Monday, May 02, 2005

Cizhong - A Christian Shangri La in Tibet - or the forefront of the next Cold War?

Cizhong panorama, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

When I stumbled across the Catholic church at Cizhong (茨中) three years ago I knew little about its history or its unique significance. I was more interested in following the trail set by Joseph Rock over the Dokerla pass, and this lonely outpost of Christianity on the China/Tibet border was of curiousity value only. I had seen a few blurred pictures of it on the internet and knew that it had been established by French missionaries about a hundred years ago.

When we arrived at Cizhong after a pleasant if somewhat erratic bus ride up the Mekong valley, we were dropped off at a small suspension bridge over the river. We crossed this and headed up over the crest of a hill to find the village of Cizhong clustered around a village square that doubled as a basketball court and outdoor waiting room for a primitive medical clinic operating out of a shack.

Acupuncture knees
A few of the local Tibetan old folk were having glucose drips in their arm [to restore energy] or undergoing acupuncture with massive needles embedded in their shoulders.

After a drink at the shack we were taken up the road by an old gent who turned out to be the caretaker for the Catholic church. I told him I was a Catholic as well, and he seemed delighted with this. I tried a few words of French on him, having read that some of the older villagers still spoke it, but he didn't respond to it. Instead, he took us up to the church at the top of the village and opened up the doors for us to have a look around.


It was quite a strange feeling to walk past a Buddhist stupa into the forecourt of a Gothic-style Catholic church in the middle of a mixed Tibetan and Naxi village in Yunnan. The church seemed old but well maintained - a bit like the caretaker himself. We padded round the silent interior, peering at the statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, trying to translate the Chinese language Christian posters on the wall, and looking for the original decorations. On the ceiling were a beautiful arrangement of symbols that combined Eastern tradition with Christian meaning. Lotus flowers and swirly ying/yang symbols interspersed with stylised Roman crosses.


The altar was richly decorated with a pink floral cover, augmented by hangings of yellow silk and vases of local pink and red flowers. Above it, a statue of Jesus and the Latin inscription "Ecce Agnus Dei":

dark int


The small bell tower was reached by some creaky wooden stairs, and gave views over the collection of several hudred houses that made up Cizhong. The traditional Chinese/Tibetan-style of the village houses was offset by the satellite TV dishes that most of the houses had on their flat roofs.

We spent a reverent half hour padding around the dark interior, gazing at the decorations and I made what I thought was a generous contribution to the collection box. But my deferential awe was punctured slightly when immediately after this the caretaker asked us for an additional 20 kuai each for letting us have a look round!

caretaker inside

We stayed the night at Cizhong in the house of a local teacher, who lived right next to the church and looked after its vineyard. The vines had been planted by the last French priests to live in Cizhong, and still produced a drinkable sort of red wine, which he served us that evening from a plastic petrol can. The type of grape was now unique to Yunnan, he told us, because the French now used more hybrid varieties.

Over the meal, teacher Lee told us a bit about the village. It was half Tibetan and half Naxi, he said. A bit like his own family - he was Naxi and his wife a Tibetan. And despite being an overseer of the Catholic church he himself was a Buddhist, as witnessed by the large mural of the Potala palace and the pictures of the Dalai lama over his fireplace. The photographs on his wall also showed his own travels to Tibet.

Mr Lee told us that the village was a harmonious place, where Christians and Buddhists had lived together peacefully for centuries. He said about 80% of the villagers were nominally Christian, but there was no longer a priest in the village - only a visiting cleric who tended to many of the small churches in the Mekong valley. Mr Lee said the younger people in the village were not so interested in Christianity - they were more interested in going to the bigger cities for karaoke, to buy clothes and mobile phones. Materialism rather than Marxism was the biggest threat to the church, it seemed.

We saw his own house was neat and pleasant - with sturdy wood fittings common to most Tibetan houses in the region. Downstairs in the yard there were pigs, cows and chickens. Upstairs on the flat roof where corn was stored, there were more rooms where we stayed the night - in his son's study room, complete with a desktop computer.
cizhong poster

It was only later that I learned a little more about the history of Cizhong and its unique Christian faith.

It seems that French missionaries established a church here in the late 19th century after their initial efforts further north in Tibet were thwarted by aggressive opposition from then powerful Tibetan lamas. Their first churches were burnt down and many of the missionaries were killed by local outlaws with the blessing of the Tibetan lamas. Cizhong was then chosen as a spot to build a church because despite its predominantly Tibetan populace it lay outside the border of Tibet - and the influence of the lamas. Under haphazard Chinese authority, the missionaries built their church and tried to set an example in the ways of the Lord to their Tibetan flock. It obviously worked, and many local Tibetans and Naxi were converted. However, under the unstable Chinese warlord regimes the north west of Yunnan was never a safe place - and the missionaries were still plagued by bandits and lawlessness. In 1905 the Tibetan lamas tried to drive them all out of the Mekong valley and after killing two priests, succeeded in doing so, for while.

Swiss missionaries from the Order of St Bernard took over from the French. The last western priest at Cizhong was Father Alphonse Savioz, who was there from 1948 to 1951 when he was driven out by the newly installed Communist authorities. He now lives in Taiwan. One of his colleagues, Fr Maurice Tornay was not so fortunate. As parish priest at the Tibetan village of Yakarlo to the north, he was in conflict with the Tibetan lamas even into the 1940s. He made arrangements to go to Lhasa to negotiate a "truce", but was murdered by his Tibetan enemies soon after he set off. He was declared a saint by Pope John Paul several years ago.

And so, despite it appearance as a tranquil "Shangri La" of Christianity in the wilds of Yunnan, Cizhong has a turbulent and unhappy past and an uncertain future. It is slowly becoming known as a tourist spot, and it may not be long before coachloads of tourists clog up the dusty lanes of this village. Already a Kunming company has started to develop a "Cizhong wine", allegedly based on the grape variety originally introduced by the French priests.

More ominously, this tiny outpost of Christianity is also being taken up by some American fundamentalists as a symbol of China's repression of religion. One right wing demagogue, Jack Wheeler, who describes himself as "the conservative Indiana Jones", has visited Cizhong [on an organised tour I should add] and declared it the next front line in the global fight for religious freedom. This influential commentator recently decried the actions of the "Chicoms" in blocking a visit by the Pope to his Chinese Catholic faithful such as those in Cizhong. More worryingly, he calls for President Bush to work with the new conservative Pope to set up a "a clandestine program of support for Christians in China, as Ronald Reagan did with Pope John Paul II for Solidarity in Poland."

I wonder what this will mean for Teacher Lee and the other kind folk in this pleasant little village. Nothing nasty, I hope.

cizhonh high
Cizhong from above. The larger building to the top right of the church is the village school. The vineyard is hidden behind the bell tower.

Cizhong looking south
cizhong from tower
Cizhong houses from the bell tower. We stayed in the rooms next to the second satellite dish from the bottom.
cizhong southCizhong looking south from the bell tower


D said...

WOW I loved this, I sincerely hope, like you that Christians and our Buddhist brothers and sisters can continue to live in harmony without the influence of people like Jack Wheeler. This was truly amazing and I loved reading it and looking at the beautiful and peaceful pictures. I hope to visit Cizhong one day and go to that Church. I am Catholic and I love Chinese cutlure as I am also a martial artist and seeing this has just been great for me. It brought harmony inside me and reconciled my Catholic faith with my Chinese fascination lol. Thank you so much for this.

mutikonka said...

Thanks - it's a very peaceful place and nice to see a bit of religous harmony in a world that is so full of strife!

Jens-Olaf said...

Stunning, the feeling inside the church is not gothic it is romanic. Coming from an old german city that makes the difference. Romanic is even older than gothic. In the northern european context it would be more rooted to early christianity.

mutikonka said...

Thanks _ I don't know my Gothic from my Romanic! It i a beautiful old church - and there's anoter one at Bingzhongluo:

Iosue Andreas Sartorius said...

Lord have mercy! Those are some of the most stunning photos I have ever seen in my life!

mutikonka said...

I'm surprised how wel they came out , given that they were taken with a cheap Contax T4 point and shoot.

Anonymous said...

This church does look romanesque (English term for "romanic"), not gothic at all. Beautiful. The Catholics of this place (and their neighbors) are in my prayers.

Jacqueline Y.

Unknown said...

It always amazes me how beautiful our world can be

Anonymous said...

May i suggest you to read "La Croix Tibétaine", 752 pages, 470 illustrations, doc. & maps, published in french in 2009 by Editions Mondialis/Jean-Louis Conne (site: The author Jean-Louis Conne was the very first foreigner authorised in 1992 to visit the uper Mekong and Salween valleys from 1952. The book expose the all story of that area and, in particular the all story of the christian presence there and much more. It's the result of 16-18 years of research conducted in Yunnan and arround the world. That book include of course also a relation concerning Joseph Rock and many others.

Olivia Ulbricht said...

I really enjoyed your summary of the area and the history you gave. I recently visited the church and I am trying to find out some more about it. What sources did you use to find out about the history of Cizhong church?

mutikonka said...

Sorry can't remember the exact sources - but mostly a French Catholic website that I viewed in translation. Just try googling the names of the priests.