Amity Printing Press worker packs Bibles for distribution to various centres across China, where they are sold for as little as 12 yuan ($1.81).
Decades ago, only a few brave souls dared to own a Bible in Communist China. Owning one – whether smuggled from overseas or copied by hand from dog-eared Bibles that managed to survive the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when Red Guards ransacked homes and burned anything perceived to be “bourgeois” – often guaranteed a sentence to hard labour, torture, or death.
These days, however, Bibles are ubiquitous in China, and ownership is a source of pride; the younger generation (even non-Christians), use the Scriptures to learn English.
Although Bibles are still not sold in bookstores, they are readily available in book centres and other distribution points set up across the country by officially sanctioned Protestant churches.
Through a partnership between the United Bible Societies and the China Christian Council, the Amity Printing Press was born in 1988; in its first full year of operation, it printed 500,000 Bibles. As of May 2005, Amity Press had printed a total of 42.5 million copies.
It all began when churches were allowed by the state to reopen in 1979 as part of an official “opening up” policy. The Council had sought the assistance of the Bible society in providing paper for the production of Bibles.
The first Bibles in China were actually printed in 1980, at a printing press owned by the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing, said Peter Dean, a New Zealander who works as special assistant to the general manager. “It was the only one which had the ability to print on thin paper.”
By 1988, the government had allowed joint ventures and the Bible society was invited to come in with its share capital. National Bible societies around the world held a fundraising drive to build a more modern press and high-speed Timson machines were imported from Europe.
Today, Amity Press publishes the Bible in eight Chinese minority languages and in Braille; it has exported more than 800,000 Bibles in English, French, African languages, Russian and Spanish to various countries around the world. Formats include pocket-sized, pictorial, leather-bound, gold-edged, and parallel versions in as many as six languages. Au-thorities recently allowed the production of CD-ROM Bibles. Bibles range in price from 12 yuan ($1.81) to 58 yuan ($8.78) and covers the production and distribution costs only; the Bible society continues to donate the printing paper.
“The only thing that Westerners would see as (state) control is the fact that you need permission to print,” said Mr. Dean when asked by a visiting Canadian ecumenical delegation last April if the Chinese government controlled what Amity Press publishes. “The main thing that they’re looking for is they don’t want materials that are controversial. But if it’s mainstream like the Bible, it is recognized and there’s no problem.” Aside from the Bible, Amity Press also publishes hymnals and other Christian literature.
He added that no limit is imposed on how many Bibles can be printed. “The (Christian Council) applies for a permit and accepts responsibility for distribution …There’s no limit on how much you can print but it has to be the same amount that you put in your request.”
“Everything’s done legally,” said Mr. Dean. “It builds trust between church and state and it’s the kind of relationship we want to build on. The government has extended its trust and it’s something that can be built upon or broken.”
Every week, Amity trucks deliver new Bibles to train stations and they are transported to various distribution centres. “We put the Bible in people’s hands and let God do the rest,” said Mr. Dean.