Beijing Attractions: Beijing Churches
Old Christian Churches of Beijing
Beijing has seen the presence of many diverse traditions over the centuries, Taoism, various sects of Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism and often overlooked by visitors, is the very old presence of Christianity in this ancient capital.
For many foreigners a visit to one of Beijing's churches will be like seeing a piece of home transplanted into an unfamiliar city. These places can also give a sense of how long the west has been influencing China and its people.
Today there are estimated to be around ten million Christians in China and since the constitution was amended in 1982 to allow freedom of religion, the number has been steadily growing. These beautiful and serene buildings function as places of worship for thousands of Beijing Christians and for many visitors they allow a fascinating glimpse into the long history of Christianity in China and its accompanying influence.
Christianity first came to China in the seventh century when the Nestorians presented themselves to the imperial court at Xi'an and were allowed to establish a monastery there. With later missionaries such as Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) Christianity was brought to the Chinese people and was embraced by the imperial court.
However some emperors such as Kang Xi, who banned Catholicism in 1721, did not welcome this foreign religion and tried to rid their empire of its influence. Others welcomed the missionaries and began a cultural exchange with Europe, especially during the Ming dynasty. Missionaries were granted land in Beijing and were allowed to build churches here. These places suffered tumultuous histories, often being destroyed or rebuilt as the western powers and the imperial court of China vied for power.
It was the Boxer Rebellion around the turn of the 19th century that brought about the most comprehensive destruction of Christian churches in Beijing. After this period in the very beginning of the 20th century most of the churches standing today were built, testament to the success of the foreign powers' armies in finally destroying the Boxers and forcing the Imperial court into the final stage of its existence. This safety would not last, during the Cultural Revolution almost all of the city's churches were gutted, stripped of their valuables and the buildings used as storehouses or left derelict. Christianity, along with other religions during this period, was prohibited in China only re-emerging in the last twenty years.
Visitors are not charged entry into any of Beijing's churches however they are not open as tourist destinations. The buildings are only accessible at mass times and if you visit during mass please exercise the utmost respect.
This church forms the Catholic centre of Beijing, Latin masses are held six days a week and the 10am Sunday mass, delivered in English and French, attracts a huge diversity of Beijing Catholics from many different countries.
The church has a friendly atmosphere and is very welcoming. On Sundays there is a small army of church members who hand out English fliers giving details about the mass and the church mission. Visitors are very welcome to sit in but if you arrive late it is standing room only.
While the current building was constructed in 1904, the site has a turbulent history going back to 1650 when the first church was built under the direction of Adam Schall. Schall was a Jesuit missionary and tutor to the Emperor KangXi, one of a series of missionaries who served in the imperial court. After being destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the time of Emperor Qianlong, the church was closed in 1827 by Emperor DaoGuang but saved from confiscation by the Portuguese Bishop of Beijing.
In 1860, the building was handed to the French by the foreign invasion force, a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes is still found in a grotto within the grounds. The darkest period of the church's history occurred during the Boxer Rebellion when hundreds of Catholic Chinese were burned alive inside the church or were massacred in the grounds. Unusually the church survived the Cultural Revolution unscathed and was allowed to function throughout that period.
141 Qianmenxi Dajie, Xuanwu District
Mass Times: Monday to Friday 6.00am (Latin) 6.30 & 7.15 am (Chinese)
This church stands enclosed by wonderfully serene grounds in a very old area of Beijing . As you approach the gates of the church down XishiKu Dajie you will notice remnants of a large, almost defensive, wall standing either side of the gateway. Unlike the southern cathedral this church did not survive the Cultural Revolution unscathed, the sturdy walls were not enough to save the church from being gutted and badly damaged. A rare organ, one of only three of its kind, and beautiful stained glass windows were lost.
Built in a Neo-Gothic style in 1887 under the direction of a French priest, the church sits in well-tended gardens with fine old trees and meandering pathways leading to cool grottoes. The atmosphere here is peaceful, a delightful place to visit on a beautiful spring day when the gardens are in full blossom. A large residence exists at the back of the church where several priests live.
A reminder of the fate of many churches during the Cultural Revolution can be found on the eastern side of Xishiku Dajie as you approach the church gate. You will notice a small church building with remnants of European architecture, a small rose window and turret bases on the roof. It has never been rebuilt since the Cultural Revolution, unlike the nearby cathedral which was rebuilt. This building is a rare sight today and a relic of a time gone by in China, note the red stars emblazoned above the gate and on the front of the building.
33 Xishiku Dajie Xi' anmen, Xicheng District
Mass Times: Mass times vary, 8.00am on a Sunday is the safest bet.
This church is the old French embassy church, quiet, calm, placid, it stands in the old legation quarter, a remnant part of Beijing from a period when the imperial west was overtly attempting to have control of China and its huge market (visit Wangfujing Dajie to see the modern equivalent). Approaching the church up the tree lined Dongjiaominxiang Jie from Chongwenmen station is a charming walk. The church sits nestled in a corner amongst old unfurling trees; a small shop just inside the gate sells rosaries and other religious paraphernalia.
The church was built in 1902 and after being closed during the Cultural Revolution in 1958; it reopened in 1989. It is notable for its very fine and original stained glass windows which survive intact. It is interesting to note how this church seems more comfortable, appropriate within its surroundings in a foreign legation area compared to the north church which is like a European island in a sea of traditional Chinese architecture or the east church which is a remnant of old European architecture in a sea of new. The gates are often closed so be sure to visit at mass times.
Jia 13 Dongjiaominxiang, Dongcheng District.
Mass Times: Weekdays 6.30 & 7.00am (Chinese)
This is the most conspicuous cathedral in Beijing, centred as it is on Wangfujing Dajie, one of the cities main shopping drags, especially popular with foreigners. In the midst of the street's frenetic facelift this Romanesque church remains a solemn remnant of the past. The church sits matriarchially over the square that lies in front of it which is a scenic spot popular with locals as a place to come and rest, mill around and enjoy the sunshine or shoot the breeze.
The square is one of the friendliest places you will find in Beijing, people are always up for a chat and willing to talk the afternoon away as the sun rolls on by overhead. On Sundays the square is often populated by young skaters who plie their tricks to the amusement and jealousy of older Beijing folk.
The current church was erected by the French in 1905 after a previous structure was destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion. The original Church was built in 1655, the oldest in Beijing, under the direction of the Jesuit, Father Verbiest who succeeded Adam Schall as minister of astronomy at the imperial court. After a fire destroyed the library in 1814, the Emperor Jiaqing took the opportunity to raze the church and confiscate the land, it was later rebuilt but did not survive the Boxer Rebellion.
74 Wangfujing Dajie, Dongcheng District.
Mass Times: Weekdays 6.30 & 7.00am (Chinese)
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