China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2005/Aug

From stone tablets to email

Information storage and retrieval, plus speed of transmission, have all come a long way in the past 5,000 years. The original writing materials were bulky: clay tablets were used “between the rivers” (Mesopotamia) and tortoise shells along the Yellow River. Later, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments carved on two stone tablets.

Sharing information in ages past

A step forward occurred in China when short bamboo slips with a hole punched in one end were strung together. In one case, the string holding the only surviving manuscript of an ancient Chinese text rotted away, leaving later generations to puzzle over a jumble of disorganized sentences.

Papyrus and parchment (sheepskin) in the Mediterranean world were easily rolled into scrolls. The books of the Bible were not originally divided into chapters, while verses were not numbered until the Reformation, when Catholics and Protestants needed to cite chapter and verse for quick reference during their arguments.

China invents paper and printing

Paper is thought to have been invented in China around 105 ACE, but archeologists have pushed that date back to around 100 BCE. In 1045, Bi Sheng invented printing using movable type, which Johann Gutenberg, in Germany, did not rediscover until 1450. An early printing press could produce more words in a month than a scribe could in a lifetime and an information revolution in Europe soon followed.

Reaching the destination

But getting a message from afar took time. In the early 17th century, Jesuit missionaries in Beijing sent two copies of every letter. They were mailed on different days on different barges down the Grand Canal, then further south by coastal boat from Hangzhou to Macau. One letter went the Spanish route: to Manila, then east across the Pacific to Panama, perhaps with a stop in Guam. Spanish sailors must have seen birds flying, but they did not put two and two together, as the Polynesians had done centuries earlier and sail north to find Hawaii or south to New Zealand. The mail then went to Havana, Cuba, then to Spain and finally to Rome.

But there were storms and pirates, so to be safe, another copy went the Portuguese route: to Malaysia, southwest India, South Africa, Lisbon and finally Rome. Since the wind did not blow in the right direction in every season, a round-trip letter took three years. This is one reason the Chinese Rites Controversy dragged on so long.

With the advent steamships, mail travelled more quickly. In 1941, a letter from New York to southern China went by railroad to San Francisco, where it was loaded onto a ship (a “slow boat to China”), which stopped in Honolulu, Yokohama, Shanghai and then Hong Kong. The letter was then placed on a small boat to go up the West River. Round-trip correspondence took three months. A telegramme was sent in emergencies, but it was expensive.

Publishing religious materials

Printed matter for evangelization has a long history. In the late Ming dynasty, missionaries such as Guilio Aleni (1582-1649) wrote books illustrated with woodcuts to spread the Gospel. Although the print runs were small, most of these works still survive. They influenced Catholic literature printed in China, such as catechisms, into the 20th century.

Protestants were publishing in Chinese even before they could legally set foot within the Chinese Empire. In 1815 in Malaysia, they launched Cha Shi Su Mei Yue Tongjichuan (Chinese monthly magazine) the first Chinese news magazine. Evangelicals like Karl Gutzlaff (1803-51) who thought they could convert people en masse by distributing Bible tracts, were disappointed with the meagre results, but they did not stop trying.

The Catholics were late in catching up. The first periodical by Catholics to be published on Chinese soil was printed in French. The Jesuits at Zikawei (Xujiahui) in Shanghai started issuing an occasional record of the weather, Bulletin des observations meteorologoiques, in 1872. The first Catholic newspaper to be printed anywhere in China was the English Hong Kong Register, started in 1877. In Shanghai two years later, the Jesuits launched the first Catholic paper in Chinese, the Yi Wen Lu. In the first half of the 20th century, no mission effort was complete without illustrated books and pamphlets. Some groups used the magic lantern (an early slide projector) and later even moving pictures, but generating the electricity to show a movie was a problem.

Faster and faster communication

Correspondence became faster. By the mid-1960s, an airmail letter from the United States or Europe to Hong Kong and back took two weeks. Getting word from Mainland China was difficult, especially during the Cultural Revolution. In July 1969, when the first US astronauts walked on the moon, the joke was “From Florida to the moon, no trouble. From Florida to Cuba, no way.”

Early computer programmes were developed for English and for other languages based on an alphabet. While Chinese grammar is simple, the written language is not user friendly. Chinese characters take up a lot of memory room in a computer, or in a human brain. It took time to write software for characters, but those packages are now available. So keyboards in China are no longer limited just to the Latin alphabet.

Mainland China today has 103 million Internet users. India, with a somewhat smaller population, only has 24 million netizens. The US has 135 million, but growth is levelling off. China will be home to the greatest number of personal computers before too long. With email, messages can travel around our planet in seconds.

Or can they? Censorship is a fact of life in any Communist nation. Chinese are not free to explore every nook and cranny of the World Wide Web. By no means! The “Great Firewall of China” is the most ambitious attempt by any government to monitor where its netizens surf and to restrict what they can see and send. X-rated and bomb making sites, plus chat rooms for suicide pacts, are all off limits, fair enough, yet political and religious material also attract the attention of the government.

There are reports that 30,000 computer-savvy state employees monitor the Internet in China. Many websites get shut down. More subtly, sometimes there is a prolonged delay before the message appears “This page is not available.” Patience is not a virtue among those who surf the net.

Emailers and bloggers are required to register under their true names. Even if an alias or nom de plume shows up in the posted notices, the police will still know the true identity of the typist. (Considering that, upon investigation, half of the “teenage girls” in one chat room in the USA turned out to be middle-aged men, in some situations this is not a bad idea.)

Surveillance in the cafes

Internet cafes have to check ID cards and install overhead cameras to record those seated in front of the computers. If a user types a forbidden address, an embarrassing light may flash atop the monitor. Many terms such as “riot police” or “Taiwan independence” elicit a computer reply on the screen such as “Please do not use profanity in the subject line.” No one has yet done a survey on how often this elicits verbal profanity among humans.

A number of foreign corporations selling hardware or software in China have recently agreed to police their part of the system. After all, an international company has to obey all the laws of each host nation, doesn’t it? Human rights organisations see this as a cover excuse to keep them from being cut out of the Chinese market.

Beating the system

There are ways to circumvent restrictions, such as paraphrasing taboo terms or, for those who know how, rerouting around a roadblock to get to a banned site by a longer route. But these are time consuming and there is a risk of getting caught. An unknown number of netizens, at least a few dozen, are in prison now either for accessing politically sensitive material or for emailing subversive messages to their friends. The government has a fluid and wide idea of what is subversive, and a lack of transparency.

Blocking foreign religious materials

For the church, the bad news is that net surfers on the Mainland no longer have open access to outside religious postings. For example, in late 2003, Mainland Catholics suddenly found that they could no longer read the HK weeklies online, the English Sunday Examiner, or the Chinese Kung Kao Po.

Religion online in China

The good news is that there is some cyberspace in China for religious postings and newspapers. A number of dioceses already have their web sites available with religious information. Most of these are exclusively in Chinese and this is more than anyone in Saudi Arabia can dream of posting.

Only 20 years ago, believers travelled from the far countryside to Shanghai to carry Bibles and other Church literature from the Catholic printing press. In those days, religious literature was in the same class as pornography; no one could send either type through the mail. There has been some improvement.

Why is the Chinese government so afraid of citizens learning about religion? This long tradition of restricting information to the officially certified world-view is not likely to change in the next few years. Christians who want to spread their faith may have to rely more on setting a good example to their relatives and friends than on mass media and high-tech. As St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) said, “Preach the Gospel, using words if necessary.”