x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Plan for church higher than Confucian temple causes stir in China

Plans to build a 42-metre-high church that would tower above a Confucian temple are stoking controversy in a Chinese city that is the home of Confucianism.

Residents of Qufu fear its centrepiece, the Confucius temple would be overshadowed by a proposed 42-metre-high church.
Residents of Qufu fear its centrepiece, the Confucius temple would be overshadowed by a proposed 42-metre-high church.

QUFU, CHINA // Few buildings in Qufu rise more than three or four storeys high. Apart from a shopping centre that stretches skywards, it is the Confucian temple and its roof of Chinese eaves that catches the eye.

This city of 90,000 in Shandong province in eastern China is the home of Confucianism, and its centre is dominated by buildings crafted in honour of the ancient philosopher who was born just outside. The image of Confucius is everywhere, from the cheap fans and ornaments sold in street stalls to shopfronts and numerous statues.

This is why plans to build a 42-metre-high church that would tower above the Confucius temple, which is 25 metres high, are stoking controversy.

As yet, the new church exists only on the drawing board, but a small stone in a field three kilometres south-east of the Confucius temple announces the intentions of the local Christian community. The Holy Trinity Church is set to rise from this site.

A Sunday morning visit to the present church building a few hundred metres away makes it obvious why Qufu's Protestants are keen to build a new church with space for as many as 3,000 people.

In its warehouse-style building dating from 2005, every one of its 104 wooden pews is full. "Sometimes because there are too many worshippers, there are even people sitting outside in the yard," said Yan Jiling, 69, the church caretaker.

Members of the church insist their new building, with its Gothic twin spires, will be far enough away from the old centre not to clash with the Confucius temple. Others disagree.

Late last year, a group of 10 scholars declared they were "deeply shocked and worried" by the proposals, calling in an open letter for respect for "this sacred ground of Chinese culture".

Dozens more academics and organisations have joined the chorus of voices opposed to the plans. Their criticism does not stem from a lack of tolerance of Christianity or other religions, said Daniel Bell, a professor of ethics and political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the author of China's New Confucianism, a book that examines the revival of Confucianism in modern China.

Instead, he said it reflected concerns over the scale of the building and its proximity to the temple. "It would be like Confucians proposing to build a memorial to Confucius that was taller than any building in the Vatican. Normal Christians would object to that," he said.

There are, however, scholars concerned by the opposition to the church. Some of those against the project show a "fundamentalist attitude" at odds with the "religious tolerance and openness" of Confucianism, said Peng Guoxiang, a professor of Chinese philosophy, intellectual history and religions at Peking University.

"There are [a] few extremists among those opponents who have never received substantial training and the Confucianism they are promoting is sometimes [from] their own imagination," he said.

"There has always been such radicalism not only in Confucianism but also in almost every religious, spiritual and ethical tradition around the world. It is not unacceptable for a Confucian, I think, if the church can be properly designed and built."

Confucius is said to have been born in 551BC in Mount Ni, 30km outside Qufu. He became the most important philosopher in Chinese history thanks to The Analects of Confucius, a collection of his thoughts compiled by his followers.

Based on ideas of respect and obedience, whether to parents, spouse or officialdom, Confucianism has enjoyed a revival in modern China after being attacked during the Cultural Revolution, with many seeing the Communist party authorities as being keen to promote ideas that encourage obedience and respect for authority.

While some question the degree to which the philosophy is actually based on the teachings of Confucius, the man himself is revered.

The first Confucian temple at Qufu was built in 478BC and the current temple, the Confucius mansions and Confucius's tomb remain the city's key sites, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Many thousands of Qufu residents claim descent from Confucius. Their family name is Kong; the name Confucius being the Latinised form of Kong Zi, his full name.

Kong Xiangming, 60, a retired factory worker who believes he is a 75th generation descendant, said that while Christians "have a good purpose" and "are not harmful to other people", he opposes the church's plans.

"It's better to build a church in [the nearby cities of] Yanzhou or Jinin," he said, standing in his front room, where a large picture of Confucius hangs from the wall.

His neighbour Kong Fanrong, 35, a printer whose father runs a Confucianism school, is "very proud" to be a descendant of Confucius. "If you build a bigger or taller church, from the bottom of my heart I cannot accept that," she said.

Compared to Confucianism, Christianity is a recent arrival in Qufu, dating to the early 20th century, when it was introduced by American missionaries. There are close to 8,000 registered Protestants in the city, among a total population of Christians in China officially acknowledged as 23 million.

Some estimates suggest China's actual Christian population is four times this size, with tight regulation by the authorities leading many to worship in unregistered locations such as private homes.

In Qufu, the original church in the western part of the city was, like the Confucius temple, attacked during the Cultural Revolution. As a result, the Qufu Religious Affairs Bureau, a division of the local government, has said the creation of the new church represents a reinstatement of property lost during Mao Zedong's 1966 to 1976 campaign.

The amount of land that will be given to the church by the authorities remains under negotiation, said Feng Zongjie, 41, the protestant minister in Qufu, as the church is hoping to increase its allocation.

With discussions ongoing, it is not clear, he said, when building could start. Still, he insisted there was plenty of support. "The Communist Party of China encourages religious freedom and the people who live around here think we need a church. A lot of people accept it and welcome it," he said.