15 July 2012

Releasing the snakes

A month and a half ago, a group of Chinese Buddhists from Beijing took a convoy of 8 vans and one Mercedes-Benz sedan in order to release a large number of snakes (between 200 and 1000, depending on who is asked) into the wild. This was meant to demonstrate compassion and to gain good karma; but this gesture was supremely misguided – in that the location they chose to release the snakes was Miao Erdong village (苗耳洞村) in Hebei Province. The snakes took up residence there, much to the annoyance and chagrin of the villagers. Their supposedly-compassionate act ended up causing a good deal of distraction and possibly danger to the village, creating suffering where suffering was supposed to be alleviated.

A few weeks ago on the Sinica Podcast, the discussants used this story as an example of how Chinese modernity has the tendency of not ‘doing’ religion appropriately. What ends up being followed are trends or snippets of folk practice, whereas the values behind them are either misinterpreted or not transmitted at all. This story, and the Sinica Podcast’s treatment of it, came to my mind as I was reading the painfully-softball New York Review of Books interview with Chinese activist and Christian proselyte Yu Jie – someone who supposedly takes Christianity seriously, and yet just as seriously misinterprets it in ways which could be annoying, distracting and possibly dangerous to Chinese Christendom. His championing of Liu Xiaobo is one such point.

He says (regarding Liu Xiaobo’s bloodthirsty cheerleading for the Iraq War) that ‘[y]ou can’t just put him in the European environment and say that everyone who supported that war was a bad person’. Now, it is worth keeping in mind that even bad people may be imprisoned wrongly. But leaving aside Yu Jie’s hypocrisy of going on just after this declaration to compare Liu Xiaobo to European figures such as Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, the war he supported was not fought in Europe, any more than in China. It was fought in Iraq – and Iraqi Christians are among the ones who suffered the most for it. Over half of Iraq’s original population of 1,400,000 Christians was forced to flee the country, mostly to Syria; over two thousand more were killed as the result of targeted violence and pogroms against them, carried out by the anti-Saddam militias allied to the United States (see here). Does Yu Jie care a whit for them? Given his glowing treatment of Liu Xiaobo, comparing him not only to Havel and Michnik but also to Russia’s Sakharov and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela (and what did he have to say about the Iraq War?), he seems all-too-nonchalant about the war’s supporters (Liu among them) being responsible for having unleashed many huge convoy-loads of snakes in their villages.

Yu Jie’s prescriptions for Chinese Christianity are a bit more to the point, however, and they are less troubling only in that the stakes are nowhere near so high. He apparently sees the churches as the means to a political foundation for Western-style liberal democracy, as they once were in the Anglosphere (he sees this as missing from the analysis of Hu Shi). But this is to use them as sacrificial animals, not existing for their own sake but as the Trojan horse for the new, secular capitalist order. Such a course would only expose them to needless political persecution in pursuit of highly dubious political goals, their own demise included.

Theologically as well, this is greatly suspect – the Church should exist on its own merits with the Cross as its guide (rather than the Anglo-American deists and self-styled champions of ‘liberty’ who would cut it down to its component parts and keep only the pieces they like). In this interview, Yu Jie does not engage with the traditions of the Church at all except where they intersect with his preferred right-liberal political philosophy. He almost scoffs at the idea that the Church in China might be a vehicle of ‘Chinese folk religion’ (‘like the Boxers but with a new foreign nameplate’), but he ignores the fact that Christianity, coming out of Jerusalem and out of Rome as it had, became a ‘folk religion’ of the peoples it converted: a Frankish folk religion, then a Continental Saxon and Thuringian folk religion, then an English folk religion and so on and so forth. And these developments, as far as he is concerned, were wholly positive ones.

‘Releasing snakes’, indeed: the Chinese Christian communities deserve far better advocates (not to mention the ex-Iraqi ones).


  1. Last month, I read a book by Michael Levy called "Kosher Chinese", a narrative in the line of Hessler's "River Town" and accounts for the author's Peace Corps sojourn in 贵州. He gripes about the same thing.

    There are american jews whose connection to judaism is little more than fervent support of the current Israeli State, and judaism isn't even a universal religion like christianity!

    Western traditions are still very much fetishized in East Asia*, and we all know where much of the blame for that lies; it's in the same ideological traditions to which these pretender acolytes claim their legitimacy.

  2. Hi Rob! Welcome to the blog; and thank you for the comment! It is rather interesting you should note this - I seem to be on something of a role here recently regarding the cultural implications of Christianity (for good and ill). Maybe it's all the folk / pagan metal I've been listening to recently. :P

    But yes, I agree that Christian proselytism and the way its missionaries presented themselves as the vanguards of 'civilised' capitalist modernity is much to blame here, and served to warp the central message of Christianity in ways which will make it very difficult for future generations of Chinese Christians to undo the damage. And though the central message of Christianity is simple enough, it comes loaded down with so much background that transplanting it is always a negotiation.

    The Christianity of the northern Europe fetishised by Yu Jie is still very much a melding of Christian message with heathen rituals (Eostre; Geola = Easter; Yule [Christmas]) and value categories. Far be it from me to dismiss the spiritual insights of the Germanic tribes whose job it was in the wake of their (often-forced) conversion to make sense of this tradition which had been handed to them, but we cannot pretend that it is to be preferred over the spiritual insights of the Chinese, particularly when the Chinese are the ones who now have to make sense of it.