Chinese migration to urban areas may erode Catholic villages

  • Palm Sunday procession and blessing at Xujiahui - St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai, 2014.
  • This woman left Cigu to teach elsewhere, but she returned to the village for Easter.
  • Many young people are leaving their tight-knit Catholic villages, like this one in the Yunnan province, for job opportunities in urban areas.
  • The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Guangzhou serves a large African population at its English Mass and also offers a weekly Mass in Korean for South Korean migrants.
  • 2,000 Africans form the largest group of attendees at the English-speaking Mass at the Guangzhou cathedral.
  • A dam building project on the Lancang River, typical of some of the infrastructure projects that are transforming village life by connecting villages to urban China.

Catholics number among the many Chinese who have migrated to many parts of the world and established local communities and parishes. Expatriate Chinese Catholics are said to have been generous funders of church building projects in China, and often seek to influence global perceptions about the Chinese Church, particularly the condition of the underground Church.

In some of the largest Chinese cities, the presence of large numbers of foreigners impacts the life of churches as well, as churches try to minister to both Chinese and international communities. In Guangzhou, for example, 2,000 Africans form the largest group of attendees at the cathedral’s Sunday English-speaking Mass.1

Internal migration is perhaps more significant in the long run for Chinese Catholicism. China is said to be in the midst of the largest internal migration in history, as rural villagers flood into large urban areas in search of the jobs now available in construction and export manufacturing. Many migrants lack the legal right to establish formal, long-term residency in the cities they move to, since China has an internal system that determines rights of residency, hence many live in corporate dormitories or in tenuous situations. 

China until recently was a disproportionately rural society, and Catholics have been disproportionately likely to be from rural villages. In the mid-1990s, Richard Madsen estimated that about 80 percent of Chinese Catholics lived in rural communities.2 One researcher wrote about one of those provinces, Hebei: “Hebei is also the seat of the underground Church, where most arrests of bishops and the faithful take place. The province boasts a number of ‘Catholic villages,’ where most or all of the inhabitants are poor Catholic farmers. Attending an early morning Mass in one of these villages can be a very moving experience.”3

As young people move to cities in search of jobs, leaving behind the elderly and sometimes wives and children, both those who leave and those who are left behind are affected. As young people leave these tight-knit, majority-Catholic village contexts, it remains to be seen how their religious practice will be affected. Madsen argued that Catholic villages were unusually tight in terms of social solidarity, and that in such a context, belonging to the faith was “less a chosen faith than an ascribed status.”4 In the cities, the ascribed status may not hold so firmly. China’s cities have sizeable churches that can accommodate these Catholics, but history has also shown elsewhere in the world that the move from village to city can result in a rapid diminishment of religious practice.5 

Some villages are struggling and said to be hollowed out, but in many places the government is providing new roads and links to the rest of the country, and smartphone access to the larger world. During a visit to the very remote Catholic village of Cizhong, Beijing and Shanghai Chinese visitors expressed surprise to see the level of development that had come to the villages in the last decade. Men could be seen playing video games on inexpensive smartphones, many families had access to cars, and flat screen televisions were ubiquitous. But the village was also home to more women than men, and most worshippers at Mass were adult women. This may in part reflect a gender difference in religiosity, but the men were also reported to be away working elsewhere, and some of the men who were at Mass were workers from other villages who had been hired to work on highway projects near this village.

  • 1. Shanshan Lan, “The Catholic Church’s Role in the African Diaspora in Guangzhou, China,” in Catholicism in China, 1900-Present: The Development of the Chinese Church, ed. Cindy Yik-yi Chu (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 219-236.
  • 2. Richard Madsen, China’s Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society (Berkeley: University of California, 1998), 50. According to Madsen, missionaries in China aimed to concentrate on and convert whole villages, rather than to scatter their efforts across communities.
  • 3. Betty Ann Maheu, "The Catholic Church in China," America, November 2005, 8.
  • 4. Richard Madsen, China’s Catholics, 53.
  • 5. In a recent study based on survey data from China, Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang suggest that presumed differences in religiosity between the cities and the countryside are not borne out in the surveys. Unfortunately, they provide no information on the statistical significance of their surveys, nor to do they distinguish between the Protestants and Catholics in their data. Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang, A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2015), 91-111.
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