Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How Religion Poisons Everything

Except most things

Jinan, the capital city of Shandong Province north of Shanghai, was everything I remembered -- drab, grey, dreary (well it was dampish), flat, wearisome, more like the picture of hell in C. S. Lewis' Great Divorce than a mortal city should. A few newer apartments reflected the trend towards gentrification all around China -- cleaner and more nicely painted high rises, a small number of planned communities -- but fewer than usual, and the apartments looking a lot like rows of wispy cottonwood trees on the outskirts of the city, only without any green leaves rustling in the breeze. Not a single beautiful building was visible from the train, and very little that gave reign to the human instinct for creativity.

Then we passed a church, a stone's throw from the tracks. "Christian Church," is all the sign said. Simple architecture, the cross glowing in the morning twilight, a peaked roof that reached for, and did not ignore, the sky.

If a Martian visited Jinan, and saw only what I saw (no doubt there are better sights once one gets off the train), he would say whatever force created that building was all that tried to give life to that end of the city. No doubt if he saw a Buddhist temple or a Muslim mosque, he would say the same.

Indeed, while Korean cities are more lively, especially the newer brick homes with their nice compromise between straight edge and curve, the churches that pop up like mushrooms everywhere (one sometimes sees four or five in a single block) are still the most beautiful buildings.

The Martian probably wouldn't know, not speaking the language or having access to the history, the efforts Timothy Richard made in the same province to save the starving during a famine. Nor would he likely be aware of John Nevius, whose ideas about self-sustaining churches did much to get the Korean church off to the right start, and who introduced all manner of fruit to Shandong Province, giving farmers more produce for their labor, and the people better food. He might also be unaware (like our New Atheists) of the thousands of schools and hospitals founded by missionaries (I stayed last night in Shanxi University, which was founded by Richard with indemnity money after the Boxer Rebellion). And having failed to do his homework before his visit to earth, he might not have known that Richard also pushed for trains to Shanxi Province, to stave off an even more severe famine a few years later. (Donkey simply couldn't bring enough stores over the mountains to the drought-stricken province.)

Just looking around this one city, and gazing at that one building, I fancy our hypothetical Martian (so put upon in pushing lesser causes), would say,

"I don't know what ruined this city. But whatever built that building, is its greatest aesthetic hope."

It might be unfair to blame the modernist uniformity of so many Chinese cities, and the destruction of charming old architecture, on the militaristic material philosophy of those who did the destroying. Though Tokyo, where religion is also kept to a bare minimum, is also filled with functional monstrosities, and Shinto shrines are a grace, if not a saving grace. But there are few stronger proofs of the harm of looking at man as purely material beings, than a simple walk around one of these cities. Some have, admittedly, been better preserved, and some new architecture is nicer, in Shanghai and Hong Kong, for instances.

But Hitchens needs to get out, more.

Other notes from China, beginning from the port of Weihai where we landed:

* I was a little afraid of Weihai, since the last time I came here, maybe fifteen years ago, some men seemed to want to mug me.

Weihai looked more developed from the water -- buildings with Mediterranean style red tile roofs rise from the harbor in neat encircling rows, interspersed by attractive skyscrapers.

The town of about 450,000 is far enough out in the boonies that sometimes I was treated like a bit of a movie star. Two young women at KFC wanted to have their picture taken with me, and did. When I stopped to eat at a Muslim noodle shop, four or five young men surrounded me and asked friendly questions while I ate. The food was delicious -- Xinjiang noodles, thick, thick noodles like stroganoff with a bunch of mildly crunchy vegies and beef in a spicy red sauce, and a nice little soup on the side. The owner asked me if I had a US dollar, and when I showed one to him, he insisted I pay for my meal with it! I assuaged my slight guilt feelings by adding one of those state memorial quarters into the bargain. Neither politics nor religion came up, though there was a full-wall tile picture of the mosque in Xining on the far wall.

* Strange to think the "shortened" name for Shandong Province, Lu, is a Chinese character that Confucius would recognize on car license plates, were he to return. Lu was the name of his own state, founded by one of the original Zhou Dynasty relatives -- never large in size, but prestigious for its royal associations. "So, Lu has survived another 2500 years after my death!" He might think. "Some sage king must have adopted my teachings, after all!"

* It began to mist, then rain. I caught the evening train in the direction of Beijing, to the obscure town of Dezhou, still in Shandong Province.
Worse than usual sleeping, maybe two hours. Two of the five people in the six-bunk alcove were serious snoorers. (Two well-fed men.) LIttle conversation, it being time to sleep. The former soldier in the top bunk tried flirting with the girl in the bunk across from him. Bad form. He was a sharp-looking fellow, but after a little conversation, she turned her back on him. In the morning, I caught a glimpse on his screen of a mouse, then Tom Hanks and prison bars -- The Green Mile!

* The sun came out. I got off the train, got some breakfast -- three delicious Baozi of different kinds, a friend egg and fruit juice -- and caught a bus to Tai Yuan, the capital of Shanxi, one of my main destinations. A couple taxi drivers tried to rip me off, and I slammed the door on one with an angry English word. The next taxi driver was above-board, and gave me a city map, even refused a tip.

* A young professor at ShanXi University is my host. He doesn't have much teaching to do, and will help me with the final bit of research necessary for my doctorate. We worked on a survey I am doing last night, and that's the plan for today.

* First impressions of Tai Yuan: Fairly Big. Easy to understand their dialect of Chinese, which is pretty standard. Bad air: you can see it like an enveloping swamp, coming down from the mountains into the city. (On the way, saw lots of old stucco houses with flat roofs in among the hills, with corn drying on the roofs.) Very conservative, my host says -- they had 29 departments at the University when Richard was here, and they still have 29 departments.

* This is also the city where the Boxer governor had over a hundred missionaries beheaded. Despite the good works of Richard, David Hill, Gladyl Aylward, and the like, the attitude has apparently changed only in degree since then.

No comments: