The Choir at Heyuan Gospel Church sings in Mandarin during a service on May 29, 2016.
My mother’s neighbor, Mrs. Chen, prays at Heyuan Gospel Church on May 29, 2016. She introduced my mother to the Church.
My mother, Wen Meirong (right), and Mrs. Chen Zhuoxiang at Heyuan Gospel Church on May 29, 2016.
My mother, Wen Meirong, looks for familiar faces while others pray at Heyuan Gospel Church on May 29, 2016.
Heyuan Gospel Church photographed on May 29, 2016.
“My mother did the math and decided against the church,”Lv reclined in a plastic chair outside 21K, a coffee shop in Zhujiang New Town, Guangzhou. He was an editor with Tencent and spoke with an uninterested tone indicating that nothing in China would surprise or excite him.
“Math? How is math related to Christianity?”I asked.
“She did a calculation and decided the time she was to spend at the church and learning the Bible equaled a loss because during the time she couldn’t work on the farm or in the house. Loss of income. A lot of peasant women in my hometown (Yunnan Province) think this way.”Lv explained matter-of-factly.
“Wow…”I was too surprised to say more than a wow.
“She did the same math when the Village Communist Party Committee approached her,” Lv continued as he sipped his coffee.
“Hmm?” I was confused.
“Even though the Party does sometimes give away gifts like a towel or a quilt or a kettle, my mother finds that the gifts she would receive are not worth her time to go to the Party meetings and the required political studies. She prefers to work in the field and do house chores. So she rejected the Party like she rejected the Church,” Lv looked at me with an expression as uninterested as his tone.
But uninterested Lv got me interested in average Chinese people’s attitude toward Christianity. Christianity intertwined with Chinese practicality. This is something I haven’t read about in reports of China’s religion by Western media, which usually focus on the lack of religion freedom in China. It is a fact that over 1000 churches have been decapitated over the past two years. But it is only part of the religion story in China. The political side of it. I am more interested in the cultural side of it and the everyday life perspective.
Six months after my meeting with Lv, I was surprised again, this time, by my own mother, who suddenly announced that she now believed in Jesus, in a tone a three-year-old announced that she was now a grownup.
Amused, my sister said, “so from now on we won’t worship our ancestors on Chinese New Year?”
Before my confused mother found an answer, my 85-year-old father, a reticent man of few words, jumped to make his statement, “I don’t believe in Jesus yet!”
However, when I asked my mother how she became a Christian, I was surprised, a third time, to hear that it was my father’s suggestion!
My father got the idea that it might do the whole family good if my mother went to church after hearing my neighbor, Mrs. Chen Zhuoxiang’s story.
Mrs. Chen is my father’s age and has been a Christian for over ten years. She told my father that Jesus visited her in a dream when she was very sick several years ago, “He asked me, are you feeling better today? The next day, I felt much better. Not long after that, I got out of hospital. Jesus blesses me.”
My father told the story to my mother and suggested that she try going to church, too.
So my mother, who rarely reads, not to say understands, the Bible, started going to church.
I followed her to a Bible study group one Friday afternoon at the end of April, when the weather started to get very warm in south China. It was at the home of a church member, 500 meters from my parents’ house.
Hardly had I entered the wide-open gate, when an old woman in her late seventies or early eighties shot her hand in front of me and shouted, “sister, for you!”
She was giving me two small packets of wafer biscuits. I was confused, not knowing if I should accept the gift from a stranger, when another old woman, also in her seventies, explained to me, “her great-grandson was born today.”
Before I got a chance to congratulate her, the new great grandmother shot her hand to my mother, “sister, for you!”
So both my mother and I are her sisters? It felt rather weird and awkward.
My mother took the wafer biscuits from the old woman with a take-it-for-granted smile as she glanced around the room, looking for empty seats. Then she took my hand and walked to two empty plastic stools against the east wall of the room. By then, the 20-square-meter rectangular room was almost full – full of grey hair, bleary eyes, withered cheeks, toothless mouths and callused hands. There were 30 people, all of whom except one were women and three quarters of them over 60 years old. The group leader was a middle-aged woman who had the look of a strict elementary school teacher. As she sat on a stool higher than ours at the front of the room glancing around, another woman in her forties sitting five people ahead of me announced in Hakka, “open your books and turn to song 312.”
Most women looked around confused. Several repeated “312” loudly. Sounds of fumbling books filled the room and was soon replaced by a medley of Hakka voices singing out of tune.
I looked around and was almost shocked to see thirty toothless and semi-toothless mouths gaping open and closed, thirty round black holes spitting a volley of untuned music notes in Hakka. A volley of wishes for health, fortune, peace and grandsons. I turned to look at my mother. She was looking down at the book, singing like a mosquito. Born a shy person and still new to Christianity, she was probably feeling uncomfortable to sing out loud with a group of strangers. But most other women were singing at the top of their lungs like a group of elementary school kids singing after their favorite teacher.
After three songs came the prayer. A woman prayed loudly in Hakka with such passion that it sounded like a broken piano being hit by many stones at the same time. The voice at least kept the women awake, who ended the prayer with “Amen! As wished and with loyalty!”
With that, the group leader started the preach of the day and talked about forgiving. In less than fifteen minutes, a third of the women started dozing off, including my mother. I poked my mother slightly. She turned to me and smiled guiltily. She needn’t have felt guilty at all. The monotonous preaching was nothing new and it was what my parents had taught me when I was a kid. I myself would have dozed off if I had not been interested in observing my mother’s fellow Christians. Both my mother and I were relieved when the sermon was over after almost two hours sitting on a plastic stool.
“Do you agree with what the preacher said?” I asked my mother right after we left the gathering.
“I agree,” my mother said earnestly, “we should forgive.”
“So are you going to forgive Mrs Miao?” Mrs. Miao was our next door neighbor for decades, a very difficult woman who hated my mother for no reason and had created quite some dramatic troubles for my mother over the years. She died the day before unexpectedly.
My mother was taken by surprise, then laughed embarrassedly, “oh, dear, I can’t forgive Miao. No, I really can’t forgive her!”
I laughed, too. I laughed because I found my mother’s honesty very lovely, and her embarrassed laughter revealed a childlike and pure character.
“Will you continue to go to church?”
“I guess I will.”
“Do you remember Chong?”
“Miao’s niece.” By the way, my mother got along well with Mrs Miao’s family despite Mrs. Miao.
“Is she a Christian, too?”
“Yes. I saw her not long ago. She joined the church about ten years ago. She is a happy person now. She sings (Bible songs) all the time. She sings when cleaning. She sings when cooking. She sings when walking. She would sing even when eating if she had two mouths. She is a very happy person now. She used to be grumpy. Jesus makes her happy.” My mother said both admiringly and amusedly as she described how Jesus had changed once grumpy Chong. But I doubt Jesus would make my mother as happy as Chong easily because she wouldn’t be satisfied until all her children were happily married and all her children, particularly her son, have their own children – sons preferred.
A month later, I went to Heyuan Gospel Church with my mother in downtown Heyuan City. It was a bigger version of her Bible study group. A church with 3000 members. Over three quarters of the members were women older than 60, with grey hair, bleary eyes, withered cheeks, toothless or semi-toothless mouths, and callused hands. The preaching (about husband-wife relationship this time) was again monotonous and long. A few women chitchatted in a low voice. Some dozed off. The only difference, besides the size of the crowd, was the choir sang in Mandarin while the members sang in Hakka. My mother was obviously bored and from time to time looked around the church searching for familiar faces. After three months, she had not made new friends from the church, only found a few faces she had known before, including a cousin of mine, a cousin of hers and a few former neighbors.
“What do you think?” I asked my mother when we walked out of the church.
“I agree with him (the preacher). But he is too long winded. He circles round and round, saying the same thing over and over again.” Then she added with an amused look, “it is amazing those illiterate women follow the Bible better than me. They don’t read, but they sing quite well as if they could read.”
Back home, I asked my father why he didn’t go to church with my mother, he replied, “gee, most church goers are older women. Besides, the Bible contradicts Marxism and evolutionism I was taught as a Communist Party member. It is hard to change a belief you learn at a young age. And the Christians at the church are not that different from the red guards worshipping Mao during the Cultural Revolution.”
My mother gave me a different answer, “one goes to church, Jesus blesses the whole family. Your father needn’t go.”
I believe my parents were both honest with their answers. They were both born before communism took over China, taught by the school and then Communist Party government to believe in Marxism (China version) and evolutionism and to expect progress only to witness regress in both the society and their personal lives: corruption and social injustice in the big world; aging and ailing in their small world. What bothers them the most, however, is they still don’t have a grandson while some of their cousins are now great-grandparents. By the way, my sisters’ children are not counted as their grandchildren and only my brother’s son could carry on the family line according to Chinese Hakka tradition.
Sometimes they blame our family’s Fengshui. They invited several Fengshui masters to inspect our home over the years. They followed a couple Fengshui masters’ advices and moved our house gate twice. This didn’t bring luck to the family as wished. Last year, another Fengshui master suggested our gate be moved (again!) to where my mother’s bedroom was. Fortunately, my parents didn’t follow the advice this time.
My mother also sought blessings from a local Taoist temple as well as from a sorceress. So far, nothing fantastic has happened as my parents wish. They continue to age and ail. My mother hurt her back two years ago. My father got lung cancer last year. They still have no grandson. Two of their children, particularly their son, are still single…
They must feel helpless sometimes. So when my father heard my neighbor was being blessed by Jesus, he made my mother go to church while refraining himself from the church so that he could still worship our ancestors. This way, we might be double blessed. This is how my parents do their math, different from Lv’s mother’s calculation, but with the same practicality.
But are we double blessed now? Are we?
Portrait of my parents, Wen Meirong, 74, and Chen Guixiu, 85, taken on Dec. 11, 2015.
My parents with my sisters’ children on 2016 New Year’s Day.
My father worships our ancestors on 2016 Chinese New Year’s Eve.
Incense is a symbol of family line. Only a son can carry on the family according to Chinese Hakka tradition.