Friday, January 9, 2015

A Church Higher than Movies in "Godless Communist" China

Last month a friend's acquaintance referred to Chinese people as "Godless Communists" in a privately shared comment about Yiwu, "the town in China that makes the world's Christmas decorations". I replied:
It's hard to call China's system these days "communist", whatever the name of the controlling political party. On that note, "The total number of Christians in China is approaching the number of Communist Party members". Yiwu also happens to be in a province with an especially large number of churches, even after a number were recently demolished.
The comment also brought to mind a large church I had recently seen in Zhangzhou, Fujian province.

church in Zhangzhou, Fujian province

It is not Zhangzhou's only church and just one of many I have seen across China, including a church in nearby Quanzhou. However, one aspect of this church was rather unusual. A commercial movie theater operated underneath it.

movie theater underneath a church in Zhangzhou, Fujian province

Although some may consider this a great mix of religion and capitalism, the story behind churches and movies theaters in China is complex. While numerous active churches (usually without movie theaters underneath them) openly exist, the Chinese government tightly regulates religion, as suggested by the demolished churches near Yiwu. And while China's many movie theaters (usually without churches above them) care about profits and "a market-based Chinese film industry has started to emerge from the shadows of the older, centralized and state-funded model", the Chinese "government controls which films are made and has a hand in every aspect of the film business, from production to exhibition".

In this sense, the unconventional church & movie theater building in Zhangzhou is symbolic of both how "Godless Communists" isn't often a useful phrase for talking about today's China and how it is challenging to come up with a similarly concise way to accurately describe China other than, of course, as "Chinese".

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