Amy Cheng / NPR
Cizhong Church in Yunnan Province, southwest China, is bathed in golden light on Christmas Eve.
Believers flock to the church in their full Tibetan clothing, with the women parting to sit on the left in their bright pink veil and silk blossoms, and the men on the right in cowboy hats and pearls. Neighbors wave to each other. The heavily dressed children run up and down the aisle of the church.
A rare Catholic community has lived more than 150 years here in the village of Cizhong, a few dozen kilometers from the borders with both China’s Tibet and Myanmar.
Their traditions are a colorful mixture of Buddhist and Christian practices. The church embodies this fusion: the painted Buddhist lotuses spirally around the balusters, while the Tibetan yin and yang symbols paint the roof.
Inside, several hundred Cizhong believers chant Catholic prayers – with a twist. My companion in the benches explains their prayers and the Bible was originally written in Latin but has been translated by French and Swiss fathers into Tibet – and phonetically written in Chinese characters. Outside, church attendees light round after round of fireworks to mark the official start of mass.
Amy Cheng / NPR
Cizhong is located in a part of Yunnan Province which is predominantly Tibetan and Naxi, another ethnic minority. Both are largely Buddhist. In 1852, the first French missionaries settled on the river from here.
In 1905, the Tibetans attacked the Buddhists, killing at least two parents and expelling the survivors from the river, to Cizhong, where the church they rebuilt four years later stands today.
“They also withdrew to basically avoid the influences of the state. This withdrawn nature allows them to preserve that identity and that culture, despite outside influences elsewhere in China,” says Matthew Chitwood, a researcher who once lived in the area.
Then, the remote Cizhong site helped move beyond the decades after 1949, when the ruling Communist Party of China took control of the country, leading to a period of political turmoil and violent persecution of religious and intellectual leaders often.
During this time, a lot of Chinese and Buddhist inscriptions were defaced on Cizhong Church. It narrowly escaped complete demolition because its massive stone walls proved difficult to burn.
But now Cizhong is getting more and more popular as authorities work to rename Deqin County, where Cizhong is located, and neighboring Zhongdian County as attractive tourist destinations. In 2001, the area’s name was changed to “Shangri-la,” after the mythical but fictional utopia of religious tolerance described in the novel. Lost horizon.
“The existence of this Catholic community has also allowed the government to promote the community, as you know, as a kind of tourist site because of this Catholic identity,” says Brendan Jalibo, associate professor of anthropology at National Tsinghua University in Taiwan. He did fieldwork in Cizhong.
Wine making has become an attraction. The early French parents of Cizhong brought with them grape vine seedlings from France, and they grow to this day on a vineyard adjacent to the church. More than 20 years ago, villagers began tending the vineyards again and planting new seedlings on their private plots to make an array of full-bodied red wines and ice wines that have attracted more tourists.
The area is also the site of official poverty alleviation projects, attracting around 400 new residents Transfer From the remote villages nearby.
“There is great concern that Catholics, who used to be a majority, will now become a minority in society,” Galibo says.
In the past four years, the local provincial government has demolished nearly all of the rice paddies and replaced them with unlocked concrete houses for new residents, more than doubling the size of Cizhong. Building sound everywhere.
And so is the state examination. NPR was followed by several government officials in Cizhong who questioned anyone NPR spoke to.
I tried to meet Xiao Jieyi, a 90-year-old Tibetan Catholic who speaks French, who was aspiring to become a Cizhong Priest. These aspirations were shattered when the church was closed during a decade of political turmoil in the 1960s.
Now, while Xiao can sing First Noel for us, he cannot speak freely. He gets a phone call as soon as I enter his yard: It’s the police. He told me – there are orders from above.
The same thing happens when I try to meet Yao Fei, the first resident priest in Cizhong since the 1950s. (The last of them, Reverend A.V. Savioz, was expelled from China in 1952.) In 2008, Father Yao was sent to Jizong by the state-run Chinese Catholic Association, which was not recognized by the Vatican, and now conducts several masses a week. .
“Merry Christmas,” he manages to tell me as he finishes receiving confessions before rushing to mass. After the service, he remained surrounded by several state attendees who also prevent NPR from speaking individually to the revelers.
The two-day Cizhong celebrations conclude on Christmas Day with hours of Tibetan music and dance. Worshipers bring large birthday cakes, which they stack in front of the altar to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Later, the cakes – as well as large bowls of chicken-infused rice syrup – are distributed to anyone who comes, including many Buddhist relatives who enjoy the festivities and help with preparations. Many families have mixed religions, with Buddhists and Christians in their ranks.
“Buddhism, like Christianity, has many sects, but none of us has a disagreement,” said a Tibetan Buddhist surnamed Shu, who spent Christmas Eve slaughtering pigs with several Catholic choir boys, at a group lunch the next day. “It’s simple. You believe in your God, and I believe in my inspiration.”
Amy Cheng contributed research from Cizhong, Yunnan.