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The Brave Catholics of China

Lu-Nan/Magnum Photos
Han Ying Fang, a fifth-generation Catholic, Shanxi province, China, 1992. The crucifix she is holding was hidden in the ceiling of her house during the Cultural Revolution.


Like most pilgrimage sites in China, the shrine in the village of Cave Gulley in Shanxi province is located partway up a mountain, reachable by steep stairs that are meant to shift worshipers’ attention from the world below to heaven above. Thousands make the journey each year, ending up in a structure of red columns, glazed tiles, and friezes of swirling Chinese dragons. It could be any Chinese folk religious temple, except for a cross on the roof that hints at what’s inside: a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, a title for apparitions of the Virgin Mary in nineteenth-century France.

In The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village, the Oxford historian Henrietta Harrison describes the competing forces that resulted in the creation of this active center of Chinese Catholicism. The Missionary’s Curse is a rich piece of microhistory, replete with violent priests who bullied their flocks and pious missionaries who spent their lives in hiding. But the tale is even more ambitious than the recreation of this bygone era, with Harrison using it to challenge contemporary ideas about how foreign ideas are absorbed in China.

Her book is especially timely because the new government under Xi Jinping is in the midst of trying to define what is China’s “dream”—what are Chinese values after a century of absorbing so much from the outside world? Xi used the phrase last year for the first time and since then it has become a ubiquitous slogan in China. Until then, probably the only country whose leaders regularly spoke of a national dream had been the United States. Xi’s use of it has begged the question of whether he is echoing the American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Recently in these pages, I reviewed Orville Schell and John Delury’s Wealth and Power, which convincingly argues that the twin ideas in this book’s title have driven China’s most influential thinkers and leaders for nearly two hundred years.1 Foreign ideas were imported but adapted to the Chinese situation. Judging from recent propaganda campaigns in major Chinese cities, President Xi likely has similar ideas in mind when he talks of China’s dream. These campaigns portray it as a collective vision of national greatness defined by traditional Chinese values, with the ideas illustrated by cute folk art images of children, birds, and flowers.2

Harrison argues for a broader view of Chinese people’s hopes and aspirations. She acknowledges that China has borrowed liberally from other cultures—her book, after all, is about a Catholic village—but writes that Christian ideas have not been Sinicized as much as many imagine. On the contrary, the first foreign conceptions that were adopted were the ones most acceptable to Chinese, and over time people strove to add foreign content, not subtract it. Thus ideas in China have tended more toward international norms, not Chinese versions of them. The trend is slow—frustratingly so for many who argue that China over the past decade has moved further away from international standards, especially in the field of human rights, or even economic regulation. But Harrison has a long view. Her story starts in the sixteenth century, and with that perspective she describes a clear shift away from localism and toward international engagement:

From this point of view Christianity is an ideology that can be seen alongside science, democracy, communism, and contemporary ideologies of global capitalism, while the Catholic church can be compared to institutions as varied as the Comintern and the Red Cross.

This is a bold claim, especially given the size of her sample, but like another historian of China, Jonathan Spence, Harrison has a knack for finding narrow but telling figures on which to hang big-picture stories. In an earlier work, The Man Awakened from Dreams, Harrison wrote a biography of a member of the “literarti”—the educated elite in traditional China who positioned themselves as arbiters between state and society.3 Living just a few miles away from Cave Gulley’s Catholics, that man was a tragic figure because his life, from 1857 to 1942, spanned the collapse of the Confucian world he embodied. Harrison sensitively cited from his four-hundred-volume diary, bringing back to life a world often known today only through stick-figure representations: the peasant, the landlord, the official.

She achieves a similar feat in The Missionary’s Curse. Harrison’s deep familiarity with China allows her to see connections between her specific narrative and the bigger thread of how China has been confronted with the outside world for the past two centuries. More than most other books I’ve read on China in recent years, it’s one that rings true, and reinforces the long-term optimist’s view against Chinese exceptionalism, and for a country bound to international institutions and norms.


The first written proof of Christianity’s arrival in China is an eighth- century stele documenting the activities of Nestorian traders, who came from the Middle East along the Silk Road. Off and on, Christian visitors came to China—for example during the Mongolian conquest—but the religion only obtained a foothold in the sixteenth century with the arrival of Jesuit advisers to the emperors of the Ming dynasty. The Jesuits continued to advise the next dynasty, the Qing.4

The Jesuits made inroads by turning a blind eye toward Chinese ancestor worship and veneration of sages, especially Confucius, while conforming to Chinese manners. Indeed, Jesuit advisers often acted and dressed like Confucian gentlemen, mastering the rituals and etiquette of court life. The Jesuits, however, ran into internal political problems in Rome, and their policy of accommodation was banned by Pope Clement XI in 1704. Clement opposed a variety of measures the Jesuits had adopted to assuage local concerns that Christianity was a foreign religion. Most notably, they had appropriated the terms tian (Heaven) and shangdi (Lord on High) for God. These were the names of ancient Chinese deities, and Clement argued that they could not be used also for the Christian god. Instead, he instructed Catholics to use another word, tianzhu, or “Lord of Heaven,” making the religion seem more distant from traditional Chinese beliefs.

Clement also forbade worship in Confucian temples, a move that guaranteed that no Chinese official could be Catholic because all officials were bound by law to pay homage to Confucius. Most controversial was Clement’s banning of ancestor worship, which was so important to traditional culture that the Qing empire had promulgated laws requiring people to pay respects to their ancestors. Not doing so was punishable by death.

To make sure the Chinese knew of the new policy, the Vatican sent an emissary to Beijing to inform the emperor. Not surprisingly, the Kangxi emperor soon banned Christianity (at the time, there were no Protestant missionaries), a measure that remained in effect until the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century forced China to allow in missionaries and grant the religion legal status. Over the following decades, missionaries poured into China, backed by Western gunboats and sometimes financed by levies on the Chinese populace. Despite this turn of events, China had just over 950,000 converts to Catholicism by the turn of the century—about one tenth of one percent of the population.

This is where Harrison begins her book, with a discussion of one of the most influential works on Chinese Christianity, a 1907 book by the French priest Léon Joly. He posed a question that has resonated for decades: Why had Christianity failed in China? Joly’s answer was that Christianity hadn’t come close enough to indigenous culture to win over locals. Run by foreigners and featuring a story set in foreign countries, the Christian religion was a hard sell in China. Joly’s view of Christianity as a religion foreign to China has remained at the heart of much Western scholarship on Christianity there, coloring how we view important events in twentieth-century history, such as the Boxer Rebellion. The basic premise is that Christianity entered China in the wake of Western imperialism and didn’t gain a foothold until much later.

Joly’s point of reference, however, was the Roman Empire, which had adopted Christianity as an official religion. Harrison wonders if that was a fair comparison; China hadn’t become Christian, but had Christianity really failed? From her close study of Cave Gulley, she also questions Joly’s premise that Christianity was a foreign religion and needed to become more Chinese to succeed. This process, known as “acculturation,” is widely seen in Catholicism as a prerequisite for the faith to spread widely. But Harrison notes that the opposite occurred: locals first adopted a form of Christianity closest to local folk religions, but over the centuries discovered the global institution, and moved toward it. It was during the later phase—during the last half-century—that Christianity really took off, from the half-million of Joly’s time to the 30 million today.5

Catholicism spread by emphasizing that Christianity wasn’t the product of foreign forces. Cave Gulley is in Shanxi province, which in imperial times was on central trading routes. Shanxi bankers working in Beijing met Jesuits in the seventeenth century and brought the religion back home, where they converted their families and villages. Missionaries played little part in the early acceptance of Christianity. The odd one who did make it to Shanxi arrived only in the eighteenth century and had to live underground to avoid the government’s ban on his religion. Most survived as guests of local gentry, and rarely interacted with the local populace.

Not surprisingly, locals adopted a version of Catholicism that closely tracked their own folk religious practices. This was aided by the fact that when they did interact with foreign Catholics, they were involved with Franciscans from southern Italy. What was adopted in Shanxi had parallels in both societies: lists of commandments, regular fasting, group chanting of litanies, rosaries, village ceremonies to pray for rain, expensive and elaborate rituals to help a departed person’s soul reach the final paradise, and visionary trances that gave ordinary people special knowledge of the divine. To local Chinese of that time, the new Western learning also had direct parallels to Confucianism, with its cosmology, rituals, and rules of living. According to church records, up to two thousand people converted each year during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The missionaries played a significant part in China only much later, in the nineteenth century. But it was during this time that Christianity grew slowest. After Joly’s work came out in the early twentieth century, there was a renewed push to convert and baptize. But these were paper gains; when the Communists took power in 1949 and began persecuting Christians, most of the new converts recanted. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1976, Harrison estimates that most Catholics had been so for up to eight generations—they were the offspring of the people who converted in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In other words, the spread of Catholicism was the result of a slow but steady absorption of Christianity and not the supercharged efforts of Western-backed missionaries.

  1. 1

    The New York Review, November 21, 2013

  2. 2

    See my “ Old Dreams for a New China,” NYRblog, October 15, 2013. 

  3. 3

    The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village, 1857–1942 (Stanford University Press, 2005). 

  4. 4

    This story is captured most memorably by Jonathan Spence in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Viking, 1984). 

  5. 5

    The numbers are ideologically charged and contentious. According to government figures, China has twenty-three million Protestants and six million Catholics. Many millions more, however, attend churches not registered with the government. Activists say the total is around one hundred million; more sober estimates put the figure in the forty- to sixty-million range. 

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