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Silkworms and Snow: A Church Service in Tonghua

by Cornelia 

Posted: 01 February 2006
Word Count: 1390
Summary: A section from my book about living in China
Related Works: Silkworms and Snow - A Hundred Ways with Dofu • 

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It was a surprise to me to learn that one of my ‘foreign editor’ colleagues was a Franciscan brother, on a long leash from what he called his ‘mother house’ in Maine. I was even more surprised to learn that there was both a Catholic and a Protestant Church in such a remote Chinese city. I hadn’t realised that western religions were tolerated, but fact there are more than 12,000 church buildings open for public worship and some 25,000 groups of Protestant Christians meet in private homes.

From an early age I found churches fascinating, so it was of my own accord that I slipped into the dim, incense-fragrant porch of ‘English Martyrs’ and kissed the foot of Jesus on Ash Wednesdays, appreciated the story-telling and stick-in pictures at Emanuel Sunday school and joined in the hymns at Moor Park Methodists. My favourite of all was the Monday night children’s’ service at the Shepherd Street mission, sitting on a bench and flinging my arms as I did the actions to ‘Deep and Wide’. I had collected quite a few attendance-prize books by the time I was twelve.

Since my childhood fervour had waned I was not a churchgoer, except for carol concerts. A weekly church service, I decided, might be an interesting way to meet local people as well as improving my Chinese. Three months into my stay in Tonghua, I was beginning to despair of ever getting a Chinese tutor. It was a secular motive, but I also looked forward to hearing hymns whose tunes, if not words, were familiar to me from childhood.

Joseph pointed out the Protestant church to me on one of our weekly trips to the shops. It was at the bottom of a shabby side street near the smelly public convenience in the main shopping street leading off from a canal-side walkway. The tall concrete façade had a steep roof topped with a cross. The street itself was lined with shabby old two-storey dwellings with rusty balustrades and at the bottom, towards the church; peasants were selling vegetables from carts attached to bicycles. Some old people were sitting around on kerbs, smoking and gossiping or playing a kind of chess with stones and lines marked in the pavement. ‘Your fellow-worshippers,’ said Joseph, laughing. For a very generous and kind-hearted man, he sometimes had a caustic tongue.

On the first Sunday I arrived late - it had begun to snow as I left the company house on the outskirts of town and I went back for an umbrella. I was practically shoehorned into a pew by one of the middle-aged lady ushers, the church already full to bursting and the service about to begin. Lusty hymn-singing was already under way, choir and congregation joining in. A lively Chinese woman in a yellow smock and red tie with a swinging pony-tail alternately waved her hands, nodding and smiling, over choir and congregation. They didn’t need encouragement – the noise was loud and enthusiastic, Chinese words to a familiar tune which I identified as ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’. Considering the thin layer of snow that was settling outside, it didn’t seem very appropriate.

I was astonished to see there were about three hundred people of all ages - all, as far as I could see, Chinese, as were the officiators on the platform at the front .The church was plain with white walls and pews made of light-coloured wood. The Chinese characters for ‘Love’ and ‘Peace’ were painted the wall behind a simple altar that was really no more than a wooden table with a white cloth and a two-foot high gold cross. Two men in long robes were sitting on high-backed chairs at either side. I could see all this, although I was behind a pillar and had what in the theatre would be termed ‘a partially obscured view’. This didn’t seem to bother my neighbours, who sang lustily, only pausing to chide fidgety children. One in front of me, in a traditional red silk jacket with a mandarin collar turned round and then shrank aghast into his mother’s side, until she nudged him and whispered reassurance before glancing apologetically at me.

I was pleased it was crowded because it meant I had been able to slip in relatively unobserved. I still had uncomfortable memories of attending a Chinese Opera performance in Shanghai where I had a third row seat and everyone in the front two rows turned round to stare, and continued to stare, until the performance started.

Looking around, I noticed the most obvious difference between this congregation and ones I remembered from my childhood, apart from the lusty voices, was the dress code. All wore clean jackets and coats, but they were of the everyday kind, made of thick cloth or quilted, ski-jacket style, no hint of ‘Sunday best’. Only the children and teenagers wore new clothes. Men’s hair was slicked down, unless it were of the untamable bottle-brush texture, sticking straight out, that was common in Tonghua.

I was disappointed not to have a hymn book and a prayer book. The service seemed to be very interactive and would have been a very good opportunity for me to practise my Chinese by joining in with the rest. I was saved by my neighbours in the pew on either side, two elderly women who were very keen to share and point out the places for me when the gospel reading began.

The audience had no problems with staying alert during the sermon, especially those at the front, because the vicar would expound in a loud voice, make a dramatic pause, and suddenly bark out a question, to which he expected a shouted ‘Dui!’(Yes) or ‘Bu dui!’(No) answer. I think his text was ‘The Good Samaritan’, as I recognized words like ‘clothes’, ‘road-side’ and ‘neighbour’. He really thundered at them if they got the answer wrong:

‘Was the priest right to cross on the other side?’ he suddenly shouted. After a pause came a hesitant, ‘Ye-es!’.
‘BU DUI!’ the vicar yelled at them, slapping his hand on the lectern,
and they repeated after him, ‘Bu dui!’ as if that is what they had really meant all along.

Despite all the shouting, towards the end of the sermon the people around me at the back became restive and one young man in the pew directly in front was holding his mobile phone to his ear. Some one on my right fell asleep. It’s a good thing we were well hidden from view behind the pillar. Next time I should arrive early enough to get a seat in the central part of the church, plus a bible and hymn book.

After the sermon the vicar stood behind a lectern and began to open envelopes, each of which contained a piece of paper and bank notes. The papers requested prayers or gave thanks for benefits to named individuals and, I suppose, took the place of a collection. The service ended with a communal prayer session. The vicar invited the congregation to stand and express their individual thanks and prayers, which they did with some fervour and speed, the noise of individually muttered prayers rising to a crescendo, until he brought it all to a close by starting to sing, using a microphone. Of course, this is already a bit emotional for me, as I had been remembering my family and friends at home in England. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ sung by the vicar, even in Chinese, was the last straw and I was soon looking for tissues in my bag.

When I left the church, I was directed to an upstairs room where I bought a bible and hymn book at what seemed a very reasonable rate. In true Chinese fashion, the friendly sales woman in charge of the bookstall persuaded me to buy a slightly larger hymnbook than I intended pointing out that the print was ‘da de dou’ – much larger.

Earlier, clapping to a chant of ‘Xie-xie, xie-xie, Jesu’ (Thank you, thank you, Jesus’) whilst the clergy filed out, it seemed to me that the Tonghua service was more akin to the Shepherd Street Mission meetings of my childhood than the staid proceedings of most English churchgoing. Certainly English vicars could have learned a lot from their Tonghua counterpart about how liven up a sermon.

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 18:38 on 01 February 2006  Report this post

Seems to me it goes on getting better! Perhaps I'm just getting used to your style (which is a very positive indicator, I think, for the book) but the story flows beautifully.I wish more people would comment - surely I'm not the only one eagerly anticipating the printed and bound version? I love the fact that you are depicting 'ordinary' life in a place which is extradordinary to those of us who have not ventured into inner China.

More please...


Cornelia at 22:15 on 01 February 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Richard. Well, it is just as well you are getting used to it,because there's a lot more. I'm just going to keep at it now until all the chapters are finished. I've identified 36 topics in all and made a plan pairing up the almost-finished pieces with the ones that need more research/writing, with the aim of finishing two pieces a week - maybe a bit over-ambitious but it's better to err that way, I think. .

Perhaps it's difficult to comment if people come in on it not knowing what has gone before.


Brian Aird at 19:04 on 03 February 2006  Report this post
I'm one of those not knowing what went before, so I don't know why you're in China. It might be for a holiday or perhaps teaching English. All I know so far is that you want to learn more Chinese.

I don't know if you intend this to be published or read as a piece of journalism, but if that's the intention I think it needs to be re-written for that purpose. If it's intended as part of a book on travel then I'm not sure if a journalism forum is the best place:)

As an stand-alone article in a travel mag (say) I would want to know more background and the answers to a number of questions:

What were you doing in China?
If you wanted to learn Chinese, why not attend classes? Are there any classes in the UK you recommend? Is there more than one dialect? Is one dialect more universal than others? Does it depend on where you want to visit/work?
Who was Joseph and why did you dislike his remark about 'your fellow worshippers' being only the old; is Christianity dying out just as it is in the UK? Is that a problem?
What do young Chinese think of Christianity, or of native Chinese beliefs?

If you intended a general tourism piece, how about mentioning where to stay, typical costs, interesting cuisine, how to travel around, what areas are dangerous, etc.

My sister's son went to China to teach and found it hard going to maintain discipline in classes. I don't think he enjoyed his stay as much as he thought he would. How should he have prepared himself?

Just a few thoughts…


Cornelia at 19:35 on 03 February 2006  Report this post
Thank you, Brian for your honest comments and questions. Gosh what a lot of information I have left out, although it is inevitable given this was meant to focus on Christian worship only, not be a general guide to living in China.

However, most of your question are answered in other parts of the book, of which this would form a chapter. As a journalistic piece it is not meant to stand alone but to be part of a series.

This wasn't meant to be about how to learn Chinese. I just mention it as as part of my motivation for attending the church service. I have another piece about the difficulties of learning Chinese in a place like Tonghua. The same goes for why I was in China - the job is described in other episodes.

There's also a piece - with some more in the pipeline - about the food.

There's also something about teaching English in China and the difficulties faced by foreign teachers.

I intend the book to explore various aspects of life in China. It hope it will be of use to people who intend to go to live and work in China as well as people who are just curious.


di2 at 03:34 on 13 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Sheila, I enjoyed you article, I've read a couple of your "Silkworms and Snow" pieces and found them very well written and interesting.

Was it you who explained in a comment that you are writing a book and that the chapters in the book have been broken down into journalistic articles? I thought this was a excellent and practicle idea.

If you step back from your piece and imagine it as a stand-alone piece in a magazine, where the reader has no knowledge of your previous article, you will see it's missing the front end i.e. a title (that grabs you), sub-heading that grabs you some more and lead-in paragraph that tells you where you're going. These three things are the key for my decision whether or not to read the body of the article.

To demonstrate I spent a little bit of time to test how I would approach it. It's not that easy to do, as it turned out, but I learnt a bit while I tried it. Here goes :


SUB HEADING: English Vicars Take Note

LEAD-IN PARAGRAPH : My childhood memories of energetic Monday Night Children Services at the London Shepherd Street Mission during the 1950's were stirred as I participated in the lively and noisy interactive Christian service in the Chinese city of Tonghua.

I hope my suggestion is helpful. I look forward to reading more of Silkworms and Snow.


Cornelia at 09:23 on 13 February 2006  Report this post
Wow, Di2, this is such high-quality advice, and I am very grateful for it.

I signed up with a syndication company who agreed to distribute my stuff on the strenth of a couple of stand-alone sample pieces. The person I first dealt with seemed quite prompt to reply to queries, about the contract, etc, but her colleague , to whom I am supposed to summit,is more sluggish.I didn't get confirmation that he'd received the first piece and that it met the criteria as regards length of synopsis. As a result, whilst I am waiting, I've had less incentive to tailor my pieces. What I really need to do, as you and Brian point out, is make two versions, one for the book and one for other outlets. Meantime I'm forging ahead and will post to the travel group only even though it means changing the posting every couple of days. What a shame we can only have one piece at a time in any one group.


di2 at 10:42 on 13 February 2006  Report this post
I'm glad I was helpful and best wishes with the distribution.

Account Closed at 15:13 on 16 February 2006  Report this post
I enjoyed this very much, Sheila. I really felt the emotion and knew where you were coming from when the vicar started singing Auld langs Syne (wierd!)

In a non-book context, I don't think your first para is the best way to start. It takes us out of the context of China plus adds a Jamaican friend. However, some mention of the Chinese church as Di suggests would easily rectify this.

I was almost shoehorned into a pew I think practically might work better than almost here.

The participation during the sermon brings to mind the gospel churches of New York.

I'm sure English vicars would be delighted to have such a high turnout!


Cornelia at 17:10 on 16 February 2006  Report this post
Elspeth, thank you for your comment. I have knocked out the Jamaican friend and restructured the start, also amended 'almost', so I think it reads better now, although still a chapter rather than a journalistic piece. I will have a go at coverting it later.


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