Orthodox Easter in China

On May 1, Orthodox Christians around the world celebrated Easter, or Paschal. In Catholicism and Protestantism the date is set according to the Gregorian Calendar, but in the Orthodox faith, it is set according to the Julian Calendar.

Harbin Orthodox Church

In China, this Easter marked the first time in 16 years that an ordained Orthodox priest was able to preside over Easter services, in the city of Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. Here’s how it was reported by the AFP (from The Daily Mail):

His red and gold vestments bathed in candlelight, the first mainland Chinese Orthodox priest ordained for six decades led an Easter service on Sunday — one of the most surprising fruits of warming ties between Moscow and Beijing.

Alexander Yu Shi said prayers in the Church Slavonic language and in Mandarin beside the Church of Holy Protection in the northeastern city of Harbin, surrounded by local worshippers.

“It is a happy day. We are welcoming the resurrection,” he said. “And for the Eastern Orthodox Church in Harbin, it’s also a resurrection.”

The small and elderly Orthodox community -– mostly descended from Chinese and Russians who intermarried in the city’s cosmopolitan heyday a century ago -– lacked a priest for 15 years.

Shi, a soft-spoken former bank manager, is the first ever Chinese to have studied at an Orthodox seminary with backing from China’s avowedly atheist Communist Party.

“With the help of the governments of both countries, I was able to learn theology systematically,” he told AFP in his office, sitting below photographs of himself alongside bearded Russian church luminaries.

Shi, who has Buddhist grandparents, converted while studying business in Moscow in the 1990s. He returned a few years ago to enrol in the St Petersburg theological seminary.

Ordained last year, he led the most important festival in the church’s calendar for the first time.

Shi presided at the altar of a Catholic church opposite his parish since his Holy Protection Church is undergoing state-backed refurbishment.

He led a procession to the scaffolding-clad structure, swinging a thurible of incense and declaring loudly in Chinese: “Christ is risen!”


Image: AFP

I was excited to read this article, because I immediately recognized the priest. When Amy and I were on a bell-hunting trip to Harbin in the fall of 2012, we visited the small Orthodox Church there. The Chinese man in charge of the church told us that he was the only Chinese person (from Mainland China) studying to become an Orthodox priest. He was also the one who finally allowed us to go up into the tower to see the ancient Russian bell.  You can read all about that in these two blog posts: A Russian Bell in Harbin and Memorial Cookies,


How wonderful to read that this tiny congregation now has a priest!

He is Risen Indeed! 耶稣基督复活!

Related Posts:

A Russian Bell in Harbin

Memorial Cookies

Catholic or Christian?

When I first went to China, I was bombarded with many questions that seemed rather odd: can you use chopsticks? How much money do you make? Why do American parents kick their children out of the house at age 18? On and on they went.

But the oddest question I encountered was, “what’s the difference between Catholic and Christian?”

The question itself made no sense to me; it was like asking, “what is the difference between a Volkswagen and a car?”

Back in the 1980’s the confusion was perhaps understandable. Many Chinese at that time had almost no knowledge of religion, let alone western religions. Truth be told, they had no idea what either of those terms (Catholic and Christian) meant.

It wasn’t until I studied Chinese that I came to realize that the oddness of the question was rooted in linguistics. Catholicism is Christianity, but in the Chinese language it has a completely different name.

In English, we distinguish between different strands of Christianity: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. But in the Chinese language only one of those strands gets translated as “religion of Christ,” Christianity.

The Chinese word for Catholicism is Tian Zhu Jiao (天主教), “Religion of the Lord of Heaven.” Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary to China wrote a book called “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven,” trying to link the God of the Bible with the traditional religious notion of a supreme being, which was referred to as Heaven. It thus became known as the Religion of the Lord of Heaven, Tianzhu Jiao.

To distinguish Protestant Christianity from Catholicism, it was translated as Jidu Jiao (基督教), “Religion of Christ.” This then gets translated back into English as “Christianity.” Sometimes it includes the word xin (新),” which means “new” to try to distinguish it, but most of the time this is left off.

Hence the odd question about the difference between Catholicism and Christianity.

Earlier this month I attended a conference on the Catholic Church in China. This topic came up during one of the seminars. One of the participants, a researcher and scholar on China, suggested that one way of clearing up some of the confusion would be to refer to Catholicism as Tianzhu Jiao (天主教), Protestantism as Jidu Xinjiao (基督新教), and Christianity (which encompasses both) as Jidu Zongjiao (基督宗教). Zongjiao is a more scholarly term for ‘religion,’ whereas jiao can be understood simply as ‘teaching.’ Eastern Orthodoxy, by the way, is Dongzheng Jiao (东正教), Religion of the Eastern Truth.

Here are some photos of Catholic Churches in Beijing, Tianjin, Harbin, and Shanghai.

Church of the Savior, Beijing -- also known as Beitang or Xishiku Catholic Church

Church of the Savior, Beijing — also known as Beitang or Xishiku Catholic Church

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception — known locally as Xuanwumen Catholic Church

Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Beijing -- known locally as Xizhimen Catholic Church

Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Beijing — known locally as Xizhimen Catholic Church


St. Therese of Lisieux Church, Beijing, known locally as Nangangzi Catholic Church

St. Therese of Lisieux Church, Beijing, known locally as Nangangzi Catholic Church

St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Beijing - known locally as Wangfujing Catholic Church

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Beijing – known locally as Wangfujing Catholic Church

St. Joseph's Cathedral, Tianjin -- known locally as Xikai Catholic Church

St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Tianjin — known locally as Xikai Catholic Church


St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai -- known locally as Xujiahai Catholic Church

St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai — known locally as Xujiahai Catholic Church

Gexin Jie Catholic Church, Harbin (originally a Russian Orthodox Church)

Gexin Jie Catholic Church, Harbin (originally a Russian Orthodox Church)

This post was originally published on the ChinaSource Blog.

(all photos by Joann Pittman)

Manchurian Catholics

In the course of my research on church bells in Beijing, I have been learning a lot about the history of the Catholic churches here. One thing I have learned is that, even though the Jesuits had favor at the imperial court and were often on friendly terms with the emperor and his family, who were Manchu (Manchurians), most of the converts were Han Chinese.

But not all.

In his book, A New History of Christianity in China, Daniel Bays writes about a group of converts from the Manchu people during the Qing Dynasty:

After the handover of power to the new Qing regime, and the Jesuits success in maintaining residence in Beijing, the congregation of believers continues to grow. By 1700 it included a small but increasing number of ethnic Manchus. Several of these were from the Sunu family, (Sunu was a cousin of the Yongzheng emperor, who reigned 1723 –1735). After Yongzheng’s prohibition of Christianity in 1723, he punished the Christians in Sunu’s clan over the next few years and Manchu converts seem to have disappeared, except for perhaps a handful. Despite the hostile atmosphere, a small number of converts, 2000 or so, continued to exist in Beijing through most of the eighteenth century.

On Tuesday, in a Catholic church in Beijing, my research assistant and I met a descendant of this clan.


Holy Trinity Church, Shanghai

This is one of my favorite photos from this weekend in Shanghai.  Holy Trinity Church, opened in 1869, was the cathedral church for the Anglican Diocese of North China. It continued to function as a church until being closed in 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution.

Unlike many other churches in Shanghai and all  over China, this one has yet to re-open. Over the past few years it has undergone major renovations, and was expected to open late last year. I’m not sure what the delay is, but hopefully it will open soon.

The Los Angeles Times did an excellent piece on the history of this church and the renovation project.It is titled “Red Church Rising.”

“Empire of the Sun,” J.G. Ballard’s atmospheric novel about his coming of age in China, opens on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Shanghai Cathedral choir boys are being marched to the crypt to watch newsreels of Royal Air Force fighter planes falling in flames to the English countryside.

The cathedral’s actual name was Holy Trinity, and Ballard, the son of expatriate Britons, attended the cathedral’s prestigious boys school.

Built in a Victorian Gothic style in the 1860s, Holy Trinity served for nearly eight decades as the spiritual home for colonialists who flocked to Shanghai after Britain’s victory in the Opium Wars opened the port to trade. With its stout pews, stained-glass windows and 2,500-pipe organ, the red-brick Anglican church provided a cloistered haven in an exotic, untamed place.

Along with the men-only Shanghai Club and racehorse owners’ Shanghai Race Club, “the cathedral was a central feature of British life in a faraway land,” said Peter Hibbard, a British expat and president of the Royal Asiatic Society China in Shanghai. Here in the Red Church, as many called it, babies were baptized, couples were married and parishioners were laid to rest in a homey refuge complete with manicured lawn, gargoyles and spire.

Now, after decades in the control of local politicians, during which it was revamped as a theater and meeting hall and later left to deteriorate, the cathedral is nearing the end of a painstaking renovation by a Chinese Protestant organization. Later this year, this historic church will reopen to what is expected to be a crush of worshipers once dozens of faux stained-glass plastic windows have been replaced with the real thing.

Under the Red Church’s watch, this tumultuous city has come full circle — from anything-goes capitalism to the birth of communism to war with Japan to the religion-crushing Cultural Revolution to, once again, unfettered commercialism and even a robust revival of Christianity.

As they say, please read the whole thing.



Memorial Cookies

As we were milling around the old Orthodox Church in Harbin on Sunday, an older Chinese woman came out of the church with a small bag of cookies in her hand. She came over to where we were standing and offered some to us.

“It’s been12 years since our last priest passed away,” she said. “Here, please eat a cookie to honor his memory.”

A little puzzled, but also a bit hungry, we each took one. Our Russian friends told us that it is a tradition to eat something in commemoration of the death of special people. In this case the special person was Father Zhu, the last Orthodox priest in China.

In some ways, it seems that his death 12 years ago marked the end of era that began when, according to the website Chinese Orthodoxy, the first Orthodox Church was opened in Peking in 1685. It goes on to say that by 1949, there were 106 Orthodox Churches in China, with approximately 10,000 Orthodox followers. Many of those were actually Russians who had fled to China (settling in what was then called Manchuria, but today called Northeast China) in order to escape Bolshevism. Finding themselves once again under Communist rule, most fled China, leaving behind a small number of Chinese believers.

All of the churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980’s when China’s religious policies changed, this church in Harbin, officially called The Church of the Protection of Our Holy Mother of God, was the only Orthodox Church that was re-opened. From what I have been told, and from what I have read, it seems that itis now the only functioning Orthodox Church in the entire country. There is one on the grounds of the Russian embassy in Beijing, but it is technically on Russian soil, not Chinese.  (To read more on the history of Orthodoxy in China, please visit this site: www.chinese.orthodoxy.ru)

I found a section from a book published in 1931 called “Orthodox Churches in Manchuria” that gives quite a bit of information about the church, calling it the Ukranian Parish:

 The Ukrainian parish, together with its church dedicated to the Holy Protection of the Mother of God, was established in 1922, with the authorization and blessing of Archbishop Methodiusof Harbin and Manchuria. […]


At first, the church was actually a house church located at the Ukrainian Residence. When this building was taken away from the Ukrainians, the church moved to a basement at B. Avenue, and thus the need came about for building a proper church. The Property Administration answered the requests of the parish and allocated a spot for free belonging to the Old Cemetery, where on June 1, 1930, a marvelous stone church began to be erected according to the project of the civil engineer Y. P. Zhdanov.


The church building was finished during the same construction season, and it took only six and a half months for that. It was finally consecrated by Metropolitan Methodius on December 14, 1930. […]


At the cemetery many pioneers of the Russian culture lay to rest.

Since it is in the heart of the city today, there is no trace of that cemetery. I do wonder, however, what might have been found when digging for the subway line that is being built underneath the road in front of the church.

I haven’t found any specific information about the bell, though. This past week I have been corresponding with someone I knew in the 1980’s who worked in Harbin and occasionally attended services there. He told me that he once even heard the bell being rung.

Oh… and back to those memorial cookies. It reminded me of the tradition that my family started a few years ago of gathering at a Dairy Queen on the anniversary of my father’s death, where we all raise a Dilly Bar in his honor. That man loved his ice cream!

I also found a website that has old photos of the church from the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Taken from the same spot as my photo above.

This one shows the church set in the cemetery, with the large monument. The steeple down the road was the Lutheran Church. Today it is the Nangang Protestant Church.

There are lots more photos of the church here. (Don’t you just love the internet?)

A Russian Bell in Harbin

We spotted the bell in the tower from the street on Saturday as we walked around the church. It was locked up tight and looked like it had been locked up tight for decades. We trained our telephoto lenses on the bell, snapping at a distance, figuring that was as close as we were likely to get.

We were wrong.

By noon on Sunday, we, along with our new Russian friends were climbing up into the tower to see the bell.

An American friend had introduced us to some Russians who worship at the church and know the man in charge. They agreed to meet us there on Sunday morning. When the services were done at 11:30, they set about trying to get permission to go up in the tower. Since they were the ones with a relationship to the leaders of the church, we were content to hang out off to the side and let them do the talking.

It wasn’t an easy task—convincing the man to let these strangers (Americans and Protestants, to boot) climb up to see the bell.

After awhile our Russian friends called me in to make a final appeal, directly and in Chinese.

I told him that I viewed the bell as a symbol of God’s love for the Chinese Church and that I wanted to tell that story. Upon hearing that, he asked me to write down my contact information, then got out his keys and opened the door to the  tower.

Up we went!

Even though the inscriptions on the bell were in Old Russian, our friends were able to tell us that it had been made in Moscow, and weighs 784kg. According to this website, it was made in 1899. There are some differing stories as to what happened to the bell during the Cultural Revolution, which I’m still trying to sort out.

Of course we were thrilled to have gotten up to see the bell, but our Russian friends felt it even more since it was THEIR cultural heritage we were glimpsing. They were also happy to meet a couple of nutty Americans who were interested in learning about and telling the story of that heritage.

After seeing the bell, we all went out to lunch to celebrate.  As we enjoyed a wonderful meal together — with Chinese as the common language among us — I couldn’t help thinking that, given the unique circumstances of our seeing it, the message that this bell rings forth is the message from the great hymn “In Christ There is No East or West.”

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding humankind.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.

I will save the story of the church itself for the next post.

A Catholic Bell in Tianjin

“Why are you so interested in bells?” asked Father Z, the priest at Xikai Catholic Church in Tianjin.  “There’s nothing especially interesting about bells.”

Until that point I had let my Chinese friend do all the talking, explaining to him that this foreigner from Beijing was doing research on old church bells. This, however, was a question I wanted to answer myself.

I told him about finding the old bell in Yibin and how I believed that each surviving bell in China has a story and that embedded in that story is the story of God’s love for the church in China.

His countenance immediately changed and I moved from being simply a foreigner who was a pest to a foreigner to be helped, and perhaps even liked.

As we kept talking he started rummaging through a notebook on his desk, looking for something.

He told us that there were old bells in the bell tower, one bronze, one steel, that dated back to the early 1900’s, but resolutely refused my Chinese friends entreaties to let us go up and see them.

“We do have a small bell I can let you see,” he said, as he found the paper he had been searching for. He handed it to us and said “Here, take a picture of this.”  It was a hand-written note that said “I found this bell in Shandong Province, and want to give it to the church.” It was signed and dated December 14, 2009.

The bell had been found by a reclycler who decided that the bell would have value to a church, so rather than sell it, he gave it to the Tianjin church.

“Would you be interested in seeing this bell?” Father Z. asked

I’m sure you can guess our response.

So Father Z, with his assistant in tow, took us to a shed behind the church building to see this old iron bell that was sitting under a table. It was too heavy to move out from under the table so we had to content ourselves with crawling around underneath to get some photos.

The bell has Chinese writing on it, indicating that it was made for a Catholic church in a specific town.

We are still trying to get in touch with the man who gave the bell to the church.