Where Have All the Villages Gone?

When I first went to China in the mid-1980’s the rural/urban population ratio was 80/20. Today, after three decades of urbanization, that ratio is roughly 50/50.

Urbanization in China comes in two forms, either by peasants moving from the countryside into the cities or the cities expanding to swallow up the countryside.

One of the by-products of China’s urbanization is the emptying out of the countryside, leaving behind villages with no more people. Last week The Telegraph ran a story about the vanishing villages of China. Visiting a dying village, reporter Tom Phillips writes:

Five generations of the Qiao family have called this isolated rural village home.

They came in the dying days of China’s Qing dynasty and looked on from their mountaintop perch as civil war, revolution, hunger and finally massive economic change swept the nation.

Now, however, the Qiaos’ days in Maijieping are numbered as tens of thousands of Chinese villages are driven towards extinction amid what has been dubbed the greatest human migration in history.

“The younger generations find life here too hard,” sighed 58-year-old Qiao Jinchao, who is one of only four remaining residents in a now eerily deserted village that was once home to 140. “Once they have gone out and seen more, they aren’t willing to return.”

Here is the video clip that accompanied the article:

Since so much of the growth of the church in China has taken place in the countryside, urbanization and the de-population of villages is having an impact on the church. What happens to the churches in these vanishing villages? Where do the urban migrants worship in the cities? How are rural Christians adapting to urban life? These are only some of the issues facing the church in an era of urbanization.

To read more about how urbanization is impacting the church in China, check out these resources:

The Transformation and Renewal of the Structure of Chinese House Churches (ChinaSource, March 2011)

A Church on the Move (ChinaSource, December 2004)

Migrant Cities (ChinaSource, December 2004)

China’s urbanization means problems for the church (UCA News)

Impact of urbanization on churches in China (ccfellow.org)

Management issues in the rural church (Chinese Church Voices)

(Note: this post was originally published on the ChinaSource Blog.)

Happy Birthday, Big Red!

 big red birthday

One of the things I missed the most when I was living in China was driving. So the first thing I did when I moved back to the States a year ago was to buy a car. In fact,  one year ago today I bought this car, and promptly christened her “Big Red.”

She’s had a busy year — 2 trips to central Indiana, and one trip to Southeast Alaska and back, not to mention numerous afternoon drives around eastern Minnesota / western Wisconsin. Everyone of the 20,000 miles has been fun!

In honor of her birthday, here are some pics of her travels to/from Alaska!


At the start of the Alaska Highway, in Dawson Creek, BC.

A Yukon picnic

A Yukon picnic


Her first ride on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry - from Skagway to Juneau

Her first ride on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry – from Skagway to Juneau

Waiting to board the ferry in Juneau for the 5-day trip home.

Waiting to board the ferry in Juneau for the 5-day trip home.


Pearl Buck Makes a Comeback, Sort of…

pearlbuckLike thousands of other Americans, my first introduction to China was through reading Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Of course, when I read it in school, I never imagined that China would one day become such a big part of my life.

China File recently ran an interesting article about her titled “The Rehabilitation of Pearl Buck,”  Writing of her departure from China in 1934, the author says,

Buck left China with great reluctance. China had been her home. Fluent in both spoken and written Chinese, she had developed a deep affection for the country and its people, and had accumulated scores of friends. When she sailed from Shanghai in 1934, Buck took it for granted that she would be able to come back to visit the people and places she was leaving behind.History had other plans. Instead of bringing peace to China, Japan’s defeat in 1945 ignited four years of civil war between Nationalists and Communists. The Communist victory in October 1949 provoked a bitter response from the United States government, which refused to recognize Mao’s regime and banned all travel between the two countries. For more than two decades, neither Pearl Buck nor any other non-governmental U.S. citizen could legally set foot in China.

After Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and the rapprochement between the US and China, she applied for a visa to return to her childhood home. Unfortunately, the request was denied.

The seventy-nine-year-old Pearl Buck, who had frequently told friends that she remained “homesick” for China, saw a last opportunity to return to the country in which she had spent more than half her life. She applied for a visa, sent telegrams to Zhou Enlai and other Chinese leaders, and hectored White House staff for presidential support. In May of 1972, after months of silence, a low-level Chinese bureaucrat stationed in Canada sent this refusal: since “you have in your works taken an attitude of distortion, smear and vilification towards the people of new China and its leaders, I am authorized to inform you that we cannot accept your request for a visit to China.”

The remainder of the article is about the shift in attitudes towards Buck by Chinese officials. Forty years after that abrupt, and shall we say nasty denial, China’s attitude towards Pearl Buck has softened:

Finally, in May of this year, Pearl Buck was more or less rehabilitated. The faculty of Nanjing University gained approval and raised funds for the restoration of the campus house in which Buck had lived. Supervised by distinguished architects and historians, the renovations have been meticulously carried out.

The entire article is definitely worth reading because it offers an interesting glimpse of modern China’s complicated relationship with its past and the foreigners in its past.

And by the way, my favorite book by Pearl Buck is Pavilion of Women.

Leave a comment and tell me what your favorite is.

50 Years Ago

I have been studiously avoiding all of the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. I have an aversion to American media hype, and since I was only 3 1/2 at the time I don’t have any personal memories of the event.

I do know that my family were living in Karachi, Pakistan at the time, having just moved there from a smaller city in the middle of the Sind Desert.

A friend and colleague of my parents sent me a copy of something he submitted to the Macon Telegraph in which he recounts his memory of that day. It also turned out to be a sweet reminder of my dad. He graciously said that I could share it on here:

“I was in Karachi, Pakistan, recuperating from a severe bout of malaria. My wife and I were staying in the home of missionary colleagues. Coming in from fetching the morning newspaper, our hostess, Grace, shouted to her husband words that sounded like, “Sam, our kitty has died.” We all ran to her and saw the large headlines, “KENNEDY HAS DIED.” An ordained American minister, Sam was asked by the U.S. consular general to conduct a memorial service the next day for the large American community. With very little time to put together such an event, Sam asked for my help in writing the eulogy. From my bed, I did so. Before a packed out crowd of Americans and other nationalities, he read the eulogy.”

Thanks Uncle Hu!



Another Great Reason to Learn Chinese

brain_0Last month I hosted a couple of friends from China for two weeks. It was great having them here, but since they don’t speak English I and a mutual Chinese friend traded translation shifts. Wherever we went and whatever we did, one of us had to be ‘on duty.’

Needless to say it was exhausting. By the time they left my brain physically hurt and it took me about 3 days to put the Chinese side to rest for awhile.

The day they left I stumbled across this article in USA Today highlighting a study that  shows how speaking more than on language may delay the onset of dementia:

The latest evidence that speaking more than one language is a very good thing for our brains comes from a study finding dementia develops years later in bilingual people than in people who speak just one language.


The study, conducted in India and published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, is not the first to reach this conclusion. But it is the largest and comes with an intriguing new detail: The finding held up even in illiterate people — meaning that the possible effect is not explained by formal education.


Instead, the researchers say, there’s something special about switching from one language to another in the course of routine communication — something that helps explain why bilingual people in the study developed dementia five years later than other people did. When illiterate people were compared with other illiterate people, those who could speak more than one language developed dementia six years later.

Suddenly I saw all that mental exertion in a new light.

So if you’re looking for a way to stave off dementia…..LEARN CHINESE!!

Image source: Penn Language Center

St. Matteo Ricci?


The Atlantic magazine  recently published an article about a move within the Vatican to canonize Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary to China, titled Can Matteo Ricci’s beatification mend China’s rift with the Catholic Church?

“When Matteo Ricci walked the streets of Beijing more than 400 years ago, he was a celebrity. The Jesuit was the first Westerner to enter the gates of the Forbidden City. He impressed the emperor by predicting solar eclipses. He created an enormous map that gave Ming dynasty Chinese a sense of the rest of the world for the first time. He spoke and read Chinese well enough to translate Euclid.


And even though, after 13 years in China, he began to dress in the garb of an imperial scholar-official, his goal was to convert the Chinese to Catholicism, which he did with some success and considerable flair.


Now all he needs is a miracle or two. Literally.


In May, the Vatican body that overseas canonization pushed ahead the case for making Ricci, who died in 1610, a saint. The Catholic Church has collected hundreds of documents that provide evidence of his “heroic virtues” and has dubbed him a Servant of God, which puts him on the first rung of four steps toward full-fledged sainthood. In order for him to advance, Ricci’s supporters must now find evidence of popular devotion to Ricci, that prayers to him have cured fatal illnesses, or that his body hasn’t decayed in the 403 years since his death.”

The article then goes on to give a good overview of the issues that remain sticking points between the Vatican and the Chinese government, and the likely impact conferring sainthood on Matteo Ricci would have on Sino-Vatican relations.

In 2010 I wrote a post about visiting the Metteo Ricci exhibit at the Capital Museum in Beijing to commemorate the 400th year of Ricci’s death. You can read it here.

Protestant or Catholic, anyone serving in China today is standing on the shoulders of Matteo Ricci.


Further Reading on Matteo Ricci:

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan Spence

A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610, by Po Chia-Hsia

Matteo Ricci (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)


Note: this was originally posted on the ChinaSource Blog.

Image source:  Asia News

China is so Confusing – a Seminar



In his book, China Road, author Rob Gifford brilliantly captures the confusion that is China today:

“China messes with my head on a daily basis.  One day I think that it is really going to take over the world and that the Chinese government  is doing the most extraordinary thing the planet has ever witnessed…The next day it will all seem built on sand and I expect it to all come tumbling down around us.”

On Sunday, November 10, 2013, I will be giving a talk at the Hospitality Center for Chinese (HCC)at the University of Minnesota. The title of the talk is “In China Nothing is as it Seems: An Overview of the Confusion and Complexity that is Modern China.”

Here is the information from the HCC website:

China is a very confusing place. It has the second largest economy in the world, yet most citizens are still quite poor. Religious freedom as Americans understand it does not exist, yet the church is growing. As Americans we tend to see things as being this OR that—-we don’t do well with this AND that.


We have invited China guide Joann Pittman to unpack for our supporters and volunteers eight common myths so we can better understand the complexity of modern China.


Cost: $5.00, bring a guest for FREE! Refreshments will be served.



Sunday November 10, 2013 from 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM CST



Hospitality Center for Chinese
1407 Cleveland Ave N
St. Paul, MN 55108


Click on this link to register.