A Christian church situated in Jiangbeizui, Chongqing Photo: CFP
It's a Sunday afternoon, and a group of Christians are meeting in a regular gathering. They start to sing hymns, raising their hands in praise. After concluding grace with "Amen," they sit down and start to study, not the Bible, but the Confucian classic Lun Yu, or the Analects.
This is part of a quiet grass-roots campaign among a small number of Chinese Christians to learn about traditional Chinese culture. Organizers say they simply want to help promote dialogue and better understanding between the two cultures by reading the Analects and the Bible side by side, but their efforts have met with criticism from both Christians and Confucian scholars.
Shi Hengtan, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, leads the class of 14 people in Beijing. Since September they have been meeting once a week to study the Analects. The class read the text, and Shi offers an explanation, and then quotes a verse from the Bible with a similar meaning.
For instance, at one point in the Analects Confucius says "With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow, I have still joy in the midst of these things. Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness, are to me as a floating cloud." (James Legge translation.) Shi parallels this with Luke 9:58, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."
Earlier this year Shi and some pastors initiated this project by organizing weekly study sessions online, via blogs and microblogs. Each week Shi left the students several questions to think over and discuss at the next class. They also needed to write an essay to complete the course. Over 50 people joined but only 20 finished the course, which took eight months.
A Confucius statue stands in the campus of Renmin University of China. Photo: CFP
The main purpose, Shi says, is to help Christians learn and understand traditional Chinese culture.
"Many Christians are ignorant of traditional culture, and some are even against learning it because they believe the Bible is the only book they need and that Confucianism and other schools of thought might interfere with their beliefs," said Shi.
Although the well-educated young people are also converting to the religion, many Christians in China are less well-educated women and older people in rural areas, explains Shi.
"Some people are not keen to learn anything outside of their religion, while in the cities, the believers follow a more Western path and may also ignore traditional Chinese culture," he said.
Nemo Yu, who converted around 2000, has been attending regularly the offline class. During his daily work in the culture and creativity industry in Beijing, Yu said he constantly run into elements and concepts from traditional culture. But, like the vast majority of Chinese, he has never read the Analects.
"I do feel that as a Chinese I need to know my own culture, and it's interesting to find that the Analects and the Bible complement each other in many ways," said Yu, 29.
Zhang Wen was baptized eight years ago but said she still has doubts and confusions from time to time. She said she wanted to learn about Chinese culture, but also to understand the Bible from different perspectives.
By organizing such study sessions, Shi also hopes to bridge the two cultures. The past two or three decades have seen the gradual revival of Confucianism, as well as Buddhism and Christianity. The Christian population is steadily growing, with around 23 million followers, according to Shi. The official census shows 4 million Catholics and 10 million Protestants.
But there are also appeals to revive traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism. Some see it as playing a religious role in society. A few years ago, Yu Dan, a professor from Beijing Normal University, soared to stardom by offering a "chicken soup for the soul" interpretation of the Analects on television. A bronze Confucius statue also briefly appeared near Tiananmen Square.
Still both Confucian and Christian advocates believe they are still weak and sometimes seem to be competing with each other. Some Confucian scholars complain about or even warn against the rapid development of Protestantism in China.
One example of the complicated and sometimes hostile relationship between Confucianism and Christianity is the debate over a proposed building of a church in the town of Qufu, Shandong Province, two years ago. Qufu is the birthplace of Confucius, and local authorities had approved the building of a 40-meter high church that could contain 3,000 people for the growing Christian population there.
However the project met with strong objections from Confucian scholars. About a dozen scholars wrote a letter protesting the building of a church in a site considered the center of Confucianism in China. The project was halted after strong objections.
Zeng Zhenyu, a professor at the Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies of Shandong University, was one of them. He objects to the choice of site, which is between the birthplace of Confucius and the Confucian Temple. At a proposed height of 40 meters, the church would block the view of the temple, which stands at a little over 20 meters.
The capacity of the church, 3,000 people, Zeng believes, mocks the number of Confucius' pupils, traditionally believed to be 3,000.
Zeng, a member of the local political advisory body, wrote a proposal to local authorities and demanded that they promise a church would never be built in the cradle of Confucianism.
"We respect the Christian faith but the project to build a church here in Qufu showed disrespect for our mainstream culture," said Zeng. "What would people think if we were to build a Confucian temple in Mecca or Jerusalem?"
While Confucian scholars saw the project as an arrogant and blatant challenge, Christians argued that the objections showed that their religion has yet to be fully accepted.
Efforts have been made in recent years to improve dialogue between different religions and Confucianism. A Singapore-based China Theology Forum organizes seminars to discuss the relationship between Christianity and Confucianism. A Nishan forum was also initiated in 2010 to host dialogues among different civilizations in the birthplace of Confucius.
Shi said his teaching the Analects is another effort to help Christianity integrate into Chinese culture.
When Western missionaries like Matteo Ricci came to China in the late sixteenth century, they learned Chinese language and culture. They wore traditional Chinese scholarly robes and tried to explain the Catholic faith through Confucian thoughts.
Unlike other interpretations of Confucius, Shi says they are better able to understand the sage by holding the Bible as the ultimate truth.
"We believe there are similarities between the Analects and the Bible, but Confucius didn't express such thoughts thoroughly," said Shi. He believes that by talking about proper timing for everything, Confucius was in essence talking about following the will of God or Heaven. "We believe that Confucius, like all other human beings, was instinctively pursuing God, or a higher power, and looking for the ultimate answers," he added.
He also argues that the Confucian emphasis on filial piety shows the ancients' yearning for immortality. But Confucius didn't solve the quest thoroughly, while the Bible gives a more reassuring solution.
Such interpretation, not surprisingly, is highly disputed. The vast majority of Confucian scholars disagree with Shi's biblical interpretation of the Analects.
While admitting the similarities in certain thoughts and expressions, such as the Golden Rule, Confucian and Christian thoughts come from very different places, scholars argue.
The Confucian idea of love for other people stems from inherent human kindness and one's own conscience, while Christianity talks about original sin and humanity as the children of God, said Song Zhiming, a professor of Chinese philosophy at Renmin University.
"While sharing similarities the two have very different roots, so it's problematic to interpret the Analects this way," said Song.
But despite the disagreement, many scholars still believe it's a good thing that Chinese Christians are studying the Analects.
"There are different interpretations of the Confucian classics, and while I disagree with their explanations, I don't think there's a problem," said Yao Zhongqiu, a professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a Confucian scholar.
Yao welcomes the studying of the Analects and says it might just mark the beginning of a new round of culture in China.
It's generally believed that Confucianism is tolerant and inclusive of different religions. "It's only when some hold Confucianism to be a religion that it creates conflicts with Christianity," said Yao. "But I believe we need to establish the mainstream status of Confucianism in order to ensure the harmonious coexistence of different religions."
Others however are worried. Zeng, who objected the building of a church in Qufu, said he is concerned that Christianity would gain more converts by integrating the religious teaching with a Confucian classic like the Analects.
Zeng's worry might not come true just yet. Only a little over a dozen people attend the study sessions held in Beijing, and another dozen recently in Changsha, Hunan Province. Shi is trying to open classes in other cities to move the campaign forward. Shi said their main goal is to encourage people to read more and to learn more, while also improve social harmony.
"Christianity in China has yet to be better integrated into Chinese culture, and that's what we are trying to do," said Shi.