Northern Chinese city embraces cold and ice

By Jamie Sturm Published:

This is the second installment in a series about Jamie’s 2008-2009 study abroad trip to China.

It has been a long time since I was a third-grader, but being under the Harbin language pledge made me feel like a kid again. When I arrived in Harbin for the second semester of study abroad, my classmates and I pledged to speak only Chinese. At that point, I had been studying Mandarin Chinese for 2 ½ years, and though I had made good progress, the Chinese-only pledge put a drastic limit on my lexicon.

But the pledge had its perks, too. Not being able to say much made me pay more attention to the people and places around me. In this way, I discovered an amazing city, witnessed first-hand the political and religious phenomenon of Christianity in China and immersed myself in campus life. 

Cities out of ice

The Chinese never cease to amaze me. 

Positive attitudes, unrivaled work ethic and the ability to live on extremely little are just a few of their strong points. In Harbin last winter, I learned a fourth: they build cities out of ice.

Harbin rests in the northernmost province of China, corresponding to central New Hampshire in the United States. Siberian Russia lies just a few hours to the north, explaining the frigid weather, which reaches as low as -22° F.

But this does not phase the Chinese. They have learned to live and thrive in the cold, as evidenced by their yearly Ice Lantern Festival, which attracts tourists from all over the world. 

The festival, which usually runs from January through March, features multiple-story sculptures and buildings carved from blocks of ice and fitted with multi-colored lights. At night, music is played as the city lights up, creating a fantasy world. 

I attended the festival in late February, just after my arrival to Harbin. I put on more layers of clothing than I ever had (four pairs of long johns), but my feet still went numb when I stopped walking. 

I also had my first opportunity to slide down an ice slide, dance on a block of ice with two friends and play bumper cars with sleds on an outdoor ice rink. (I uploaded some of these videos onto Youtube.)

Most tourists forget about Harbin after the Ice Lantern Festival, but life continues for these resilient Chinese. 

Despite the winter winds, I spotted many a Chinese riding a motorcycle during cold months. To prevent frostbite in their hands, they install a thick layer of furry-looking cloth to the handlebars to block the wind. 

Some Chinese, however, don’t protect themselves from the cold but rather embrace it. The Songhua River runs from Russia into downtown Harbin, and some locals choose to courageously swim in the frigid waters as the ice begins to melt. I politely declined to participate.

That was probably a wise choice, because even without taking the icy dip, I still fell ill shortly thereafter due to climate shock. To my pleasant surprise, my roommate showed me yet another caring facet of Chinese culture by bringing me wonton soup while I recovered.

Sunday gatherings

I have something to confess: In Harbin, I allowed myself to break the all-Chinese language pledge under two circumstances: video conferences with my parents and Christian worship services. 

The story of these Sunday gatherings reveals much about the current political and religious phenomenon of Christianity in China today.

Shortly after arriving in Harbin, I heard that a missionary couple from Florida was also in town. So, along with some Christian friends from my program, I began meeting with them for a simple time of discussion and prayer once a week.

As the semester progressed, my classmates and I found many of our Chinese friends also wanted to attend our meetings. The English-speaking environment was a draw because many wanted to practice. Others wanted to learn about Western religion. Others were simply curious.

Before long, we had exceeded the 25-member limit set by the government for private religious gatherings. In addition, there were more locals than Americans.

Fortunately, our meetings fell during a period of relatively loose religious control in modern Chinese history. In the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese officials tried desperately to make the once-Communist country more foreigner-friendly. This meant being more open to foreign religion and cracking down less on local dissidents.

Current regulations stipulate that every church in China register with the government, thus subjecting itself to supervision. Pastors are approved by a Chinese religious council and can be removed if they preach beyond their bounds. 

In practice, however, this registration rule is often ignored or rejected. May Cheng, professor at the University of Hong Kong, notes that the number of Christians in house churches (colloquial term for unregistered Christian groups) today might exceed the number of Christians in government churches.

While in Beijing, I met with two different unregistered Christian pastors for informal research interviews. The men each asked me to use an alias when referring to them, so they became James and Lee. 

James’ grandfather was a minister, and both parents were involved in a house church. He grew up immersed in this environment and discussed the difficulty of hiding his faith from friends at school who could get him in trouble. Lee became a Christian in college and started his own church a few years after he graduated. 

When asked why they chose not to register with the Chinese state church, both pastors pointed to theological and philosophical disagreements. 

However, James assured me that being a house church pastor nowadays is not nearly as risky as it was decades ago. The likelihood of being caught is less, and the punishment less severe.

While tension still remains between the Chinese government and house church communities, it seems that China is becoming an easier place than before to practice faith. At least in Harbin, we never encountered any problems. 

Campus life

The atmosphere on Chinese campuses would leave many American college students disappointed, but my classmates and I found ways to spice things up. 

There are some general differences between Chinese universities and their American counterparts, and other differences specific to the Harbin Institute of Technology.

In China, campus organizations play a small role in students’ lives. There are many organizations in name, but most of these seldom host events and activities. Regarding study habits, most Chinese students have a strong worth ethic and study many hours per day (I occasionally had to vie for a seat in the library). There are exceptions, of course. Some lazy students play computer games for hours on end. 

HIT had its own peculiarities. As an institute of technology, the male to female ratio was 7-1. The harsh weather meant outdoor activity was limited for much of the year. 

I didn’t let these potential discouragements limit me from enjoying myself. I frequently held ice-sliding contests with classmates as we walked around campus. The slick roads and sidewalks were perfect for this dangerous game. So, instead of simply walking to class or strolling to the cafeteria, we slid at high speeds. 

Perhaps the most daring thing I did was join a PE class – Chinese Traditional Dance – where I was the only Westerner. I clearly didn’t think this one through. Did I mention the male to female ratio at HIT? One day during dance class I did a head count: 25 guys and four girls.

Despite the unfavorable odds of actually dancing with the opposite sex, the class was a highlight of my week. Chinese traditional dance is somewhat robotic and stiff, but nevertheless follows a rhythm. And being able to notice familiar faces when I strolled through campus was certainly rewarding. 


I walked into Harbin with the sole goal of improving my Chinese. But in the process, I encountered much more than I expected. I learned to thrive in the coldest of cold; I learned what a fervent religious movement looks like first-hand; and I learned the value of embracing a place for what it is. 

I’ll be honest, though, I was not at all sad to leave four pairs of long underwear and the Harbin winter behind.

Jamie Sturm is a senior at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Mich. For questions or comments, e-mail him at, and for video footage of China, visit his Youtube channel at


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