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3 Questions: Christian Architecture in China

An Interview with Alexander Quan

In the very first Chinese Church Voices post that we did on June 18, 2012, we highlighted a Weibo post that used a Baidu map to show the locations of all the churches in China. I remember thinking at the time how much I would love to visit each of those churches. I don’t know if he’s been to every one of those churches, but US-based educator Alexander Quan has been to many of them, and to our great benefit, he has compiled his collection of photos into a series of wonderful videos.

Last month I received an email from Alexander via my personal blog, telling me that after reading my book, The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China, he had set about exploring churches in China. Since he could not travel to China last year, he put together a set of slide shows about the various churches in China that he has visited. These have been posted to his YouTube channel.  Here is a sample:

I thought the videos were fabulous, and obviously took particular interest in the photos of the bells. I decided to reach out to learn more about his journey and why he was so keen on visiting and taking photos of churches in China. I posed to him three questions.

3 Questions

1. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your interest in taking pictures of churches around China?

These photos were taken from 2010-2019 during the time when I was a teacher, translator/interpreter, program leader, and educational consultant in California, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. Whenever free to travel, I would bring my camera to photograph various aspects of life in China. Taking photos and travel are a natural combination for anyone but choosing to photograph Chinese churches combines my passions for tourism, architecture, and cultural history, as well as self-identification as a Christian and Chinese-American.

At first, visiting churches in China grew purely out of necessity, as on Sunday morning I would be looking for a church to attend in the city where I was traveling. However, as I visited more churches and checked off each one from this never-ending list, it became a self-imposed mission to document as many churches in China as I could.

Even non-church destinations with significant religious or cross-cultural history such as the Nestorian Stele in Xian which commemorates Christianity’s initial arrival in China, or the internment camp in Weifang, Shandong, where missionary Eric Liddell passed away, also became destinations for me. Guided by books such as The Bells are Not Silent, Journey to the East, Shanghai Church, Catholic Shanghai, Following the Footsteps of the Jesuits in Beijing中国近代基督宗教教堂图录, and 归耶和华为圣中国教堂建筑掠影, which catalogue churches, history and religious landmarks in China, I was inspired to produce my own slideshow of church architecture and add bilingual narration. This became a way for me to relive my experiences while travel to China was not possible in 2020.

2.  In your visiting of churches all over the country, what surprised you?

Even far away in China, I found a sense of comfort and home in the churches and historical sites. I would naturally be drawn to churches, as a reminder of a familiar and safe place amidst the new and strange environment of Chinese cities. There were also literal signs of home; for example, the Zikawei Ancient Observatory and the Xu Guangqi Memorial in Xujiahui, Shanghai contain replica paintings of four prominent Jesuits: Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest, and Xu Guangqi. It was only here in Shanghai that I learned the original paintings are actually displayed near my home at the University of San Francisco’s Ricci Institute.

Another pleasant surprise was that the pastors, priests, nuns, parishioners, and worshipers who I encountered not only allowed me to take pictures, but also engaged in intriguing conversations with me. Through talking to them, I could gain a glimpse of the vibrant community behind each of the churches. I also visited many house churches and found equally warm communities; however, due to privacy and security concerns I did not take photos of these buildings or gatherings. Just like any other church in the world, with consistent attendance and effort, one could become a part of this community. This happened for me in Wuxi where I interpreted sermons and translated exhibitions at the local church. During my visits to hundreds of churches and religious sites, I have only had a few negative encounters, so I am fortunate to have had a favorable success-to-failure ratio.

3. What do you hope people will learn from these collections of church photos?

I hope that people can come to appreciate and even be inspired to preserve religious architecture, as presumably some of the churches or mosques that I have photographed no longer exist today. Unfortunately, I have never been to Xinjiang and if I have the chance to go in the future, I probably would only be able to photograph a fraction of the mosques compared to just 10 years ago (though the government would claim otherwise). The same thing goes for cities like Wenzhou, where evidently crosses have been removed from churches over the years. 

Religious architecture is often treated like any ordinary building amidst the booming construction and expansive renovation in the mega cities of China. For example, if there is a plaque outside a church, it usually only references the architectural style, dimensions, and features, rather than mentioning the building’s religious legacy, history, or founders. By photographing, documenting, and spreading awareness of these churches, I hope this can elevate the importance of religious architecture. In China, the built environment is ever-changing, and my hope is that if people acknowledge the architectural, religious, cultural, and historical value of these places of worship, then church architecture can be preserved.

All of Alexander’s video slideshows of churches (and mosques) can be found on his YouTube channel. Here are some specific links:


Church Video


Mosque Video

For viewers in mainland China:

Churches: 教堂
Mosques: 清真寺

These videos are excellent resources for anyone wanting to learn more about the history and current practice of Christianity in China.

Image credit: Alexander Quan.

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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