trimmings: red buttons, red piping down the front, around the collar on the pocket and around the neck.

The bishop was also wearing his pectoral cross and a miraculous medal. Perched precariously on his head was a facsimile of a red zucchetto, this one, however, was not of the usual satin variety; it was knitted and topped with a red pompom!

This remarkable 92 -year-old man is responsible for the cathedral, 10 other churches – mostly in the mountain area – and 13 mission stations. He has 13 young priests and 18 sisters of the Congregation of Mary to help him. On the day we were there, he found a 16-seater van and gathered some of his priests and available sisters and, together with him, we travelled all day visiting parishes of his diocese.

In the evening, he thoughtfully arranged to have us taken to the train station for our night train to Lanzhou. Bishop Liu certainly reflects the Chinese face of Christ to me. He is above all the Wise and Good Shepherd that takes care of his flock with compassion.

“Teacher” Han, Bishop of Lanzhou

Another truly remarkable person is “Teacher Han,” Bishop of Lanzhou, Gansu province. The government has not yet decided to accept Bishop Joseph Han Zhihai as the rightful bishop and so they refer to him as “Teacher Han.”

It is very strange that he should be called “teacher”. For the first 17 years of his life, Bishop Han lived deep in the mountains of Gansu where education was a very rare commodity.

Bishop Han travelled with us to visit his diocese. At one point, he pointed to the mountain where he had spent his youth. Life is so harsh in these mountains that lately the government has been relocating people to the foothills and given each family a two-room house and a bit of land. His family had just been relocated and we stopped to greet them. For us, the housing seemed very poor, but the family seemed extremely happy.

The bishop commented: “My family have never been so well-off; they now feel they have everything they need and ask for nothing more.” These simple folks certainly reflected the face of the poor Christ to me.

When Han Zhihai was 17, he left the mountain and came to the city where he found Bishop Yang Libo (Philip). For 10 years he lived with the bishop and literally, like the disciples of Jesus, followed him wherever he went.

All that he learned academically, theologically and about the scriptures, he learned from Bishop Yang. Bishop Han Zhihai today is only 39, but he reveals a wisdom beyond his years. He is a humble man of humble origins, who is indeed “meek and humble of heart”. He is also a man of courage, a product of China’s unofficial Church, and formed in that sector of China’s Catholic Church.

Agent of reconciliation

Last year, Bishop Han took it upon himself to write a letter to all the bishops of both the official and unofficial Church of China. He wrote, “I have become convinced now that we can no longer ignore the prayer of our Lord Jesus, ‘that all may be one’. As bishop and pastor of the flock in the Lanzhou Diocese, I feel the obligation to call on my brother bishops: let us free Chinese Catholics from this ambiguous situation of division.”

It took no small amount of wisdom and courage to write such a letter. This bishop is certainly the face of Christ who the night before he died at the Last Supper prayed for unity “that they may be one as we are one…” (Jn 17:11). His gesture is also a call to us to join him in this prayer.