Discovering the heart of China

Colin Nevin
01 September, 2008 6 min read

Discovering the heart of China

China has been very much in the headlines lately, and we are often given negative impressions from the news reports we receive — whether they relate to the Olympics, the thorny issue of Tibet, or human rights and the persecution of ‘underground’ churches. China is even being blamed for the world’s economic ills in worries over its rising demand for raw materials and oil.

However, all these criticisms were temporarily quieted when the extent of the Sichuan earthquake on 12 May shocked the world, and aid began to flow in from many nations. Even Taiwan which has no formal diplomatic ties with China sent aid, declaring: ‘We are all Chinese. Blood is thicker than water’ — a reference to the Taiwan Straits which separates the island from the People’s Republic.

A three-day period of national mourning was declared in an unprecedented outpouring of grief in a country where suppression is favoured over expression.

Resilience and determination

The very next day I flew to Beijing for a three-week sojourn in a land still reeling from the disaster that had befallen them. Television news reporters were breaking into tears as they related stories of heroism amid the carnage and suffering. ‘None of us can stop the tears falling down China’s face’, said one.

It was a deeply poignant time, quite unforgettable, and it is etched in my memory. The Chinese Government remained resolute and committed to help the victims of the quake in whatever way possible and kept people from utter despair.

Beijing had been gearing up for the Olympics and wanted to maintain this positive momentum. The resilience and determination of the Chinese people at this time shone through, as people gave sacrificially of their finance and time to help those in need.

I had come as a tourist to see the famous sights of China such as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Terracotta Warriors, but I also wanted to meet the people of the land and see if the negative Western news reports are always true.

I walked around the vast Tiananmen Square and visited the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, where his embalmed body still lies in state under a red flag.

His coffin is raised up each day from a freezer and apparently his left ear fell off and had to be stitched back on.   Just nearby is The Great Hall of the People, and despite the ubiquitous military presence I felt quite free to roam at ease.


I had been given a box of Chinese tracts and booklets by the Christian Book Room in Hong Kong, including Olympic Calendars with John 3:16 on the back. I gave some to a church in Beijing.

I also had two Bibles and two New Testaments purchased from the Belfast Bible Society Shop before I left, which I hoped to pass on during my visit. I couldn’t carry too much literature without arousing suspicion at the airport, so I had it stuffed in different places throughout my luggage. Thankfully, and not without a prayer, I negotiated customs and all internal flights without incident.

I fell quite sick for about four days while in Beijing and was beginning to wonder if I would recover — cooped up in a budget-priced hotel room with no windows or fresh air and only a small 25w bulb for light. My family and Christian friends were praying for me back in the UK. Miraculously, I suddenly felt better and the next day I was walking the Great Wall.

From Beijing I flew to the former colonial port city of Shanghai. I located a church and it seemed that congregations were quite free to worship and meet in public, although I didn’t know if they were able to evangelise openly.

It was interesting to see congregations of indigenous Chinese at worship. I left literature in my hotel and hostel rooms as a gift to the staff, as I was on the move constantly.

Jews in China

Providentially, I came across a leaflet mapping out the former Jewish neighbourhood in the Hongkou District of Shanghai and located an inscription in the Ohel Moshe Synagogue from Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin. It commended the people of Shanghai for saving thousands of Jewish lives from the horrors of Nazism — when so many European countries closed their doors.

Many prominent buildings along the colonial-style ‘Bund’ waterfront, such as the famous Peace Hotel, were founded by Jewish entrepreneurs like David Sassoon and Sir Elly Kadoorie — whose White Marble Mansion is now a children’s institute. A park near the former British Embassy is notorious for the sign put up by the British at its entrance, ‘No dogs. No Chinese’, which caused much resentment.

Perhaps the best way to reach Shanghai from the airport is on the high-speed Maglev train which accelerates to 430km per hour in just 4 minutes. Propelled by magnetism, the train gives a smooth, friction-free journey. Take it — you might never get to travel this fast on land again!


My third and final week was spent in Xian, an ancient walled city with a huge central Bell Tower in the neighbouring province to Sichuan, and aftershocks could be felt here. In fact a school collapsed and many of the famous Terracotta Warriors were damaged just before I arrived from Shanghai.

From here I caught local buses to Yangcheng in Shanxi Province, a long and gruelling journey through high mountains with only pits by the roadside for toilet stops. Privacy is a concept quite foreign to many Chinese it seems, especially in these rural provinces.

In these parts no one speaks or understands English, so I had to point at Chinese symbols or gesture to be understood.

The village of Yangcheng was made famous by Gladys Aylward, the London parlourmaid who was rejected by the China Inland Mission for not being qualified. She made her own way to China on the Trans-Siberian Railroad with only the assurance that God had called her to serve him there.

She eventually settled in Yangcheng, founding an inn for passing muleteers to whom she read gospel stories. Her moving tale was enshrined (none too accurately) in the Hollywood movie The Inn of the Sixth Happiness starring Ingrid Bergman.

Influence and example

It was my privilege to have befriended Gladys’ cousin Jack Dyer and his family in the 1990s in Norfolk, where I had been working as a chef. Jack passed away some years later but I kept in touch with his wife June. Last year during a visit to Taiwan I located Gladys’ grave in the grounds of Christ’s College, Taipei, and was able to lay flowers on behalf of the family.

Now I had made it to Yangcheng in mainland China where Gladys lived for 20 years and where she saved over 100 Chinese children during the Japanese invasion by leading them over the Shanxi mountains and across the Yellow River to safety in Xian. This feat earned her an appearance on the television show This is your life, and Gladys became a reluctant household name across the globe.

There was little to attest to Gladys’ presence in modern Yangcheng, but any one of the old Chinese buildings lining the roads on the outskirts of the town could have been Gladys’ inn. I passed the residence of the Mandarin who became a Christian due to her influence and example, and who appointed her a ‘Foot Inspector’ to help stamp out the cruel custom of foot-binding women — a fact I shared with locals in the town.

Yellow River

By bus I journeyed to Kaifeng in Henan Province, an equally arduous but no less beautiful route through rural China where few Westerners ever go. A young local student insisted on trying out her English with me on the bus, enquiring where I was going.

I told her I was hoping to find the famous Yellow River where Gladys had crossed with her charge of orphans. It emerged that the girl’s family lived near the River and that she could take me there. This certainly made things much easier and we wound our way by rickshaw to meet her brother near the Yellow River from where we proceeded by motorcycle to its banks.

We crossed the bridge spanning the turgid, murky yellow current and dismounted to take in the scene. I was then invited to stay with the family in their village and was able to enjoy the warm hospitality of this poor Chinese family in the middle of their wheat harvest. I gave them an English-Chinese New Testament as a parting gift and made my way to Kaifeng — the ancient capital during the Northern Song Dynasty — to investigate the history of an enigmatic Chinese Jewish Community who had settled there about 1,000 years ago.

The Emperor gave them Chinese names, as their Hebrew names were too difficult for Chinese to pronounce. These names survive today in Kaifeng where descendants, now assimilated, still register as Jewish on official census forms.

The synagogue was destroyed by floods in 1850 and never rebuilt. Three stone steles from outside the synagogue recording the community’s history are kept in Kaifeng Museum.

To be concluded

Colin Nevin

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