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New gods for frontier people: Missionaries in northwest Yunnan

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Church in Dimaluo, Yunnan
Church in Dimaluo, Yunnan

Over the years adventurous travelers in northwest Yunnan have begun trekking over the Biluo Mountains from the Lancang River Valley to the Nu River. The route connects the village of Cizhong in Diqing County with Baihanluo and Dimaluo in Gongshan County. It is roughly the same route taken by the French Irrawaddy Expedition in 1895, as well as by and early twentieth century explorers like F Kingdon Ward and Joseph Rock. The unusual aspect of this journey is that whether it begins from east or west, it runs from one Christian settlement to another, the legacy of intrepid nineteenth century French Lazarist missionaries.

The pioneering figure in this story was Père Charles Renou, who arrived in Yunnan in 1852 and headed at once for the northwest. Intending to proselytize among Tibetans, he first had to learn the local dialect. Posing as a Chinese merchant, he stopped at Dongzhulin Monastery (东竹林寺), southeast of Diqing (迪庆), befriended the lamas and learned the Tibetan language. Two years later he crossed the Biluo Mountains (碧落山) and ended up in the hamlet of Bingzhongluo (丙中洛).

Cognizant of power politics in the area, Renou befriended the richest landowner and secured a fief from him in the Benga Valley (崩卡峡谷), just over the Yunnan border inside Tibet. His first Catholic converts were the slaves he purchased and emancipated from the landowner. He augmented this number over the next three years with more purchases of orphans and children sold by heavily indebted families of the Nu ethnicity. After baptizing the children, he enrolled them in a school run by an ex-monk, to learn to read and pray in Tibetan.

The Bonga Valley was practically uninhabited when Renou arrived. The local Nu people believed it was the abode of malevolent tree spirits and feared angering them by cutting down the spirits' homes. Renou instructed them to keep uttering the names of God and the Virgin Mary to repel the spirits. He was taking a chance, for if anything bad happened after the villagers cleared the woods, the mission's reputation would plummet. Nothing did, however, so now the villagers reckoned the priests were more powerful than the local spirits.

By 1858 the mission staff had expanded to five priests and the Christian community was growing so fast it frightened local authorities, including the landlord who had given Renou the fief and now wanted it back. He took his case to the abbot of Menkong and then organized a gang that attacked the missionaries' residence and burned down all their buildings, belongings and the documents concerning the rental of the fief. The missionaries fled south to Puhua Monastery (普化寺), where the local abbot gave them sanctuary.

That same year, though, China signed the Treaty of Tianjin, which gave Western missionaries the right to work in the interior. It took nearly four years, but Renou won his case at Menkong, got his fief back and from then on paid rent to Menkong Monastery instead. With this verdict the prestige of the foreign missionaries soared. Nu villagers, whether animist or Buddhist — chafing under the harsh tax demands of their Tibetan overlords — now saw the missionaries as potential protectors against local authorities. They also found the missionaries, many of whom had prior medical training, far more efficient dealing with illness than their own shamans. They began converting en masse.

Xiaoweixi Catholic church
Xiaoweixi Catholic church

By 1863 the mission seemed to be on a firm trajectory for future success. Renou handed over management of it to his staff and trekked over the mountains to the Lancang River (澜沧江) — now known as the Upper Mekong. Setting up in Cikou Village (茨口), a mostly Tibetan settlement south of Diqing after his long and patient efforts, in 1867 the villagers replaced their Buddhist monastery with a Catholic church. Three years later, having been joined by other Lazarist missionaries, who began working further downriver, a second Catholic church went up in the Naxi (纳西) village of Xiaoweixi (小维西村).

Both the Cikou church and the one in Xiaoweixi were built in the classical Chinese style and resembled modest, Mayahana Buddhist walled-temple compounds. The Xiaoweixi church is still the original building, two stories high, tiled roofs, with an added, triangular roof on top, with upturned corners and a cross at the apex. A rather simple altar stands inside at the other end of the entrance and the flanking walls feature posters of the Stations of the Cross.

Catholic Nu minority church
Catholic Nu minority church

Back in Bonga Valley, however, mission affairs suddenly took a turn for the worse. Nu converts assumed they no longer had to pay taxes and land rent to their Tibetan overlords. Ecclesiastical authorities in Menkong forbade conversions, ordered Christians to renounce the new faith and forced villagers to pay taxes and their debt. Those who refused were killed or ran away further south. Raiding parties burnt everything in Bonga Valley.

Because of the ongoing Muslim Revolt in Yunnan, the French Legation in Kunming could not get the government to do anything and advised the priests living along the Nujiang River (怒江) to abandon their efforts north of the Yunnan border and lay low for a while. In the Lancang River Valley, however, the Lazarist missionaries expanded their activities north and established churches in Diqing, Yanjing (盐井), Batang (巴塘) and Kangding (康定) — the latter three in modern-day Sichuan. With the end of the Muslim Revolt in 1873, French priests were able to join their compatriots in the new missions.

However loyal their flocks might be, beyond the parishes the priests faced the very secular dangers of banditry and ethnic nationalism. Unknown assailants murdered Yanjing's Père Brueux in 1881. Six years later an armed Tibetan uprising provoked the burning of the churches in Diqing, Yanjing and Batang, as well as the desecration of Brueux's grave. The missions in Nujiang were unmolested at this time, and in 1882 priests began proselytizing in Baihanluo (白汉洛), in the Biluo Mountains south of Bingzhongluo.

In 1904 French priests erected a church in Baihanluo, in a style that resembled a Tibetan dzong — a kind of building used by nobles and high-ranking lamas. Converts saw it as a Catholic dzong, with the implications of an authority greater than that of local officials. Though they may not have seen its establishment as a political challenge, the current group of French missionaries was an entirely different set than their predecessors in the Bonga Valley. So were the lamas of Puhua Temple in Bingzhongluo. The friendly relations between the two that had marked Renou's time had turned hostile.

Nu minority church in northwest Yunnan
Nu minority church in northwest Yunnan

That same year witnessed the Younghusband Expedition, when British military units from India marched into Tibet and occupied Lhasa in August, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to Mongolia. Poorly armed Tibetans suffered heavy casualties opposing them. After imposing a trade treaty on Lhasa, the British regrouped to India and the Dalai Lama returned. But resentment over the expedition, especially in the eastern, Kamba-inhabited part of Tibet, combined with fury over the foreigners' burgeoning influence on people who were so recently subservient to Kamba lords and lamas, burst into violence.

Aroused by lamas in Diqing and further north, armed Tibetan gangs attacked the Christian communities, killed Cikou's two priests and burned down its church, as well as the rebuilt churches in Diqing, Yanjing and Batang. Egged on by lamas in Menkong, Puhua monks joined the rebellion and organized an attack that destroyed the Baihanluo church. Kamba warriors also attacked Chinese posts up and down the Lancang River Valley, prompting the Qing government to dispatch troops to restore law and order. The government campaign took two years to quell the rebellion. Control of Diqing changed hands twice, resulting in mass revenge killings on both sides. In Nujiang Qing forces crossed the mountains to Baihanluo, marched on Bingzhongluo and burnt down Puhua Monastery. The revolt in Nujiang subsided quickly, but the government stationed a garrison in Baihanluo to watch over the peace.

Church in Cizhong, Yunnan
Church in Cizhong, Yunnan

Having survived the mayhem, the missionaries rebuilt their church, but in a different style, less resembling a dzong. The new wooden building was narrower, with folding screened shutters in front, a painted archway and belfry façade, a single two-story tower over the entrance, with upturned roof corners and a white cross mounted on top. Recently renovated with freshly painted exterior frescoes, it still stands today. In the valley below, the church at the mixed Tibetan-Nu-Lisu village of Dimaluo (迪麻洛村), built several years later, features the same style of construction.

Over the next couple of decades, as more French missionaries augmented the existing band of priests, the growing Christian Nu community built churches at Qiunatong (秋那桶) and at least four other villages These were more in a kind of Sino-European style, with square bell-towers, columned fronts and lavishly painted interiors. The former animosity that characterized Nu-Tibetan relations faded away, and converted Catholic villages like Qiunatong and Dimaluo had both Tibetan and Nu residents.

Interior of a Nu minority church
Interior of a Nu minority church

A few years after the suppression of the Kamba revolt in the Lancang River Valley, French missionaries returned to Cikou and called on their congregation to construct a new church, this time in stone, in the village of Cizhong (茨中村), a few kilometers upriver. The new building looked more like a rural French church, except for its Chinese-style belfry tower. Over 20 meters tall, the tower is twice as high as the nave, while both feature narrow, European-style, arched windows on their sides. Engraved on the arch above the church entrance is a New Testament Latin quotation, calling upon the suffering laborers in the world to seek refuge in the Lord.

Within the nave, arched columns left and right of the entrance divide the interior into three sections. At the end of the columns the main altar honors Jesus and smaller ones left and right are dedicated to the Madonna and Child and St Joseph. The walls display illustrations of the Way of the Cross, and the spaces above them, as well as the ceiling, feature Tibetan-style paintings of pheasants, clouds, lotuses, yin-yang symbols and Asian-looking dragons. Construction concluded in 1921 and the government garrisoned thirty soldiers there to protect it from marauders.

A Nu minority church
A Nu minority church

In the following years, while Civil War raged across most of China, the mission continued its life undisturbed. Besides religious and architectural concepts, French priests also introduced the very European practice of grape cultivation and wine production, both in Cizhong and downriver in Xiaoweixi. They also accumulated a large library of books in both French and Chinese.

With the proclamation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, missionaries everywhere in Yunnan were forced to evacuate. Protestant missionaries in Nujiang took some of their converts with them when they fled into Burma, but the local Catholics tended to remain when their priests departed. The new government proved to be less iconoclastic out on this far frontier than was expected, even during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, and the small Christian communities carried on as best they could without their priests and ministers.

Valley on the Lancang River
Valley on the Lancang River

The inauguration of the Reform Era and the opening of China to the outside world, including tourists, did not mean the return of the foreign missionaries to Cizhong and Nujiang. Their Sunday services continued without any ecclesiastic presence, as they had for decades. Rather than Mass, though, these meetings consisted of listening to spoken or recorded sermons and collective praying and singing.

At Cizhong for example, the only ecclesiastical official was a rector, who was not permitted to hold Mass. So instead, the congregation assembled inside, men on one side, women and children on the other, and sang hymns, using partially burnt manuscripts salvaged from the Cikou fire. These include the Book of Psalms, De Profundis and Cantique au Sacré Coeur, all translated into Tibetan. The congregation alternately sang and chanted the verses, sometimes sounding like a row of monks at prayer time, sometimes like a medieval European choir.

The place has also recently attracted a greater number of tourists. It's certainly an attractive village at the base of high mountains beside the roaring Lancang River. About 75 percent of its residents are Tibetan, with 20 percent Naxi and the rest Han. Naxi architecture, rather than Tibetan, dominates the house designs. One of its characteristics is to suspend a carved fish beneath the apex of the roof at each end, which symbolize the element of water as a protective device against the element of fire. Christian house owners have replaced this with a carving picturing a dove, the Catholic symbol of the Holy Spirit, their own protector.

Guesthouses may have arisen, and trekking parties are stopping here and there on their way to and from Dimaluo, but this new attention is not likely to affect the traditional influence of Christianity on Cizhong's mostly Christian population. They have a resident priest now, who arrived from Inner Mongolia a couple of years ago to hold Mass and make the exercise of their religion more authentic. They hold fond memories of the missionaries, influencing their hospitable receptions of Western visitors. And the villagers still cultivate grapes and make wine, a secular legacy of the French priests, and something they can share with their Western guests.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Leaving Sunday prayers in Cizhong
Leaving Sunday prayers in Cizhong

Images: Jim Goodman

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