(Orthodox Autonomy and the Asian Calendar)

RTE: Will you tell us now about your own city of Shanghai?

Late Protopresbyter
Ilia Wen from Shanghai,
serving at Joy of All Who
Sorrow Cathedral in
San Francisco.

IOANNIS: Yes. The Orthodox mission in Shanghai began in the 19th century, long after the mission to Beijing. The first ruling bishop was a vicar-bishop Simeon, who worked under Archbishop Innocent of Beijing after the Boxer Rebellion. The first actual bishop of Shanghai was St. John Maximovitch, the famous wonderworker. St. John also ordained Chinese deacons and priests, but most of them left China with him. One of them, Fr. Ilia, is still alive. He is now 107 and serves at the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral in San Francisco.

Fr. Ilia with St. John
Maximovitch in Shanghai
in 1940's.

At the end of World War II, there was a disagreement between Archbishop Victor, who oversaw the Chinese mission, and St. John Maximovitch. Archbishop Victor wanted to return to the Moscow Patriarchate, but St. John didn't agree; he felt it was too soon. Unfortunately, this created turmoil among the Orthodox in China and some of the Chinese priests went to the government. At that time, the Chinese government under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) was very careful about Communism and these priests told the authorities that Archbishop Victor was part of the KGB. The government imprisoned him for six or seven months. This was before our own communist revolution in 1949, and Archbishop Victor suspended the clergymen who had denounced him. Later, several of them repented and returned to the Moscow Patriarchate, while others left China and joined the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. At the time of the arrest, St. John had already left Shanghai with his flock and gone to America, but after his release Archbishop Victor stayed in China until the 1950's, when he returned to Russia to serve as a bishop in Siberia.

The Orthodox Church in Shanghai was then in a very difficult situation because it had no spiritual leader, so the Orthodox elected Fr. Theodore Du Run Chen as bishop. He had previously served in Beijing as a married priest. After his matushka died and he was nominated, he went to Moscow to be tonsured and consecrated, where he took the name Simeon. He returned to Shanghai in the early 1950's and was later made archbishop.

A few years after Bishop Simeon's consecration, the Chinese and Russians came to an agreement about recognizing Orthodoxy in China. The Moscow Patriarchate under Patriarch Alexis I granted autonomy to the Chinese Church in 1956 and withdrew its material support.

RTE: Do you think this was part of Khrushchev's plan to destroy the Church by isolating and dividing it?

IOANNIS: I'm not sure. It could have been, but at that time the Russian Church inside of Russia was in a very difficult position, and since the Chinese Church had been given its autonomy, there was no reason for it to continue receiving everything from the mother Church. Also, the Chinese government may have been insisting that the ties be broken.

Bishop Simeon was at first strongly against the idea of autonomy, but after several meetings he felt that he had to obey the other hierarchs. The church situation in Shanghai at that time was very tense, and our political situation was oppressive. Social pressure drove young people out of the church and public schools were openly teaching atheism. The final years of Bishop Simeon's life were very sad, and he died in poverty. Only about twenty people attended the last Paschal service he celebrated in the early 1960's.

RTE: Religion in general was illegal at this point?

IOANNIS: No, not in the early 60's, only between 1966 and 1976, but certainly, Bishop Simeon's last days were not comfortable. After that last Pascha, he was bedridden for two years. When he reposed, the church in Shanghai fell into confusion. There was no new bishop and the clergymen didn't know how to support themselves or their families, or even whom to answer to. The Chinese government stepped in and said, "We will arrange jobs for you, but you may not serve as priests any longer." Several of them worked as Russian language teachers.

Two or three years after the death of Archbishop Simeon the "Cultural Revolution" began. From 1966 on, every tradition, every religion in China was destroyed … not only Orthodox, but also Buddhist, Daoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant places of worship. [1]

The communists had begun this destruction earlier, so, by the time of the Cultural Revolution there were only two open Orthodox churches in Shanghai: the cathedral built by Archbishop John and dedicated to the Mother of God, Surety of Sinners, and the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. The cathedral was very beautiful; the walls were white and covered with five blue domes, and each dome had a tall golden cross. St. Nicholas the Wonderworker was small, but also beautiful, and covered with nine golden domes. The government eventually confiscated the buildings and used them for other things. It was very sad.

RTE: And at this time churches and temples were closed all across China?

IOANNIS: Yes, and most were destroyed. Shanghai fared better than Beijing and Harbin because our churches had already been taken for other uses. The buildings themselves weren't destroyed. Fortunately, over the past twenty years there has been a revival. It has become easier to practice religion and many of the temples, churches and mosques have been rebuilt, but the Orthodox churches have not recovered like the others.

RTE: Why?

IOANNIS: In Shanghai, after the Cultural Revolution, only three clergymen remained alive, two priests, both named Fr. Michael, and a protodeacon, Fr. Evangelos. There was also a subdeacon, Papi. According to Chinese law, only native Chinese clergymen can legally serve on Chinese soil, but we had no bishops to ordain them, even if there had been candidates among the remaining believers. Beginning in the 1980's, the last clergymen, headed by Fr. Michael Li, asked the government to give us back two of the churches, but each time the authorities had a different excuse why they could not.

At that time, as a result of the Cultural Revolution,the pinko mode of thoughts or leftism was still existent in our government and society. So,the Ministry of Religion did not deal with Fr Michael (and other clergies in Shanghai) very well. Another reason is that the number of the faithful in Shanghai is quite small. Fr. Michael only got permission to serve in the parish of Harbin. Whereas in Shanghai, where his family lived in, he was not permitted to serve as a priest. And he was continuously disappointed; his many requests were fruitless. [2]

Finally in 2000, Fr. Michael Li decided to leave China. He went to Australia where he now serves in a Chinese-Russian parish belonging to ROCOR, under Archbishop Hilarion. We heard from someone visiting Harbin that the first time he vested himself in Australia, he looked down at his vestments and began to cry, saying, "For so many years, I have not touched these or even seen them." His Australian parishioners have a great love for Fr. Michael and his matushka. He's over 75 now, and I've been told that people hear them singing and chanting together when they are alone in their home.

Now in Shanghai, there are only two clergymen: Fr. Michael Wang (Wong), one of the priests from before the revolution who is now 85 and can no longer serve because of his health, and Fr. Evangelos, the protodeacon, who is 70. Without a priest he can do nothing except reader's services.

RTE: How long has it been since the people of Shanghai have had a liturgy?

IOANNIS: The last one was before the death of Archbishop Simeon, thirty five years ago.

RTE: The remaining priests couldn't serve secretly?

IOANNIS: Everything had been taken from them. They didn't have antimens, chalices, service books, anything.

RTE: Does the autonomous Chinese Orthodox Church still exist?

Fr Alexander with
Fr Dionisy in Beijing

IOANNIS: For the government, it still exists on paper, but not in reality because we don't have even one priest who can officially serve in China. There are only two priests still living. Fr. Michael Wang, whom I mentioned, and Fr. Alexander in Beijing. He is an archpriest, also very old, about 84, and very ill. This Pascha I heard that he is dying. Except for Fr. Evangelos, the protodeacon, there aren't any other Orthodox clergymen in China. We cannot bring in foreign clergy because of the Chinese law I mentioned, which allows only native Chinese clergy to serve.

RTE: It's amazing that the Orthodox remnant in Shanghai were able to stay faithful all those years without the sacraments.

IOANNIS: They are mostly old people. Not many young people remain loyal to Orthodoxy. They don't understand it, no one teaches them, no one tells them about it. This is the first problem.

The second problem is that the older men and women still hide their faith because of the years of persecution. And what can the faithful do without a priest? They don't know many prayers because there are no books or translations. Everything was destroyed. Every morning and evening they cross themselves and read some short prayers like the "Our Father" and the Trisagion. They know to pray to God, to the Holy Trinity, to the Mother of God, to St. Nicholas … They also remember the date of Pascha — they ask relatives overseas to find out the date every year, and they make the traditional cake for Pascha, kulichi and red eggs. They celebrate by themselves, they bless and sanctify the feast with their prayers.

RTE: They were very young when things became difficult.

IOANNIS: Yes, they were young and they are also very simple people. The generation after the Cultural Revolution forgot everything. In Labudalin (Labdarin, modern day E'erguna), in Harbin, in Manchuria, and in the Xinjiang province, there are still pockets of Orthodoxy. Close to the Russian border there are several mixed Russian-Chinese villages where people keep more of the traditions. They are a little freer.

RTE: Do these remaining Orthodox Christians use the old Julian calendar?

IOANNIS: Yes. In Xinjiang, in Beijing, in Harbin, all the old Russian mission descendants use the old calendar, but the Greeks in Hong Kong who belong to the Ecumenical Patriarchate use the new calendar. The Greek Metropolitan, Nikitas, is new calendar, but he also serves old calendar for Russians and Serbs in Hong Kong on the major feasts. Many of the Asian Orthodox parishes are under the Greek Archdiocese of Hong Kong and they all use the new calendar. In Japan they use the old calendar, and in Korea, the new calendar.

Japan uses the old calendar, but celebrates Christmas on the new calendar. This is a problem liturgically because they are celebrating Christmas in the middle of the fast. After Christmas they put in extra Sundays before Theophany to come back into line with the old calendar, but these Sundays are artificial. They have no place in the liturgical cycle. On the practical side, I can't say anything because Christmas is a very popular feast in Japan.

[1] The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was launched by Mao Zedong, who had risen to power with the Communists in 1949, in a move to "purify" the Communist party. The revolution saw the growth of the Red Guard Movement among Chinese youth, and the government worked through schools, widespread propaganda, and compulsory reeducation to inculcate Mao's philosophy. Chinese cultural traditions were uprooted and all temples, churches, synagogues and mosques that had not been destroyed in the earlier Communist period were closed. According to some historical analysts, between 1966 and 1968 alone, over 400,000 politically or philosophically dissident Chinese were killed. Among them were Christians of all denominations.

[2] Since this interview was done a few years ago, the situation has since changed, and the interviewee has submitted a revision to this paragraph on November 12, 2005.