Chinese Research Intern on Coptic Christianity in Egypt

Sent On: 
Thu, 2017-08-17
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Editor: We were very pleased to have Shen Shangyun working with us for a full year researching Coptic Christianity and in particular the Holy Family tradition. Shen is from mainland China and belongs to the growing indigenous Christian community. Most Chinese are not religious, but Shen’s mother decided to become Christian and raised Shen in the Christian faith. Shen, in turn, was very inquisitive into the roots of Christianity and thus showed great interest in exploring the Holy Family tradition. In this newsletter he describes his experiences with his internship at the Center for Arab-West Understanding. Shen created a beautiful new Holy Family website that is worth visiting:


Shen Shangyun:

I was brought up in a Chinese autonomous region that is dominated by a Muslim ethnic community  called the Hui. I have always been inquisitive to know more about their culture and religion. My Christian background also gave me a strong desire to  seek a deeper understanding of inter-religious dialogues. My interests  motivated me to study Arabic Literature and Middle Eastern Studies for a bachelors and a masters degree.


Throughout my studies and overseas  experiences, I gradually developed a great interest into the charming but somehow eccentric (that was my first stereotypical impression) Oriental Christianity and its interactions with other beliefs in the region. I thus  rummaged on  the internet and suddenly came across something I had never heard of before; the Holy Family tradition in the Middle East. In my search,  I  bumped into a shabby but rather informative l website on the tradition. It enabled me to have a glimpse into  the dazzling stories told by Oriental Christians for millenniums and made me want to explore more in this  field of study. I found the website’s owner, and through this contact, I found the internship opportunities offered by CAWU.


My time at CAWU was an undoubtedly  pleasant and beneficial experience . That’s why I still can’t believe that a whole year of my internship has just elapsed. I can recall that my first days in the office were occupied with classification work to sort out all the articles in the Arab-WestReport database on the subject of the Holy Family tradition. It was tedious, but got me introduced to the field very fast. The journey to Upper Egypt was very beneficial. I already had an overall understanding of the tradition and its impacts on believers but now I could see this in practice. The field trips organized by CAWU were great opportunities where I could verify the knowledge I had obtained through reading. I got a “holy tattoo” carved on my nail to experience the tangible interactions practiced by Copts towards the providence. I visited places of worship to re-trace the footsteps left by the Holy Family some 2000 years ago. Furthermore, I talked with Christian villagers and understood their unsophisticated interpretation of the tradition…


Later on, my work at CAWU centered on publishing about the tradition. At first, we planned to write a book on the topic, but subsequent budget and bureaucratic challenges put our plan to a halt halt. This was in fact a good lesson for me; it broke my utopian dreams  on the difficulties encountered in the academia and dragged me into the cold but realistic world. Following this setback, we focused on updating the old website. It was an amazing déjà-vu that I was going to rejuvenate the old website  that got me interested  into the beautiful world of the Holy Family tradition.


I was glad when CAWU entrusted this mission to me, and was even a blissful moment to me when the brand new website got published. It also provided me, in the last days of my internship, with another chance to peregrinate alongside the Christ Child, Mary, Joseph and perhaps Salome the midwife on their fight into the land of Egypt.


Another fruit I harvested from this internship is the  precious friendship with all the lovely colleagues. We all came from different cultural backgrounds but shared the same passion for studies of humanity that brought us together. Thanks to the large numbers of local interns, I had an emersion in Egyptian culture. We exchanged our thoughts on a variety of things and shared the happiness along the way. Together with people from other countries, CAWU is such a melting pot of deferent ideologies, I can delve into a mysterious  conversation to talk about the Indo-gods with my American fellow, or trekking through a jumble path to explain the Trinity to my French-Moroccan peer, or just have some idle chat to express my point of views on the recent politics with whomever during lunch break.


With the help of CAWU’s connections, within less than a year, I already can sit at a table prepared by a Coptic bishop in Upper Egypt while inquiring his ideas on the Holy Family tradition. I later went to the same village that suffered from terrorism to express our condolences. I was also invited for a TV show and eat some delicious falafel to convey my love for the culinary culture of Egypt… These are all helpful experiences that will do good to my future. 


When I was finally bidding goodbye to Egypt on the plane from Cairo to Beijing, I recognized some  sounds in between the engines’ vroom, as if cries of the Divine Infant, prayers of the Holy Mother, whispers of the Old Carpenter have been reverberating restlessly to reach my ear and echo the prophecy of Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called My son.”


August 17, 2017

Shen Shangyun,

Research Intern on Coptic Christianity, July 5, 2016 – July 11, 2017