courtesy of Holy Trinity Monastery | Orthodox Life, №4 1997, pp 34-37

I have just returned from a pilgrimage to China with Archbishop Hilarion of Australia and New Zealand. The purpose of our trip to China was to visit various Orthodox holy places and, if possible, to get into contact with Orthodox faithful there. I believe we were quite successful on both counts. Based on what we learned during our sojourn in China, I would like to make a few comments on the state of Orthodoxy in China.

The Holy Chinese Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion

In the 1950s, the Chinese Orthodox Church was given autonomy by the Moscow Patriarchate and there were at least two bishops of Chinese nationality before the Cultural Revolution, Bishop Simeon Du and Bishop Basil Yao. There were also Chinese Orthodox parishes with their own priests in a number of cities. The history of this period is, however, still largely unknown to us. Beginning in the Cultural Revolution period, all Orthodox churches were closed and many if not all of the Orthodox clergy suffered greatly for their faith. Following the Cultural Revolution, only one parish has been allowed to resume services, the church of the Protection of the Mother of God, in Harbin. All other Orthodox people have been without services and mysteries since around 1965. Until our trip, I did not know how the Orthodox faithful outside of Harbin had survived, if indeed they had survived at all; what we discovered was that there are still strongly committed Orthodox faithful in several places: Shanghai, Beijing, Harbin and several other areas north of Harbin, especially in the towns along the railroad that goes from Harbin to Manzhouli. In Beijing there are (we were told) anywhere from 150 to 200 Orthodox. Unfortunately, the local authorities have not seen fit to provide a church for these believers, even though they have recently petitioned for one.

The Shanghai Cathedral
as it Appears Today

In Shanghai there are fewer believers, probably somewhere around fifteen to twenty. In Harbin, fifteen to twenty people were present at the services that we attended in the church there. Everywhere we visited, we were told that there are numerous people who would like to be baptized; this is very difficult at present since services can legally take place only in approved churches. There are at present only four Orthodox priests in China, one in Shanghai, two in Beijing and one in Harbin. These priests are all elderly and two of them are in very bad health. It is possible that there are other Orthodox in the far western region of Xinjiang, but the people we met did not know anything about the situation there. Reliable statistics are impossible to come by, but I have the feeling that there are several thousand Orthodox left in China. Some of these are undoubtedly people who belong to Orthodox families but who have been unable to receive baptism. One of the priests in Beijing wept when Vladyka Hilarion visited him; he is very concerned about the continuity of Orthodoxy in Beijing. He said he only hoped to live to see a successor take responsibility for the Orthodox community there.

The Church of the
Protection of the
Mother of God, Harbin

We managed to see the sites of numerous churches. In Shanghai we saw the Cathedral of the Mother of God, Surety of Sinners, where St. John Maximovitch served when he was bishop of Shanghai. The building itself (which is now a securities bank) is in reasonably good shape, as is the house behind the church where the diocesan offices and the bishop's residence once were. We also saw St. Nicholas Church; it has been converted to an upscale restaurant. At present there is no prospect of the Orthodox obtaining either of these churches for services. In Beijing we were told that there is one surviving church building which we were not able to see. There, however, we visited the old Orthodox cemetery at Andingmen, where the relics of the Chinese Martyrs and the graves of several bishops are thought to be. It has been converted in to a park, but the area where the graves are is a nice lawn; the tombstones were all removed during the Cultural Revolution. Armed with a letter from the Russian Embassy in Australia, Vladyka Hilarion and a couple of other members of our group were able to visit the Russian Embassy, built on the site of the old Spiritual Mission, which for several centuries was the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Mission in China. Only a few walls of one church survive. In Harbin we saw the sites of several old Churches; St. Sofia Church is being remodeled by the government. The local authorities have come to realize that the Russian period of Harbin is one of its major drawing cards and are now very solicitous about preserving old buildings. It will probably become a museum. St. Alexis Church has been turned into a Roman Catholic Church which, we were told, has an attendance of four to five hundred people on a typical Sunday. The Annunciation Church appears to have disappeared, but when we entered the new building on that site we discovered that some of the pillars and arches of the church still survive. There is even talk of rebuilding it.

Vladyla Hilarion
Beside the Remains
of a Cemetery Chapel
in Manzhouli

In Manzhouli (called Man'dzhurija Russian) we found the site of St. Jonah of Hankou's church, where now is located a primary school. A few years ago excavations were carried out to find the relics of St. Jonah, but without success. We spoke with people who remember the holy bishop's gravesite being a different spot on the school playground (that is, a place different from where the earlier excavations were carried out), so it may be worthwhile to make another attempt to uncover the relics sometime in the future. In both Harbin and Manzhouli we visited the Russian cemeteries. In Harbin the old cemetery has been converted into a park but there is a new cemetery outside of town where there are several hundred graves; one of these is the grave of Protopresbyter Stefan Wu, who died in the Cultural Revolution after undergoing torture. At the new cemetery in Harbin there is a new chapel, apparently built with contributions from Russians who once lived in Harbin.

As you can see from the above report, the state of Orthodoxy in China is precarious. The only active religious life is found in Harbin and even there there seem to be few if any missionary activities. This is very sad in view of the fact that Roman Catholidsm and Protestantism are, by all reports, flourishing. I urge you all to pray for the Orthodox Christians in China and to pray for a renewal of the mission there. Pray especially to the Chinese Martyrs, St. John of Shanghai, and St. Jonah of Hankow who reposed in Manzhouli.

Finally, I would like to mention that there are around one thousand Chinese-speaking Orthodox in Australia. They mostly have come from Northern Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, but some of them are from Xinjiang in the far west. Most have at least some Russian blood, but many of these have Chinese as their native language. Vladyka Hilarion hopes to organize them into a special parish in the near future. On a later posting I hope to give an account of Chinese liturgical texts that we have been able to obtain from various sources. In the near future, we hope to put out a Chinese missionary bulletin in both English and Chinese; at that time it is likely that we will ask for material support for missionary work among the Chinese.

by Jeremias Norman, Reader