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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Catholicism, Shanghai-style? To hell with it!

OK, perhaps the title of this post is somewhat of an overreaction, but it was disappointing this afternoon paying a visit to St. Ignatius Cathedral 徐家汇天主教堂, located in Shàng​hǎi's 上海 Xú​jiā​huì 徐家汇 area. On the surface, the cathedral seemed appealing in three key areas:

1.) History. Xujiahui is the sight of Shanghai's oldest international settlement, with the Jesuits having been here since the 17th century and the cathedral dating from 1910;

2.) Architecture. Red-brick, Gothic-style buildings aren't that commonplace in China;

and 3.) Faith.

(A brief explanation on that last point: although I was baptized into the Church of England when I was a child, I'm not a practicing Anglican, nor a Christian for that matter. My family stopped attending the local Episcopalian church when I was around seven years old over the disgust felt by my mother when the priest ran off with a married member of the congregation, and I haven't been back since, save for the occasional sightseeing visit to a European cathedral. However, I am interested in matters pertaining to religion, and I do enjoy visiting places of worship such as Buddhist and Taoist temples, Shintō shrines 神社 and, yes, Christian churches.)

Unfortunately, visiting St. Ignatius didn't go the way I'd expected. True, it was an impressive building, both on the inside and out. However, things turned annoying right off the bat when we were told we couldn't get in without tickets. Admission was free and the ticket office was nearby, but it just seemed thoroughly pointless. Then it started to get sour when my wife was denied entry, solely on the grounds that the sandals she was wearing lacked a strap on the back. It's that old irony that some churches still don't seem to get, namely that they would refuse Jesus himself admission should he turn up at their doors today just because he wouldn't be properly attired.

In any event, Pamela, who wasn't particularly interested in seeing the church in the first place, said that she didn't mind waiting outside, so Amber and I went in. Photography wasn't allowed inside, which was too bad as the interior was beautiful, but it was a rule I could understand and therefore respected.  The original stained glass windows didn't survive the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命, but the replacements were appealing in their own right:

Inside, access to the altar was blocked by a wedding that was taking place. I could complain by saying that I'd be willing to bet my as-yet-not furloughed-paycheck that the Chinese couple getting married this afternoon chose St. Ignatius not because they were devout followers of the teachings of Christ, but because holding it there appealed to the superficiality so prevalent in local culture. But then who am I to quibble about such things, seeing as I hold the Bible to be a collection of stories and not the words of a supreme being. Besides, the ceremony did add to the atmosphere inside St. Ignatius, and it was good to see the cathedral actually being used as something more than just a sightseeing spot. It might an interesting place to observe a mass being held, except for the matter of the guards.

Guards. I don't know if it's because China is an authoritarian state, or whether it's due to the simple fact that the Chinese just don't trust each other, but the country is full of them. From public schools to shopping plazas and Catholic cathedrals, guards are posted everywhere to make sure only the right people get in and the riffraff stay out. So much for socialist egalitarianism. The whole time Amber and I were inside St. Ignatius, we observed the guards constantly telling people what they couldn't do. Granted, most Chinese probably don't have a clue as to how to behave properly inside a church, and people did need to be reminded not to put their feet up on the places where you should kneel when praying, for example. But it was the sheer rudeness of the guards that irritated me. Yes, this is China, where, in general, people treat each other with utter contempt. But a church is supposedly a house of God, a place in which people are meant to go so as to feel closer with their maker, and visitors deserve a modicum of respect. The people I saw in the church weren't doing anything to disrupt the proceedings (certainly nothing along the lines of behavior some of their compatriots have been accused of engaging in while on overseas tours), and yet they were shown the kind of contempt meted out to migrant workers trying to buy train tickets home during the New Year holidays.

Next door to St. Ignatius is the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei 徐家汇藏书楼. Built in 1847 and home to what has been described as a magnificent collection of rare books, a tour of the library there sounds like something I would want to do. Except that if the way St. Ignatius is run is any indication, I don't want to have anything to do with the Jesuits or the Shanghai Diocese.

Amber watches a Chinese bullet train zip by as we make our way to her twice-weekly Go (known as wéiqí 圍棋 in Mandarin and igo 囲碁 in Japanese) lesson. 

My daughter enjoys playing the strategic board game, and has been doing so since kindergarten. She was inspired by the Japanese anime アニメ Hikaru no Go ヒカルの碁, which she used to watch when we were living in Taiwan. The cover of her Go homework book features the two main characters from the series, Hikaru and his ghost mentor, Fujiwara-no-Sai 藤原佐為. 

A bowl of niúròufàn 牛肉饭 and some xiǎojiě's 小姐 at a supposed "Taiwanese-style night market" not far from Amber's Go school.

Enjoying a stick of jīròu chuàn 鸡肉串, skewers of chicken meat. Unfortunately, the rest of the meal didn't taste as good as this. 

What saved the day in the end was going to Shanghai's Bund 外滩 to see the night view, something we hadn't done before. Let there be lights, lots of them!

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