Friday Photo: Xishiku Catholic Church

This is one of the churches that I write about in my book The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China. The Xishiku Catholic Church was founded in 1703 and was originally christened The Church of Our Savior.

Xishiku Catholic Church

My fellow bell-hunters and I somehow convinced the priest to let his assistant take us up into the towers to see the old bells. We climbed up the dusty stairs into the east steeple (on the right in the photo) to see the bell hanging there. But where was the second bell?

It was in the west tower, which meant in order to see it we would have to climb into the space between the sanctuary ceiling and the roof of the cathedral and crawl across some ancient dust-covered beams. Spring did her best to talk me out of it, fearing that I might fall through the ceiling and land on the parishioners praying in the sanctuary. But I was not to be thwarted; I was determined to see this bell, her pleadings notwithstanding. (p. 76)

You can read the whole story in the book!

The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China


The Great Wall by Drone

When I lived in Beijing, one of my favorite things to do was go to take visitors to the Great Wall in the mountains outside of the city. There are a few designated Great Wall tourist sites, but I also enjoyed exploring some of the unrestored and undeveloped sites as well.

But I never did what Great Wall historian William Lindesay did, namely hike the length of it. To celebrate 30 years of working in China, he and his family spent a year hiking from the easternmost part of the wall at Shanhaiguan to the western terminus at Jiayuguan.

As reported by the BBC:

British geographer, conservationist and author William Lindesay has had a lifelong obsession with the Great Wall of China. Three decades ago, he left his home on Merseyside to live near the wall so he might better be able to study it. In 2016 he and his family travelled 15,000km (9,320 miles) around the wall network, filming it from the air with a drone. Mr Lindesay and his sons, Jim and Thomas, spoke to the BBC about their epic journey and how they shot it.

A video clip of some of the best shots can be found here. (email readers, please click on the link to see the video.) These are shots and perspectives not seen before and they are amazing.

You can read a more detailed account of the journey here.

Another video that makes me homesick for China….

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A Look at Chinese Students

The good folks at the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University recently published the results of a survey they conducted among Chinese university students.


Here is part of their introductory description:

In this general report, we profile the social characteristics of Chinese students, summarize the key findings of their social, cultural, and spiritual life, and provide the methodological information and detailed tables of this survey. We recognize that there are many types of universities in different locations in this vast land. This study is only the first systematic data collection on Chinese students studying in one of the Big Ten universities. A more representative study would require surveying Chinese students in other types of universities selected from different regions of the country, such as Chinese students in Ivy League universities or in community colleges.

The survey was conducted among Chinese students on a Big Ten campus in the spring of 2016. There were 960 participants. Some key results of the survey include:

  • Most of the students are from well-off families; more than 80% have at least one college-educated parent.
  • Twenty-six percent indicated that their view of the United States became more positive, while 44% indicated their view of China had become more positive.
  • They drank less but smoked more than other students.
  • Fifteen percent responded that they have been treated unfairly due to their race.
  • The number of students who have believed in Protestant Christianity since coming to the US quadrupled.
  • A majority of the students believe in some supernatural power or being, even those who are members of the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese Youth League.
  • Only 2.4% are here on a Chinese government sponsorship. 72.5% reported that their families are the major financial source for tuition and living expenses.
  • Eighty-two percent said they have been proselytized by Protestant Christians.

You can go here to download a PDF version of the entire report.

If you interact with Chinese students in the United States, it is a must-read.

Note: This post was originally published at ChinaSource.

Image source: Marat Amanzholov, via Flickr

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Thanks, Teacher Zhou

In 2011 I wrote a post about Zhou Youguang, the father of the Pinyin writing system. The post was titled “Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin.”


Here’s what I wrote about him:

For those of you who are studying or have studied Chinese (in China at least), were it not for this man, Zhouo Youguang, you would be learning  the language without the benefit of Pinyin. This is the guy who decided that the letter q would represent a ch sound, xan sh sound, and an i the semi-vowelled r sound.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pinyin, it is the standard Romanization system used in China to phonetically represent the sounds of Chinese characters. Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, but only about 400 ways to pronounce them. In other words, once we learn how to say these 400 ‘words’ we can actually say (not to be confused with speak) Chinese.

After studying linguistics in the US  (where he was a friend of Albert Einstein), he returned to China in the 1950’s and was given the task of coming up with a standard Romanization of Chinese. It was introduced in 1958.

Zhou Youguang passed away in China last week, at the age of 111. Here’s how NPR reported on the significance of his linguistic invention:

Since his system was introduced nearly six decades ago, few innovations have done more to boost literacy rates in China and bridge the divide between the country and the West.

Pinyin, which was adopted by China in 1958, gave readers unfamiliar with Chinese characters a crucial tool to understand how to pronounce them. These characters do not readily disclose information on how to say them aloud — but with such a system as Pinyin, those characters more easily and clearly yield their meaning when converted into languages like English and Spanish, which use the Roman alphabet.

While it was not the first system to Romanize Chinese, Pinyin has become the most widely accepted. For Chinese speakers, many of whom speak disparate dialects, its broad acceptance made education easier, giving instructors a single, relatively simple instrument to teach people how to read.

Beyond China’s borders, Pinyin allowed the standardization of Chinese names. For instance, it’s a big reason why the name Westerners commonly use for the Chinese capital shifted from “Peking” to “Beijing.” And it’s why many other such names changed dramatically along with it.

On behalf of Chinese language learners everywhere, let me say “Thanks, Zhou Youguang!”

Image source: Getty Images, via NPR

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My Book



Published: “The Bells Are Not Silent”

For a long time, friends and colleagues of mine have urged me to write a book about China. “You lived in China for nearly three decades,” they say. “Surely you have something to say.”

My standard reply has been that there are so many books written about China each year; I don’t want to write one until and unless I have something new to say — some angle or perspective or story to tell that hasn’t been told.

In March 2012, I travelled with my friend Noël Piper to Sichuan Province. We dubbed our trip “The Esther Expedition” because we were researching the life and work of Esther Nelson, a woman from our church who had served as a missionary in that region from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was during that trip that I stumbled onto an untold story.

It was the story of an 126-year-old American bell hanging in the steeple of a church in a remote city of Sichuan. If you were reading my blog then, perhaps you remember my post about that discovery.

In the months between that discovery and moving back to Minnesota, I travelled around China looking for more bells. I found bells from Germany, France, and Russia hanging in Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Well, it has taken me almost five years, but I have finally put the stories of these bells into a book: “The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China.”

The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China

Here is the description from the back cover:

When Joann discovered a 126-year-old bell hanging in a church in southwest China she knew that there was a story to tell. Who had decided to ship it? How had it been transported? How had it survived the political turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s? She also knew that if there was one bell, there must be others. Over the course of eight months she travelled around China looking for old church bells, finding ones from France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. This book is a collection of stories about those bells. But more importantly, they are stories of God’s faithfulness to his church in China.

It is now available on Amazon in both print and kindle editions.

Additional photos and information can be seen at my public Facebook page. Click on over and give it a “like.”

Noodles or Peanut Butter?

Everyone needs to have take  comfort food with them when they travel. According to this story, the comfort food of choice for Chinese travelers is instant noodles.


A recent survey showed that more than 30% make sure they have a supply of instant noodles with them when they travel:

The practice is popular among both people making 5,000 yuan ($750) a month and those making 20,000 yuan a month, according to the findings.

The habit persists in China even though president Xi Jinping in 2014 asked citizens (paywall) to eat fewer instant noodles abroad, and sample more of the local cuisine. In 2013, a Maldives in hotel reportedly stopped installing kettles in its rooms to stop Chinese tourists from cooking noodles in their rooms instead of spending money on food in the hotel.

Noodles need side dishes, naturally, so tourists are also bringing pickled vegetables, sausages, and chili sauce with them, said the survey.

When I travel, there are certain comfort food items that always make it into my suitcase:
  • Peanut butter. Like any good American, I can face anything as long as I have access to peanut butter.
  • Granola bars; preferably Quaker Oats chocolate chip and Nature Valley honey and oats. If you’ve got a granola bar, you’ve got lunch!
  • Almonds. I like all kinds of almonds, but raw almonds are the best!
What about you? What food items are essential for you when you travel?


Image credit: Andrew Smith, via Flickr


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How are the Roads?

For centuries (maybe millennia), a common way for people in China to greet each other has been to ask a simple question: “have you eaten yet?”

When I lived in China’s northeast region (“dongbei”), it seemed that every chance meeting or new conversation began with “leng bu leng?” Are you cold?

We are now in the grip of a winter in Minnesota and I’ve noticed that most conversations begin with some variation of “how are the roads?”


This afternoon they weren’t great, thanks to a powdery snowfall that made for some slippery driving.

So, remember, should you happen to meet a Minnesotan, be sure to ask, “how are the roads?”

Image credit: by Ruin Raider, via Flickr

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