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01 May 2010

The value of the Bible

The value of the Bible

For people in the world's most populous nation, the Bible is a precious and sometimes rare book. But Alliance member agency Bible Society is helping to get the Word out. Hazel Southam travels to China to investigate...

At age 70, Jin has walked for three hours in sub-zero temperatures to get to church, but she can't stop smiling. The reason? Today free Bibles are being given out to the congregation. And she's got one.

Yiyang lies in China's rural heartland. Despite the astonishing economic growth of cities like Beijing and Nanjing, 70 per cent of China's 1.3 billion population lives in the countryside, where half of them live on less than 65p per day.

In this context, buying a Bible can be a virtual impossibility, so Bible Society is helping to subsidise Bibles. These can cost under £2, but in the countryside, some Bibles are distributed for free.

An estimated 4 million Bibles were printed in China last year alone, bringing the cumulative total to 70 million. Yet as thousands of people are thought to be coming to faith each day, millions of Bibles are still needed.

An eager crowd

The small brick church in Yiyang, where a local pastor is distributing the Bibles, is packed. More than 250 people crowd its hard wooden pews. Jin is one of them, sitting near the open door swathed in scarves to protect her from the biting cold wind. Outside at least 300 more people sit on low wooden benches under bare trees as a small dog roots around for food and, in the winter sunshine, a tabby cat has a wash.

Jin 70, walked for three hours to get her BibleThis is Jin's second Bible. She shows me the first: 20 years old, battered by daily reading and missing a substantial section of Genesis that simply fell out. "Reading the Bible is like having God talk to you," she says, clutching the new black volume.

Jin became a Christian 20 years ago. She earns her living as a watermelon grower, but always suffered from travel sickness on the bus journey to the nearest town to sell her wares. "One day I prayed, 'Lord, if you let me not feel sick on this journey, I will take whatever I earn today and buy a Bible,'" she recalls. "I didn't feel sick, so I bought a Bible. After a year I was baptised and changed my name. It mean's 'God's love'."

Thirteen men carry the boxes of 500 Bibles down a dirt track into the village past courtyards and ditches thick with rubbish. Small children and dogs mill around. The whole congregation applauds as the Bibles are brought in and placed on a wooden table at the front. Very soon a chain gang of 10 women, including some choir members robed in white over their coats, are passing handfuls of Bibles out to every adult.

Outside, 28-year-old Zhang finally gets her copy. She's recently been diagnosed with diabetes and is worried about how to manage her condition with no medication. "I hope through reading the Bible I will be able to find hope," she says. "I will read my Bible every day, starting with Genesis. And I hope that as I read, Jesus will heal me."

China's top seller

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, during which time the Bible was banned, confiscated and burned, it has become China's bestseller. What's more, it is now printed in China, rather than being smuggled into the country.

Nanjing's Amity Printing Press has so far produced some 70 million Bibles, 50 million of which have gone to Chinese Christians. "When we started, we couldn't have imagined that we would have expanded so much," says Qiu Zhong Hui, chairman of Amity's board. "It's amazing growth."

This is the first Bible for Zhang, 28, and her son Wang, 4Bible Society helps to fund the paper on which Bibles are printed. This in turn means that Bibles can be sold at a knocked-down rate in China's cities and given away free to Christians like Jin in the villages where low incomes prevent people from buying a copy.

Bible Society's subsidy of the cost means that millions more people are able to afford a copy of the Bible each year. The cost is reduced from around 60 yuan (£6) to 15 yuan (£1.50). But in the rural areas like Yiyang, a day's living expenses could be just 5 yuan (50p), so distributing Bibles for free is vital.

In the cities, subsidised Bibles make it possible for Christians to snap up a copy. At St Paul's Church in Nanjing, 67-year-old Zhang Fang Rong raises her arms in thanksgiving. She has just bought five Bibles at the church's tiny bookshop. "I want to preach the Gospel to my neighbours and friends," she says. "I've been saving money every month to do this. Hallelujah! I'm so excited to be buying these Bibles."

Official estimates report that there are 25 million Christians in China, but it is believed that as many as 90 million could be attending China's churches. Local experts say that every day thousands more are becoming Christians, so the demand for Bibles continues to grow.

"As more and more people are joining the Church, they are asking for a Bible," says Kua Wee Seng, coordinator of the United Bible Societies' China Partnership. "This is a time of opportunity in China," he adds. "Many of us feel that we mustn't miss this opportunity or people will turn to something else other than Christianity."

Jin and Zhang walk home past chickens scratching in the hard soil. They haven't been missed.

The Church in China

  • Officially there are 28.6 million Christians in China. Unofficial figures place that number up to 90 million.
  • China now prints its own Bibles, producing 70 million (including 20 million for export) since 1987.
  • In 2009, some 4 million Bibles were printed and distributed in China.
  • Local experts believe that thousands of people are becoming Christians each day, possibly as many as 500,000 a year.
  • For further details, visit: biblesociety.org.uk

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