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14 Pages

Shields of faith: Christianity in contemporary China

ByFRANCIS KHEK GEE LIM

Christmas carols floats through the chilly December air in the remote village of Cizhong, on the Yunnan border with Tibet. The Christmas Eve Mass signals the start of a two-day festivity that includes communal dancing, feasting, drinking, and other forms of merry-making. Tibetans comprise the majority of the Cizhong Catholic community, while the Naxi, Nu, and Han make up the rest. The Mass tonight is attended not only by the locals; in the church are around twenty domestic and foreign tourists, and a number of officials from the Diqing Prefecture’s Cultural Bureau. Some of these visitors are walking through the church to find good vantage points for taking pictures, while others mingle with the villagers seated at the pews listening to the priest’s sermon. The priest celebrating this year’s Christmas Eve Mass is from the church in city of Dali which belongs to the ‘official’ Patriotic Church. However, the Tibetan priest who often visits Cizhong and neighbouring villages is not present. He does not belong to any state-recognised diocese, and neither does he acknowledge the authority of the Bishop of Kunming since the latter’s consecration has not been approved by the Vatican. Most villagers do not really care about the distinction between the ‘official’ and ‘underground’ church. What is most important is that they are allowed to practice their faith in their everyday life, a faith which was first brought to this part of China by French and Swiss missionaries toward the end of the nineteenth century. Many villagers are happy that a priest is there to celebrate Mass in their century-old church on Christmas Eve. And as the priest holds up the Eucharist, Cizhong Catholics focus their attention on the wafer that is the Body of Christ, at that particular moment in unison of devotion with millions of Catholics throughout China and other parts of the world. Christianity in China has witnessed a revival over the last three decades. In recent years there has been a surge in scholarly interest on Christianity in contemporary China. This is partly due the religious revival witnessed in the country since the early 1980s, after years of state effort to suppress and even to eradicate religion after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) captured power (Leung 2005; Kindopp 2004). The long history of Christianity in China, especially its experience in the modern era, has been the subject of a number of seminal historical studies (e.g. Cohen 1963; Lutz 1971; Charbonnier 2002; Lian 2010; Bays 2012; Ng 2012). However, compared to the relatively large body of historical work in both Chinese

and foreign languages, only a small number of book-length studies have employed socio-cultural methods in the study of contemporary Christianity (e.g. Hunter and Chan 1993; Madsen 1998; Liang 1999; Lozada 2001; Yang 2005; Ng et al. 2005; Gao 2005; Cao 2011). Therefore, one of the key aims of this volume is to address the paucity of empirical work on Christianity from socio-cultural perspectives. In order to provide a more comprehensive analysis of the fraught processes by which various forms and practices of Christianity interact with the Chinese social, political and cultural spheres, this volume deliberately eschews focusing solely on one particular theoretical approach or topic. Instead, its major contribution to scholarship lies in its wide range of empirical analyses of the complex and highly diverse experience of Christianity in contemporary China.