Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society and developer of the New International Version) sponsored a month-long tour of Asia as part of their 200th anniversary—that’s a long time!—sending us to four countries.

The tour began with brief visits to the Philippines and Singapore, two countries that present a contrast in style.  Manila is laid-back in the extreme: businessmen don’t wear ties, meetings begin late and end much later, and everybody laughs a lot.  In a banquet celebrating the launch of two new translations of the Bible, eight “bishops” were recognized from the platform, and of course each had to give a little speech in response.  The Philippines were in the throes of an election, and candidates were actively campaigning from vehicles with loudspeakers.  Manila presents the appalling contrast so common in developing countries: modern skyscrapers and indoor shopping malls rise just blocks away from miserable cardboard-and-corrugated-iron slums; farther out from town, communities of the poor live next to sewage-choked rivers and garbage dumps.  A few weeks before we arrived, two massive fires left 11,000 shantytown dwellers homeless, and this after thousands more had their homes destroyed in floods.

Singapore is more buttoned-down, organized, clean, even authoritarian.  It’s against the law to sell chewing gum, courts still order public canings as punishment, and you must pay to drive on city streets during rush hour.  Singaporeans are proud people, justifiably so: buildings are modern, highways are well-maintained, and tropical landscaping is immaculate, with orchids everywhere.  On indexes that measure prosperity and anti-corruption, Singapore ranks higher than the U.S.  Their per capita income has increased from $400 to $40,000 in the last 50 years.  Oh, and to Janet’s delight they have 24-hour walk-up Starbucks! Besides speaking at banquets and lunch gatherings both places, I also led a half-day writing seminar in Singapore.  I anticipated a small group of writers sitting around a table.  Instead, 600 paid $30-50 (students got a discount) for the seminar, and I had to adapt my material accordingly.  I asked them, “If there are this many writers here, where are the readers?”  The tiny nation, a kind of city-state perched on the edge of Malaysia, has a strong Christian presence, and many Christian organizations have headquarters there.

Next we visited Thailand.  The first two stops were hot enough, but in Thailand the temperature reached 107 degrees Farenheit each day, with 80% humidity.  As we were sweltering one night I got an email informing us that our home town had five inches of snow, and Colorado had never sounded so inviting.  We had been following the news closely as Red Shirt protestors were aggressively occupying a square mile of downtown Bangkok.  (Imagine the entire Chicago Loop area blocked off and emptied of all but protestors.)  First we visited Chiangmai, in the north but no cooler, and between some meetings at a seminary had the unique Thai experience of watching trained elephants play soccer (poorly) and paint pictures with brushes held in their trunks (surprisingly well!  They do landscapes, flowering trees, and abstracts, learning a new design every few months).

Our hotel in Bangkok was situated just two blocks from the Red Shirt encampments, and against the concierge’s advice I walked down for a closer look.  Makeshift barriers of rubber tires and razor wire marked the protestors’ boundary.  Buses had brought in peasants from rural areas, with political backers reportedly paying them $50 per day, and at the time they seemed in a festive mood.  Music blared from loudspeakers, interspersed with propaganda speeches.  Vendors sold food and water and mementos, and guards waved motorbikes and pedestrians through.  A few days after we left, however, the army moved in, shooting broke out, and the clashes caused at least 70 deaths.  As they retreated, vengeful protestors burned down shopping centers and banks.  We heard from our hosts that all the venues where I had spoken as well as the hotel we stayed in were evacuated and cordoned off.  The local employees of Biblica had worked very hard to plan a citywide event, and it would have been very sad if it had been scheduled—and thus cancelled—a week later.  I was asked to speak on Grace, something which the country desperately needs just now.

Our next stop, Shanghai, was most interesting.  From the vantage of modern Asia, the U.S. seems underdeveloped.  The Shanghai airport, like many others in Asia, is a huge, gleaming structure, and we walked down a hallway to board a maglev (magnetic levitation) train that floats above ground; it whisked us at 200 mph to our downtown hotel in seven minutes flat.  The Shanghai skyline is stunning.  Thousands of people turn out by the river each night to gawk at the architectural marvels, a scene no doubt resembling what took place in Manhattan in the 1920s as tourists gawked at the then super-modern skyline.  Architects in Shanghai design with a sense of whimsy: we had dinner on the 91st floor of a skyscraper called the “bottle-opener” because of a large rectangular opening in it towards the top. Shanghai was showcasing Expo 2010, a world’s fair that ascendant China ranks in national importance second only to the 2008 Olympics.  Shanghai had reportedly spent $58 billion sprucing up their city for the event.  We got a lasting impression of the population issue in China during a one-day visit to the sprawling Expo complex.  While living in Chicago we would sometimes attend the July 4 fireworks display in Grant Park, along with 400,000 fellow Chicagoans.  Well, 300,000 Chinese attend the Shanghai Expo every day, with a total of 70 million visitors expected during its six-month run.  More than 200 countries have pavilions there, and the richer countries compete for architectural ingenuity.  To enter any of the major countries’ pavilions, however, involves a two-hour or more wait in line, a disorderly queue involving much pushing and shoving, so we spent our time learning about places like Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and the Seychelles—oh, yes, and North Korea which, we learned, is “A Paradise for the People.”

I did an all-day writers’ workshop near Shanghai also, this one sponsored by the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement church.  On my last trip to China, in 2004, I met with representatives from the unregistered, or “underground” church.  This time we were hosted by the official Christian body, which claims 23 million members (the unregistered churches have at least twice that number).  Religious books are taking off in China, mostly translations from the West, and now the church is trying to cultivate Chinese writers.  There is one Christianity Today-type magazine, printed on newsprint paper with no color and fairly dry in content.  I found it a challenge indeed to try to teach writing cross-culturally through an interpreter, but the 80 writers and editors seemed eager to learn, and many of them had read my books in Chinese.  They asked such questions as, “Can I make a living writing poetry?”; “Have you written anything you regret?”; “How do you keep from hurting the people you write about?”; “How do I find time to write when I have a full-time job?”; “Do you wait for inspiration or keep writing even when you don’t feel like it?”; “How does a Christian book strike a chord to reach out to non-Christians?”; “How do I discover my ‘voice’ in writing?”; “How much money do you make?”; and, my favorite, “What kind of shampoo do you use?”  In other words, roughly the same kinds of questions I would get in the U.S.  On the other hand, we had reminders of the cultural divide: when I mentioned Bono of the band U2 and the boxer Muhammad Ali, not a single one of these educated writers knew who I was talking about. Finally, we spent a weekend at a large international church in Beijing, which sponsors 16 satellite congregations in various languages and has complete freedom to operate as long as they check passports and turn away Chinese nationals.  It’s a lively church encompassing members from more than 60 countries.  A visiting choir sang a number in the Zambian language and as it happened the Zambian ambassador was present.  People who visited Beijing in the late 1970s and early 1980s marvel at the changes.  Some 2000 new skyscrapers have sprung up in the last decade, and cars fill the roads that used to be crowded with bicycles.  Whereas in Mao’s day only three colors were permitted (gray, green, and blue), now Chinese women seem to delight in brightly colored clothes and miniskirts—with stiletto heels not much improvement over the ancient practice of binding feet.

We also had some fun.  Our 40th wedding anniversary is coming up, so after the busy work schedule Janet and I spent a week touring.  We went with friends to Yangshuo, an old city located by a river surrounded by “dragons’ teeth” mountains that jut up abruptly along the banks.  I went jogging and saw people bending over to plant in rice paddies, as well as water buffalo pulling plows and peasants washing clothes in the river—a very different scene from urban Beijing and Shanghai.  There we experienced the old and new simultaneously: we floated on bamboo rafts powered by a boatman with a long pole, occasionally shooting “the rapids” (not really, by Colorado standards) over weirs, or handmade dams.  Every so often we passed a floating bamboo “island” from which a photographer would snap photos; the photographer wirelessly transmitted his or her digital photo to a computer which within seconds printed out a copy on a laser printer and laminated it for the enterprising vendors to sell—all powered by a single electrical cord passing precariously underwater to the shore.

Our very last stop took us to Xi’an, a medium-size (8 million!) Chinese city with the well-deserved title “most polluted city in the world.”  The air looks like milk, a mixture of factory smoke, automobile exhaust, and sand from the Gobi Desert, and you can only see a couple of blocks at most.  We went to view the terra cotta warriors, called the 8th wonder of the world, which were discovered by a farmer plowing his field in 1974.  They’ve been featured widely in magazines like National Geographic, and China has sent samples on tours in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Back in the third century B.C. a 13-year-old emperor began preparing for his death by having workmen fashion life-size warriors to guard his tomb and burying the terra cotta figures under an elaborate structure of wooden rafters, fiber mats and dirt—so skillfully that it lay undiscovered for more than twenty centuries.  Construction took almost 40 years and involved 700,000 workmen.  Some 1500 figures have been unearthed, in formation, each in uniform and each with a different face (historians speculate that the emperor had the model for each soldier killed, and horses used as models were buried alive).  Archeologists estimate that the three pits contain over 8,000 soldiers, as well as 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses.  Evidently, the emperor was planning to rule a major territory in the next life too.  Besides warriors, the figures include officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians.

The next day we rented bicycles and rode nine miles around a perfectly-preserved wall that encircles the ancient part of the city.  Begun about the same time as the terra cotta warriors, it was expanded in the 14th century and made wide enough for five horses and chariots to ride abreast, which makes it plenty wide for tourists on bicycles.

You get a different perspective on the world from China.  At a time when the West was struggling through the Dark Ages, China was an advanced civilization, with science and art thriving.  The Chinese truly believe the 21st century belongs to them, and it’s hard to argue when you think how far this vast nation has come in just 40 years since the regressive Cultural Revolution.  The economy has pulled more people out of poverty in the last decade than any society in history.  Yet, astonishingly, Communist China now has a greater inequity of wealth than the United States.

All in all, we had a most stimulating trip, and I thank all of you who prayed for us.  We had two main requests: 1) that we stay healthy, especially as I’m subject to sore throats and had 21 speaking events; and 2) that we stay safe, especially in view of turmoil in Thailand.  Both requests were answered abundantly, and we’re back safe and sound in Colorado where the air is cool and blessedly transparent.

Copyright © 2010 by Philip Yancey