Chinese culture, Western images, and Tibetan Buddhism meld in Lancang River Valley

  • Fr. Liu Zhibin in front of his parish church, Tong Wei Village, Yunnan, China. He and other villagers reopened the church and brought villagers back to it in the years after the Cultural Revolution.
  • Easter Mass at Cizhong Catholic Church, Yunnan, China, 2015.
  • Easter Mass at Cizhong Catholic Church, Yunnan, China, 2015.
  • The Virgin Mary's image, adorned in silk as a sign of devotion, at Cigu Catholic Church, Yunnan province. The original site of the larger mission to the region, it was rebuilt by local villagers in the 1980s.
  • At Cizhong Catholic Church, parishioners have brought religious images to be blessed for their homes at Easter.
  • The interior of the Niuren Catholic Church, rebuilt in the 1980s by Catholic villagers after the Cultural Revolution.
  • At Niuren Catholic Church, the top line says, "God is love." The left banner proclaims, "Spread (or Propagate) love, Spread loyalty, Overflowing salvation, Grand design." Right banner reads, "Overseer of all, God's wisdom, Right order under heaven."
  • The living, dining and kitchen space of a home in Cizhong. The top reads, "Everything has its true origin, or reason for being." The sides read, "All powerful, Absolute perfection, All knowing, All capable. Ultimate justice, fairness, benevolence."
  • China's two most ubiquitous saints, the Virgin Mary (here as the Immaculate Conception) and Saint Joseph in Cizhong, Yunnan, China. The Lourdes image recalls the early French missionary influence here.
  • Buddhist homes in Cizhong village, built in the ethnic Naxi style and adorned with Buddhist prayer flags.
  • The Niuren Catholic Church, rebuilt by locals in the 1980s with support from the government prefecture, holds most of its services without a priest.
  • The ceiling of Cigu church painted in a local style.
  • Interior of the Cigu Catholic church, Yunnan. Smaller village churches still used floor level seating for prayer in a crouching position, but churches in Cizhong and Xaiweixi have shrifted the benches and kneelers.
  • The interior of Cigu Catholic Church. Photo by Liu Haiming.
  • Pope Francis's image at Cigu Catholic Church, Yunnan, a priestless "above-ground" or "Patriotic" church that is ostensibly without ties to Rome.
  • Cigu Catholic Church, as rebuilt in the 1980s, is also decked out with Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags.
  • A Catholic symbol, JHS, on the left door of a home in a New Year's display is the only sign of Catholic life outside the courtyard, in a village that otherwise has many Buddhist prayer flags aloft. The lintel also has a carved cross at the center.
  • A Catholic family home in Xiaoweixi is decorated with typical Chinese New Year's banners.
  • Interior of Xiaoweixi Catholic Church. An image of Fr. Shi Guangrong, who led the rebuilding of the community, is at left.
  • At Xiaoweixi village, Pope Francis has a place of honor in the parish house and museum, as does one of the martyred French priests who helped found the community.
  • Rear of Xiaoweixi church, Yunnan province.
  • Stations of the Cross in Xiaoweixi church, Tong Wei Village, Yunnan, China.
  • Xiaoweixi Catholic Church, which serves mostly minority Lisu people in Tong Wei Village, Yunnan China. The words above the altar are "Altar Sacrifice" and "Mercy and Forgiveness."
  • Xiaoweixi Church along the Lancang River, Yunnan, China. All but two families in this village are Catholic.
  • Stations of the cross at the Cizhong Catholic church, Yunnan Province, China.
  • A family home in Cizhong, China comprised of intermarried Buddhists and Catholics.
  • Interior of a Buddhist Lamasery in the region makes clear the origins of some of Cizhong village church's decorative motifs.
  • Wedding photos and sacred images in the living room of a family home in Cizhong, Yunnan.

The visual culture — the local churches and religious imagery — is one of the most compelling aspects of Catholic life in the valley, quite worthy of attention even alongside the very striking visual culture of Tibetan Buddhism. Catholicism in the Lancang Valley amalgamates elements of Western Catholic, Chinese and Tibetan traits, using bright colors and unusual architectural combinations. It often synthesizes Western 19th- and 20th-century pious images with elements of Chinese and Tibetan visual culture to form a rich visual mix. All of the churches Sinicize basic Western forms with decorative Chinese elements in roofs, woodwork and color schemes. None go so far as to fully copy the explosion of color, especially red and gold, that are used in nearby Buddhist lamaseries, but neither (in contrast to many of the churches in the major cities of China’s East) do they simply look like 19th-century Western buildings and decorative schemes imported wholesale. 

Cizhong and Xiaoweixi churches, the oldest and largest among those in the valley, make liberal use of Tibetan and Chinese motifs, and the smaller, simpler churches at Niuren and Cigu add these as well. 

Primary holy images in the churches are usually draped with white or yellow silk as a sign of respect and blessing. All Chinese would know that yellow, the color once reserved for the emperors, signifies status. It is also the color favored by the Tibetan monks. White silk speaks to purity and is also used to honor the dead, as the traditional color for mourning. Churches and banners feature a good deal of red, the color that symbolizes prosperity.

Colorful calligraphy banners, usually in red, surround many sacred images and altars, with one short banner at the top, two longer ones on the sides. Calligraphy is seen as an art form in and of itself in China, often displayed on walls as a form that harmonizes art and poetry. The words on these banners tell us something about the way Catholicism is presented in this context.

In one home, for example, a poster of the Sacred Heart seated in clouds is surrounded by the words, “Everything has its true origin, or reason for being,” at top; and “All powerful, Absolute perfection, All knowing, All capable; Ultimate justice, Fairness, Benevolence ” on the sides. At the bottom, it reads, in smaller characters, “Almighty presence, the origin of every being and thing, since time immemorial, reaching to eternity, transcending all chasms of differences. Without form or shape, this gives form to everything. No second one like it, unique.”

Above the altar at Niuren Catholic church reads "God is love." The left banner proclaims, "Spread (or Propagate) love, Spread loyalty, Overflowing salvation, Grand design." The right banner reads "Overseer of all, God's wisdom, Right order under heaven." At Xiaoweixi Catholic Church, the words above the altar are "Altar Sacrifice" and "Mercy and Forgiveness."

The literary style is semi-classical Chinese, not Western narrative. It speaks of God in philosophical, not relational terms — of a God who is highly transcendent and out of time, and to ideals that are eternal, unchanging and far above the human order. Whether peasants in the village fully grasp this classical language (in Chinese, not their native Tibetan) is open to question, but it is worth noting that most of these phrases have been added to churches since they were rebuilt, not simply inherited from the distant past.

Aside from the presence of the churches themselves, public expression of Catholicism in the valleys and towns is more restrained than that of Tibetan Buddhism. Stupas dot the roads, and prayer flags are often strung across the lands and from many houses in Cizhong. One could occasionally notice that some Catholic men wore a rosary under their shirts, but no one wore Christian signs on the outside of their clothes. On the doors of homes, only one house was seen to display a Christian symbol on the exterior, as part of the otherwise ubiquitous Chinese New Year’s banners and greetings. Inside the home, people do favor bright framed images, judging from a few homes visited and the many images brought to church at Easter to be blessed. Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Lourdes images predominate — indeed, the Sacred Heart, rather than the crucifix, is over the altar, and on posters in people’s homes.