Title

The Brave Catholics of China

Like most pilgrimage sites in China, the shrine in the village of Cave Gulley in Shanxi province is located partway up a mountain, reachable by steep stairs that are meant to shift worshipers’ attention from the world below to heaven above. Thousands make the journey each year, ending up in a structure of red columns, glazed tiles, and friezes of swirling Chinese dragons. It could be any Chinese folk religious temple, except for a cross on the roof that hints at what’s inside: a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, a title for apparitions of the Virgin Mary in nineteenth-century France.

In The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village, the Oxford historian Henrietta Harrison describes the competing forces that resulted in the creation of this active center of Chinese Catholicism. The Missionary’s Curse is a rich piece of microhistory, replete with violent priests who bullied their flocks and pious missionaries who spent their lives in hiding. But the tale is even more ambitious than the recreation of this bygone era, with Harrison using it to challenge contemporary ideas about how foreign ideas are absorbed in China.

(China Photos/Getty Images)
A devotee kisses a cross during a Catholic worship service in Chongqing.

Her book is especially timely because the new government under Xi Jinping is in the midst of trying to define what is China’s “dream”—what are Chinese values after a century of absorbing so much from the outside world? Xi used the phrase last year for the first time and since then it has become a ubiquitous slogan in China. Until then, probably the only country whose leaders regularly spoke of a national dream had been the United States. Xi’s use of it has begged the question of whether he is echoing the American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Recently in these pages, I reviewed Orville Schell and John Delury’s Wealth and Power, which convincingly argues that the twin ideas in this book’s title have driven China’s most influential thinkers and leaders for nearly two hundred years.1 Foreign ideas were imported but adapted to the Chinese situation. Judging from recent propaganda campaigns in major Chinese cities, President Xi likely has similar ideas in mind when he talks of China’s dream. These campaigns portray it as a collective vision of national greatness defined by traditional Chinese values, with the ideas illustrated by cute folk art images of children, birds, and flowers.2

Harrison argues for a broader view of Chinese people’s hopes and aspirations. She acknowledges that China has borrowed liberally from other cultures—her book, after all, is about a Catholic village—but writes that Christian ideas have not been Sinicized as much as many imagine. On the contrary, the first foreign conceptions that were adopted were the ones most acceptable to Chinese, and over time people strove to add foreign content, not subtract it. Thus ideas in China have tended more toward international norms, not Chinese versions of them. The trend is slow—frustratingly so for many who argue that China over the past decade has moved further away from international standards, especially in the field of human rights, or even economic regulation. But Harrison has a long view. Her story starts in the sixteenth century, and with that perspective she describes a clear shift away from localism and toward international engagement:

From this point of view Christianity is an ideology that can be seen alongside science, democracy, communism, and contemporary ideologies of global capitalism, while the Catholic church can be compared to institutions as varied as the Comintern and the Red Cross.

 

This is a bold claim, especially given the size of her sample, but like another historian of China, Jonathan Spence, Harrison has a knack for finding narrow but telling figures on which to hang big-picture stories. In an earlier work, The Man Awakened from Dreams, Harrison wrote a biography of a member of the “literarti”—the educated elite in traditional China who positioned themselves as arbiters between state and society.3 Living just a few miles away from Cave Gulley’s Catholics, that man was a tragic figure because his life, from 1857 to 1942, spanned the collapse of the Confucian world he embodied. Harrison sensitively cited from his four-hundred-volume diary, bringing back to life a world often known today only through stick-figure representations: the peasant, the landlord, the official.

She achieves a similar feat in The Missionary’s Curse. Harrison’s deep familiarity with China allows her to see connections between her specific narrative and the bigger thread of how China has been confronted with the outside world for the past two centuries. More than most other books I’ve read on China in recent years, it’s one that rings true, and reinforces the long-term optimist’s view against Chinese exceptionalism, and for a country bound to international institutions and norms.

* * *

The first written proof of Christianity’s arrival in China is an eighth-century stele documenting the activities of Nestorian traders, who came from the Middle East along the Silk Road. Off and on, Christian visitors came to China—for example during the Mongolian conquest—but the religion only obtained a foothold in the sixteenth century with the arrival of Jesuit advisers to the emperors of the Ming dynasty. The Jesuits continued to advise the next dynasty, the Qing.4

The Jesuits made inroads by turning a blind eye toward Chinese ancestor worship and veneration of sages, especially Confucius, while conforming to Chinese manners. Indeed, Jesuit advisers often acted and dressed like Confucian gentlemen, mastering the rituals and etiquette of court life. The Jesuits, however, ran into internal political problems in Rome, and their policy of accommodation was banned by Pope Clement XI in 1704. Clement opposed a variety of measures the Jesuits had adopted to assuage local concerns that Christianity was a foreign religion. Most notably, they had appropriated the terms tian (Heaven) and shangdi (Lord on High) for God. These were the names of ancient Chinese deities, and Clement argued that they could not be used also for the Christian god. Instead, he instructed Catholics to use another word, tianzhu, or “Lord of Heaven,” making the religion seem more distant from traditional Chinese beliefs.

Clement also forbade worship in Confucian temples, a move that guaranteed that no Chinese official could be Catholic because all officials were bound by law to pay homage to Confucius. Most controversial was Clement’s banning of ancestor worship, which was so important to traditional culture that the Qing empire had promulgated laws requiring people to pay respects to their ancestors. Not doing so was punishable by death.

To make sure the Chinese knew of the new policy, the Vatican sent an emissary to Beijing to inform the emperor. Not surprisingly, the Kangxi emperor soon banned Christianity (at the time, there were no Protestant missionaries), a measure that remained in effect until the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century forced China to allow in missionaries and grant the religion legal status. Over the following decades, missionaries poured into China, backed by Western gunboats and sometimes financed by levies on the Chinese populace. Despite this turn of events, China had just over 950,000 converts to Catholicism by the turn of the century—about one tenth of one percent of the population.

This is where Harrison begins her book, with a discussion of one of the most influential works on Chinese Christianity, a 1907 book by the French priest Léon Joly. He posed a question that has resonated for decades: Why had Christianity failed in China? Joly’s answer was that Christianity hadn’t come close enough to indigenous culture to win over locals. Run by foreigners and featuring a story set in foreign countries, the Christian religion was a hard sell in China. Joly’s view of Christianity as a religion foreign to China has remained at the heart of much Western scholarship on Christianity there, coloring how we view important events in twentieth-century history, such as the Boxer Rebellion. The basic premise is that Christianity entered China in the wake of Western imperialism and didn’t gain a foothold until much later.

Joly’s point of reference, however, was the Roman Empire, which had adopted Christianity as an official religion. Harrison wonders if that was a fair comparison; China hadn’t become Christian, but had Christianity really failed? From her close study of Cave Gulley, she also questions Joly’s premise that Christianity was a foreign religion and needed to become more Chinese to succeed. This process, known as “acculturation,” is widely seen in Catholicism as a prerequisite for the faith to spread widely. But Harrison notes that the opposite occurred: locals first adopted a form of Christianity closest to local folk religions, but over the centuries discovered the global institution, and moved toward it. It was during the later phase—during the last half-century—that Christianity really took off, from the half-million of Joly’s time to the 30 million today.5

* * *

Catholicism spread by emphasizing that Christianity wasn’t the product of foreign forces. Cave Gulley is in Shanxi province, which in imperial times was on central trading routes. Shanxi bankers working in Beijing met Jesuits in the seventeenth century and brought the religion back home, where they converted their families and villages. Missionaries played little part in the early acceptance of Christianity. The odd one who did make it to Shanxi arrived only in the eighteenth century and had to live underground to avoid the government’s ban on his religion. Most survived as guests of local gentry, and rarely interacted with the local populace.

Not surprisingly, locals adopted a version of Catholicism that closely tracked their own folk religious practices. This was aided by the fact that when they did interact with foreign Catholics, they were involved with Franciscans from southern Italy. What was adopted in Shanxi had parallels in both societies: lists of commandments, regular fasting, group chanting of litanies, rosaries, village ceremonies to pray for rain, expensive and elaborate rituals to help a departed person’s soul reach the final paradise, and visionary trances that gave ordinary people special knowledge of the divine. To local Chinese of that time, the new Western learning also had direct parallels to Confucianism, with its cosmology, rituals, and rules of living. According to church records, up to two thousand people converted each year during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The missionaries played a significant part in China only much later, in the nineteenth century. But it was during this time that Christianity grew slowest. After Joly’s work came out in the early twentieth century, there was a renewed push to convert and baptize. But these were paper gains; when the Communists took power in 1949 and began persecuting Christians, most of the new converts recanted. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1976, Harrison estimates that most Catholics had been so for up to eight generations—they were the offspring of the people who converted in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In other words, the spread of Catholicism was the result of a slow but steady absorption of Christianity and not the supercharged efforts of Western-backed missionaries.

But did the missionaries create a consciousness of a more globalized church? To some degree, they did. Nineteenth-century missionaries brought with them standardized ways of conducting religious services. But they were also widely unpopular for their arrogant, even racist behavior. Some beat their parishioners regularly. All treated Chinese priests as second-class. Indeed, in Cave Gulley’s Catholic cemetery, local priests are buried at the feet of foreign missionaries.

Yet Chinese priests increasingly saw themselves as part of a global institution, something Harrison ascribes to the nascent infrastructure of globalization: steamboats, postal services, and banks. Armed with this new consciousness, they sought justice not from authorities in Beijing, but Rome. In one of the most memorable stories, a local priest traveled to the Vatican in the mid-nineteenth century to seek redress from the Holy Father for the actions of one particularly brutal Italian priest. According to local legend, he met the pope, his cause was declared just, and he returned home to China in triumph. In reality, the pope didn’t meet the man but the Vatican’s bureaucracy did hear him out, and sent him back without rebuke—essentially a vindication.

In Harrison’s hands, these just-so stories are sensitively unraveled and explained. Using hundreds of years’ worth of missionary letters, as well as local Chinese archives and oral interviews, Harrison gives the folk version of events and then reconstructs the likely historic reality. This isn’t meant to downplay the local folk history version; on the contrary, her retelling often underscores deeper meanings that the folk stories carried. The point tends to be how locals made Catholicism their own religion by embracing the global institution: “Chinese priests, and through them the villagers they served, saw themselves more and more as part of an institution headquartered in Rome.”

Christianity’s renewed growth, Harrison argues, also took place despite an absence of foreigners. When the Communists took power in 1949, they expelled almost all foreigners and especially missionaries, whom they labeled agents of imperial powers. All religions were tightly proscribed, and later banned, especially Christianity. During the Cultural Revolution, some priests and nuns were treated like zoo animals in “living exhibitions” in the nearby Taiyuan cathedral. Yet many refused to surrender their beliefs because Christianity had been their family’s faith for centuries—they saw it as their own, indigenous faith that they couldn’t give up without dishonoring their ancestors.

Some priests buckled and married, but many stayed true to the church. In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, they enjoyed immense prestige for the years they had spent in labor camps. When the Mao cult ended with the dictator’s death in 1976, many turned to religion to fill a spiritual void. Catholicism rebounded quickly—indeed it enjoyed the first wave of serious conversions since the eighteenth century—joining an overall religious renaissance in China.6

* * *

One of the challenges to writers on this subject is judging how much a part of the global church local Christians are allowed to be. Even though it has significantly relaxed control over religion during the past few decades, the Communist Party still tightly controls all organized faiths, especially those like Tibetan Buddhism, Islam, and Catholicism that have crucial ties abroad (to the Dalai Lama in exile, to Mecca and other sacred sites, and to the Vatican). All religions are run by associations loyal to the Party, and they report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs. This bureaucracy chooses priests and bishops, not the Vatican, a situation that has remained constant despite occasional thaws.

The choice of a Jesuit to be the new pope has awakened some hope for better relations because of the Jesuits’ long ties with China, but there is no concrete sign of improvement, nor any realistic chance for change without some change of policy on Beijing’s part. Given the new Chinese leadership’s tendencies toward controlling dissent and any sort of social organization, this seems unlikely. That means that Catholics in China still face a conundrum of whether to worship in the official Catholic church, or to worship at unregistered churches that are loyal to the Vatican but illegal.

I recently attended the twenty-fifth annual meeting of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, which was held this autumn in Chicago. Established in 1989 by former missionaries and people with close ties to China, the group has sought to foster support for Catholic communities in China. One of the subcurrents was how to deal with the Chinese church’s isolation from Rome. Some were frustrated that after three and a half decades of “reform and opening up,” China still doesn’t allow local Catholics to practice their religion fully, as members of the global church.

The situation was exemplified last year by the spectacular case of the new auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma Daqin. At the end of his consecration ceremony in the enormous cathedral in Shanghai, Ma announced that he was resigning from the Catholic Patriotic Association7—an astonishing rebuke for the government, which uses the association to control the church. Ma was put under detention in a seminary, highlighting what many see as the worst relations between Beijing and Rome in thirty years.

And yet at the Chicago conference, the emphasis was on what does work. Mostly, that involves small-scale charity projects, such as orphanages. Many Catholics are resigned to Beijing’s hard line and are trying to find a way to keep their religion going, even though the government forbids one of its defining characteristics: its links to the Vatican.

So, too, in Cave Gulley, where most local Catholics follow a pragmatic solution of using the locally run churches but remaining loyal to the pope. Harrison doesn’t discuss this in much detail, which is a pity because it could have formed a useful pendant to her earlier stories about interactions between China and Rome. Here, Harrison is perhaps too much the historian, using interviews to illuminate past events but not to confront this crucial contemporary issue.

* * *

More focused on today’s China is Gerda Wielander’s Christian Values in Communist China. A lecturer at the University of Westminster in London, Wielander was inspired, like Harrison, by reading what sounded like an outlandish claim about Christianity in China. Whereas Harrison was confronting a claim that Christianity had failed, Wielander was inspired to scrutinize a diametrically opposite claim: that Christianity was taking off. In his highly influential 2003 work Jesus in Beijing, the former Time magazine journalist David Aikman posited that Christianity was now so important that it was changing the very nature of the Communist state.8 Wielander wondered if this wasn’t hyperbolic and set out to investigate.

She is more sober than Aikman but makes a careful case for Christian ideas infiltrating China; she concludes that the religion is at least having an impact on how religion is defined and what is expected of it. Her book emphasizes Protestants, especially the unregistered “house church” movement that likely has as many believers as the officially run church. In one valuable chapter, she reminds readers that the Communist Party doesn’t just declare this or that verboten. It also believes strongly in having a positive effect—in trying to shape society actively. Thus the faintly ridiculous, but still earnestly meant campaigns encouraging Chinese to emulate prominent Communists. Few people listen to these campaigns, but the party publishes numerous books each year instructing cadres, and citizens, on the value of selflessness.

Wielander explains the reason for such campaigns by referring to the widespread Chinese belief that society has become amoral and selfish. As many people who have had even casual encounters know, Chinese traditionally put great stock in personal trust—the term guanxi has become so widespread that it’s found in English-language book titles. But Chinese society lacks social trust—that is, trust between strangers based on shared values and a functioning legal system. This is demonstrated by the regular howls of national shame over poisoned food, or the unwillingness of passersby to help accident victims. Because they are strangers, they don’t count and can be safely ignored.

Christians, by contrast, are widely seen as having stronger ethical standards. “Against this background of social distrust a quiet consensus seems to have emerged that Christians are trustworthy and reliable,” she writes.

More subtly, she sees Christian influence in the use of the word “love,” or ai, among Chinese opinion-makers and academics. Usually, the character is paired with another, for example, to form the word for romantic love (aiqing) or patriotism (aiguo). Over the past decade, however, it has been used by essayists and philosophers to represent the Greek idea of agape, or caring for your neighbors. This was mentioned most famously by the former premier Wen Jiabao, who told students in 2009, “Everything depends on love. We hope that [you] children understand love, cherish love, learn and master love. You must turn love into practical action.”

For religions in China, this has meant that the government now expects them to engage in charitable actions. Traditionally, charity has been aimed more at family or clan members; now, all the religions regularly discuss how much money they have donated to aid the victims of various natural catastrophes or to alleviate poverty. One hundred years ago, it was mostly Christians who engaged in this sort of disinterested work through missionary hospitals, schools, and orphanages. Today, all Chinese religions do this, a sign of Christian influence.

Wielander is also astute in pointing out the global ties between Chinese Protestantism and groups abroad, which parallel Harrison’s point about growing links and norms, not acculturation. Some of the best-known Chinese Christian leaders regularly attend workshops in China or abroad sponsored by foreign groups. Most famous is the essayist and church leader Yu Jie, who defected to the United States in 2012.9

Yet traditional religions have not been asleep either. When a Catholic church was proposed for the hometown of Confucius, Confucians and scholars wrote an open letter saying that the church disrespected the sage’s birthplace. Chinese Christians responded with their own open letter saying that Christianity isn’t foreign, but a Chinese religion too. According to Wielander, “The exchange thus neatly symbolizes how important Christianity has become and as how threatening some perceive it; it also shows how carefully and confidently Chinese Christians want to respond to such challenges.”

This brings us back to our shrine outside of Cave Gulley. Originally built in Western style during the nineteenth century, it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1990s, it was rebuilt in a Chinese style. Instead of being a sign of acculturation, the transformed shrine was designed by local architects to show that Christianity was an indigenous religion. Harrison points out, however, that local Christians were unhappy—they wanted a Western-style building to emphasize their global links—while Communist Party cadres were unhappy because they want to emphasize the foreignness of Catholicism as a way of keeping in check one of China’s most popular religions. In the end, none of these concerns seem to matter; the shrine is visited by tens of thousands of people each year.


  1. The New York Review, November 21, 2013.
  2. See my “Old Dreams for a New China,” NYRblog, October 15, 2013.
  3. The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village, 1857–1942 (Stanford University Press, 2005).
  4. This story is captured most memorably by Jonathan Spence in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Viking, 1984).
  5. The numbers are ideologically charged and contentious. According to government figures, China has twenty-three million Protestants and six million Catholics. Many millions more, however, attend churches not registered with the government. Activists say the total is around one hundred million; more sober estimates put the figure in the forty- to sixty-million range.
  6. See my “China Gets Religion!,” The New York Review, December 22, 2011.
  7. See, for example, Tom Phillips, “Shanghai’s Catholic Church in Disarray,” The Telegraph, July 12, 2013.
  8. Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Regnery, 2003).
  9. See my “China’s ‘Fault Lines’: Yu Jie on His New Biography of Liu Xiaobo,” NYRblog, July 14, 2012.