The Brave Catholics of China

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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 …

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  1. 1

    The New York Review, November 21, 2013

  2. 2

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