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FIRST-PERSON: The effect of a New Testament in Chongqing, world’s largest city

CHONGQING, China (BP)–The view from my window reminds me* of Atlanta — 20-, 30-, 40-story buildings stand close on streets that follow the curves of paths made long ago. Streams of people move down the sidewalks, their scattered numbers belying the millions at their source.

I can imagine being in Atlanta until I glance to the west and glimpse the Jialing River, just visible under the morning fog. The buildings to the east frame a rectangle of the mighty Yangtze. These rivers and the mountains they flow from define a place like no other on earth. At their confluence they form the point of the heart of this place known as Chongqing, the largest city in the world.

From my window I see only a fraction of Chongqing municipality. At 50,000 square miles, it is bigger than the state of South Carolina. Once only the name of a small river town in China’s Sichuan Province, Chongqing (pronounced Chong-ching) now gives its name to the municipal designation for all the farms, communities, districts, towns and cities in the region.

Thirty-four million people supply the enormous manpower that fuels the constant construction of new buildings and infrastructure needed to make its planned prominence a reality. Together, the people and the land form what is becoming the economic and cultural powerhouse of southwest China.

Millions have relocated to Chongqing over the past 10 years, many displaced by the anticipated rise of the Yangtze and its tributaries upon completion of the Three Gorges Dam. The mammoth flood control and hydroelectric project will create a 200-mile lake and deepen the channel to allow even oil tankers to move through locks and dock at Chongqing’s new harbor.

The massive public works projects of the urban districts of Chongqing are turning what were once tumbles of houses and shops hugging steep hillsides into broad new roads and handsome plazas and public squares edged in skyscrapers.

The sprawling downtown houses 9 million people and is rapidly gaining a new network of bridges and a perimeter highway. Cable cars and ferries carry hundreds of thousands of pedestrians back and forth across the rivers — when the pedestrians are not crisscrossing the solid, moving, honking tangles of buses, taxis, trucks and cars on every street and road.

The honking is continuous in traffic that seems like a metaphor for the vitality of the place. Anywhere there are two lanes of pavement, there are at least three lanes of traffic. Five-lane roads automatically serve at least seven lanes of vehicles, not counting the motor scooters and carts. There are no stop signs, and traffic lights are just being introduced. But pedestrians dart fearlessly through the moving cars as if they were threading their way through a parking lot.

Local shops, businesses, street vendors, American fast-food restaurants and European designer boutiques blend in the booming core areas of Jiefangbei and Shapingba. Amid the business people in their sophisticated Western dress, porters — called Bang-Bang Jun or stick-stick soldiers — carry heavy loads of every description with short, bamboo poles and some rope. They carry deliveries between trucks and stores, earth and rocks from the public-works projects and building materials to construction sites. Between jobs, they gather, rest and wait patiently for their next opportunities.

Driving away from downtown leads to older streets and neighborhoods, gray-tiled houses and small shops. In front of tearooms, restaurants and sidewalk markets, people gather to play cards, mahjongg and chess. In one shop, the owner masterfully plays an erhu, which literally means two strings.

It is the signature sound of traditional Chinese music and produces a haunting backdrop for the urban roar that swallows its notes at the door. A second’s pause to listen produces a grin, a stool and a welcome. His response to my interest is typical of these “mountain people” known for their hospitality, energy and spicy food.

The boom in industry and development has brought a wave of prosperity to the whole region. Yet some of the appreciation of the present comes from knowing the past.

The caves that honeycomb the area were used as shelters during repeated bombings by Japanese aircraft during the 1940s when Chongqing was the capital of the Nationalist Chinese government. The communist Chinese army eventually pushed out the Japanese and the nationalists.

The museum and shrine of the Hong Yan Revolutionary Memorial displays U.S. weapons said to have been used by the nationalists to execute imprisoned communists and their families before their evacuation.

I walked out of a sobering display of tiny shoes exhumed from mass graves and letters never sent to loved ones, thinking about people who die for their beliefs. I wondered if the local people — most of whom have been taken to this memorial as schoolchildren — have been taught to hate me because of my nationality.

As I get in the car, the ticket-office worker runs over to be sure I know that my ticket is good for a second day at the museum. She smiles and waves goodbye.

Humans are spiritual beings. The history and prehistory of every people give evidence of humanity’s drive to connect with, control or placate spiritual powers. The ancestors of the Chinese were no different.

Buddhism has long had a presence in China. Blended with the teaching of Tao, the spectacular stone carvings at Dazhu, two hours from downtown Chongqing, reflect the human desire for inner peace and fear of judgment. Shrines and carvings dot the cliffs of terraced hillsides, forests and gardens of the beautiful countryside.

The scenes of punishment for evildoers in the afterlife are especially grim. Even in worn stone, the helpless figures compellingly express their specific moments of eternal torture. At a nearby shrine on the road, a procession of worshipers uses tambourines, colored flags, incense and firecrackers to focus on the possibilities of this life and hopefully avoid the worst in the next.

Located two hours on the other side of downtown Chongqing is the sizeable city of Fuling. Tourists who go there usually visit nearby Ghost City. Located on the Yangtze above the soon-to-be-relocated town of Fengdu, it will have the river at its gate when the Three Gorges Dam is finished.

Not as ancient as the cliff carvings of Dazhu, Ghost City captures the fear of death and judgment in an even more graphic way. This Buddhist representation of hell leads the visitor down the Grave Road. A sign explains that every dead person must travel this way to the netherworld. With enough good works accomplished in life, a person may be armed to resist or escape the “ghosts” or demons portrayed by the fierce statues lining the way.

While the stone goblins serve as backdrops for tourists’ snapshots, the sense of judgment and hopelessness is palpable. At the top of the Grave Road in Ghost City stands the temple of the king of the underworld. Inside, an enormous statue sits enthroned, guarded by more demons and surrounded by stern-looking judges. The sign in English translates his title as the “King of Heaven.”

Logically, I can understand that a translator might choose heaven to express the Chinese word for afterlife. Yet, it stuns me to realize no one who knows about heaven would ever use that name for this place.

The diversity and growth in the municipality of Chonqing is undeniable. It has a strong military presence. Thousands of future government employees are trained here. It is a time of great change, great movement and great opportunity. Thoughts are to the future, with all its uncertainties and promise.

Believers in the municipality can see God at work all around them. Daily they see evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in the midst of the organized chaos of their city’s transformation into China’s new economic and political center.

A young Chongqing professional found Christ while reading a borrowed New Testament, which represents the hope and the challenge facing this remarkable place. She believes God sought her, changed her and is guiding her to a strategic role for his use.

She is an outstanding product of her country’s educational system. She has been chosen for a job in international economics and will be moving soon. This recently baptized Christian sees God’s purpose in her salvation and promotion. Her great desire is that Jesus will help her to grow and will use her to take the gospel to her new home.

She also hopes that God will bring her back one day to witness to her family and help believers in her beloved hometown.

Wondering how someone who has grown up in this ancient river town views its incredible progress, I ask how things are different now in Chongqing than they were five years ago.

“Now there is money, and we have ability,” she says. “This is our opportunity, and we have shown we will not waste it.”

I ask, “In 20 years, do you think Chongqing will be as well-known in the world as Hong Kong or Shanghai?”

Her eyes shine as she predicts both an economic and spiritual outcome for her city. “It won’t take 20 years,” she says. “We have the Chongqing spirit, and it will bear fruit.”

Her answer reminds me of preconceptions I had about believers in China before I visited the largest city in the world. I thought they must be very brave to be Christians. Now I know that it is Christ living in them that makes them brave.
Reprinted from The Commission, monthly magazine of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. The name of the writer of this story is withheld for security reasons to protect the writer’s ongoing work in China.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at https://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: THE POWER OF ONE, OPPORTUNITY FOR TRUTH, CITY OF CHANGE and RURAL NEEDS.

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