St. Sophia Cathedral in Harbin

St. Sophia Church in Harbin

St. Sophia Church in Harbin by llee_wu. Sourced via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs License.

Few people traveling to China would expect to see a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, but in the centre of Harbin, that is exactly what you'll find. St. Sophia Cathedral stands in the centre of the old part of Harbin city. It's Russian Orthodox architecture seems out of place in a Chinese city, however, Harbin was founded by Russians. When Russia built it's Trans-Manchurian railway connecting Vladivostok to the Trans-Diberian railway through the north east of China. The new city of Harbin was built as a Russian rail town, about mid way along the line. As the Russians built the new town, they added their own cultural influences, including their Orthodox religion. Several Russian Orthodox churches stand in Harbin, of which St. Sophia is the biggest and best know.

The Trans-Siberian Railway was build in 1903. The Manchurian section of the railway ran across the northeast of China



St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral is one of the most magnificent structures in Harbin. It was built in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903, which connected Vladivostok to northeast China. The Russian No.4 Army Division arrived in this region just after Russia's loss to the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). St. Sophia Church was built and completed of timber in March, 1907 as part of a plan to reconsolidate the confidence of the army by building an imposing spiritual symbol.
In 1921, Harbin had a population of 300,000, including 100,000 Russians.[1] The church was expanded and renovated from September 23, 1923, when a ceremony was held to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone, to its completion on November 25, 1932, after nine years. The present day St. Sophia Church was hailed as a monumental work of art and the largest Orthodox church in the far east.
According to Harbin municipal religious and Daoli district archives, Fr. Fotiy Huo Desheng was the ninth rector of St. Sophia Church of Harbin.
The ornate Christ the Savior Cathedral in Borki (Kharkiv Oblast province, Ukraine), ca. 1900, was the inspiration for the St. Sophia Cathedral in Harbin.
The church is located on the corner of Toulin Street (Toulin jie) and Zhaolin Street (Zhaolin jie). It stands at 53.3 meters (175 feet) tall, occupies an area of 721 square meters (0.18 acres), and is the perfect example of Neo-Byzantine architecture. The main structure is laid out like a cross with the main hall topped with a huge green tipped dome. Under the bright sun, the church and the square area it lies on looks quite like the Red Square in Moscow.
Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China in 1949 by the victorious Communists, who ended all Chrisitan missionary work, treaties were signed between the Soviet and Chinese governments that provided for the turning over of Russian churches to Chinese control. The cathedral was thus closed from the period of the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) and Cultural Revolution (1966–76).
Although the cathedral's sturdy structure withstood its intended destruction during the Cultural Revolution, its empty hull became a warehouse for a nearby state-run department store, its windows were bricked up and saplings grew from the roof. Prefabricated concrete high-rises boxed the church in on all four sides, coming within yards of its walls, making the cathedral inaccessible and invisible from the street. For decades it remained the invisible center of the city, surrounded by decorative material stalls, an auto body shop, a pen factory, and apartments for city government employees, until the Beijing government designated the cathedral a national cultural heritage site in 1996 as part of a nationwide campaign to protect historical sites.[2]
[edit]Restoration of the Cathedral (Old Harbin Nostalgia)
Following its designation in 1996 as a national cultural heritage site (First class Preserved Building),[3] a newspaper article about the "hidden" cathedral prompted donations from locals to restore the church. Local corporations, individual businesses as well as workers from nearby department stores donated money to restore the cathedral and renovate the square. A total of 12,000,000 yuan (approximately $1.5 million US) was eventually gathered and the cathedral regained its visibility in 1997, as the surrounding buildings were torn down.
A new "Harbin Architecture Square" conspicuously highlighted the cathedral with a huge new fountain at its entrance. The European-looking space was assigned a new meaning as the embodiment of culture and art and was re-presented to the public as the proud heritage of the city.[2]
As of 1997 the cathedral was turned into the Municipal Architecture and Art Museum (Harbin Architectural Art Gallery), showcasing the multi-cultural architectural developments of Harbin throughout the ages. At the official ceremony on September 2, 1997 to celebrate the restoration of St. Sophia Cathedral, Mayor Wang Guangdao underlined the cultural and economic benefits expected from the project:
"The restoration of St. Sophia Cathedral inspired the people of Harbin, raised the level of our culture, let the whole of China and foreign friends know China, and opened a way for faster economic development."[4]
The restoration was the culmination of the Harbin municipal government's attempt to turn the city's colonial era structures into tourist attractions by restoring and granting them landmark status. The restored structures are said to signify civilization (wenming) and culture (wenhua).
Map showing location of St. Sophia Cathedral in Harbin

Above: Location of St. Sophia Cathedral in Harbin in Harbin, Heilongjiang, China