Coming into Wen Zhou as we did, by car, gave me a unique opportunity to cast my eyes all around. Unlike coming into town on a train or a long-distance bus, which usually follow main arteries, we came in on a smaller industrial/residential avenue. One of the first sights that caught my eye was a large, domed building on a hill, topped by a Christian cross.
Remember that, as a group the Chinese are not a particularly religious folk. However, Wen Zhou’s population, I found out later is, by last count, 15- to 20% Christian. Very interesting statistic and most likely accurate, seeing as there was a large, obviously Christian edifice visible from a distance on a well traveled road.
On the day that Gary was preoccupied with business I set about exploring the town. By sheer dumb luck I rode the bus that took me straight to that large church. Instead of riding the bus to the end of the line like I normally would, I decided to get off and explore this area.
Turns out that that particular region of Wen Zhou is in fact the religious center of the city, as proclaimed by that high profile Christian church on its hill. It is surrounded by Taoist and Buddhist temples, behind and across the street, respectively. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Walking toward the stairs that would take me up the hill there was what might be interpreted as a sacred fountain. In perhaps the greatest act of irreverence I’ve ever witnessed, a man was using that basin’s water to wash his car. I couldn’t resist: I got my camera out and snapped a picture. And then I climbed the stairs.
Invisible from the road and tucked behind the Christian church was a Taoist temple. Now THIS was strange. The Tao is an inclusive philosophy, which means that you are welcome to believe in that school of thought as well as any other doctrine you see fit. Christianity, on the other hand is considered exclusive: you either believe in the Holy Trinity as the be-all and end-all of religious wisdom or you are not Christian. That these two religious houses shared a hill is remarkable, in my opinion.
I was torn: which one to explore? The sun was setting and I didn’t have much time. I have toured all manner of temple in every Chinese city I’ve been. Not that I’m jaded to the idea of temples or in any way disrespectful toward Taoism or Buddhism but, after all, a temple is a temple is a temple. I chose the Christian church, being as this was the first time I had been up close to one in China.
The church sat a bit higher than the temple did so I climbed a little bit more. It looked like a relatively new building, constructed perhaps in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, right after China opened its doors to the West. There was no stained glass, just simple windows covered in a mirroring, UV reducing film. By pressing my face against the windows I could reach I saw that it was outfitted with pews laid out in the standard pattern: two rows of pews on either side of a wide aisle leading up to the altar. On the side of the altar was a stand for the choir. Along the back wall, a giant pipe organ. In short, a typical Christian church.
I leaned against the parapet and looked out over the city. Across the street was another temple. Most interesting: two temples and one Christian church, all within a stone’s throw of each other. Widening my scope I spied another building in the not too far distance, also topped by a Christian cross.
What is up with religion in Wen Zhou? Most any other city I’ve visited, even temples are discreetly tucked away and Christian churches are as hard to find as matching snowflakes. Here, religion is virtually flaunted. Why?
It could have a lot to do with the fact that, being an industrial as well as a port town, many foreigners came to set up shop and brought their beliefs with them. Eager to please the money-bearing industrialists, churches were set up in quick order. That might explain the Christian churches, but what is the story with the temples?
If the lords of business get to go to their prayer houses, then so should the serfs. At least, thus goes the philosophy. So, while those who ascribe to the Christian doctrine attend services in their house of worship, those who bow to the Buddha or are empowered by the Tao can go pray at their temple. At least, that is the conclusion I came to after researching everything I could on the subject.
NOTE: China is still pretty closed mouthed about its religious activity and indeed bills itself as a non-religious country. There is not much information to be found. This oversimplification is mostly conjecture on my part, I’ll admit.
While still on the upper rampart of the Church I looked down to the street below. I thought I had witnessed irreverence before. During my brief tarriance up top, that first car had pulled away and two more pulled up for their washing.
Maybe they were taking ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ to a whole new level?
Change of subject now, and this is scary. It might well be attributable to my religious building exploration of the day before.
The next morning, after Gary left I lounged around in my jammies, sipping tea. My hair was freshly washed but not yet dried or styled. No makeup or jewelry on. Then came the knock on my door. The police wanted to see my papers.
In all of my travels and in all of the time I’ve been in China, never once have I been asked for my papers after showing them as a matter of course while registering for a hotel room.
Having grown up in Berlin, Germany during the time of the cold war, when The Wall was up and the ‘free’ part of Berlin was one hundred fourteen miles behind communist lines, I have an instinctive fear of the police asking for my papers. It doesn’t matter what country I’m in. Even while in the states, on those rare occasions when I got pulled over while driving I was terrified of the authority figures.
And now, here in China, for the first time ever, I’m being asked for my papers. And I just had to be in ultimate dress down mode for the occasion. Braless and jammied is not exactly the way I would want to make the acquaintance of a Chinese jail.
Of course I’m writing this up with a bit of levity but I have to admit: I was scared. Gary’s friend had reserved the room and checked in for us. At no time was I called on to show my passport when checking in. If anyone was going to be in trouble it would most likely be the innkeeper or Gary’s friend being as my papers were/are in order. Only a novice vagabond travels around with incomplete or invalid documentation, after all.
Turns out it was just a random sweep of the rooms. Apparently. The occupants of the room next to mine also had to show their documents.
Maybe there was no connection to visiting a Christian church for the first time ever and having my papers checked for the first time ever. But, you never know… and, having grown up where I did you would know that anything of that nature is possible. I was jittery for hours after that encounter with the police.