The southwestern province of Sichuan is situated in one of China’s most culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse regions. Home to members of the Han, Tibetan, Hui, and Yi ethnic groups, among others, travelers to the area can find centuries-old Tibetan and Taoist temples standing alongside mosques and churches.
Of the various faiths practiced in Sichuan, Christianity stands out as a relative latecomer. The first Catholic missionary known to have reached the province was an Italian Jesuit named Lodovico Buglio, who spent much of the 1640s proselytizing there. Eventually, in 1753, the Paris Foreign Missions Society, a Catholic lay organization, took over responsibility for the Catholic missionary presence in Sichuan. By 1804, there was a small but growing community of Sichuanese Catholics, including 18 Chinese priests and four French missionaries.
Over the ensuing two centuries, this community persevered through all manner of upheaval — including occasional imperial campaigns against foreign religions, the bloody chaos that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, and the forced expulsion of foreign missionaries following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In the process, it built up a fascinating cultural and architectural legacy, as well as some of China’s oldest and finest churches.
Earlier this year, I set out to tour Sichuan’s Catholic sites, hoping to better understand the religion’s place in Sichuanese history. I began my journey with Dengchigou Church — the site where, approximately 150 years ago, resident priest Armand David first introduced the giant panda to the Western world.
The exterior (left) and interior of Dengchigou Church in Baoxing County, Sichuan province, Feb. 5, 2018. Courtesy of Ma Te
Built in 1839 under the direction of French missionaries in the mountain village of Dengchigou, this church is one of the province’s oldest. Extraordinarily well-preserved, the main building consists of a spacious enclosed Chinese-style courtyard. A traditional tablet hangs above the door, greeting visitors with the words, “Church of the Annunciation” and “All the Earth Doth Worship Thee” in Chinese. Other than the tablet, the only sign that the building houses anything other than a traditional Chinese temple is the tiny, easy-to-miss cross on the roof.
The interior of the church, however, is another story: With its vaulted ceilings and carved wooden pillars, it’s all Western. When I visited, there was no priest on the premises, and the building seemed to have been converted into a tourist attraction. Just outside, I found a museum for David and his “discovery” of the giant panda.
The exhibit informed me that, in addition to David’s religious responsibilities, he also had a passion for the natural sciences, and his post in Sichuan was in part a scientific research mission. It was while in Dengchigou, in 1869, that he first noticed a giant panda hide hanging on the wall of a farmhouse near the church. Curious, he asked local hunters to bring him a specimen, the skin of which David shipped back to Paris for further research, along with a live deer. Ironically, today David is perhaps better known for the latter discovery — which was named Père David’s deer, in his honor — than the former. It would be years before the giant panda captured the world’s imagination and became the symbol of China that it is today.
After leaving Dengchigou, I traveled south to the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, where there are two more century-old churches. Built around the same time and by the same priest — Paul Audren, another French missionary — the churches of Huili and Dechang also represent an interesting fusion of Western and Chinese architectural styles.
The Huili church keeps the two influences separate. Located in the county seat, the front of the church is made from wood and brick, finished in a French gothic style. The rear bell tower, on the other hand, has the heavy eaves, hexagonal roof, and timber structure characteristic of a traditional Chinese temple. Viewed from the side, this stark split produces quite an effect.
The front (left) and rear (right) of Huili church, Huili County, Sichuan province, Feb. 10, 2018. Courtesy of Ma Te
Built in 1926, the church is well-maintained, and is currently still in use. The church’s backyard houses several small rooms, where believers can meet for choir practice and church activities. While there, I noticed that tourists would occasionally stop in and listen to women playing the piano and singing traditional hymns, but the church itself seemed to be one of the rare few historically significant buildings in China not to have been given over to the local tourism board.
The Sacred Heart Cathedral in Dechang is in a considerably greater state of disrepair. Like Huili’s church, Sacred Heart’s main building is a hybrid of Chinese and Western styles: The core structure of the cathedral is Western, while the details — especially the roof eaves — are done in a more traditional Chinese style. Located in an old part of town, the church — which was commissioned by Audren and finished in 1908, 20 years before Huili’s structure — is surrounded by run-down houses, a sign that the area is not quite as prosperous as Huili.
An external view of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Dechang County, Sichuan province, Feb. 9, 2018. Courtesy of Ma Te
Unlike many other churches in the region, Sacred Heart operated continuously from 1908 until 1950, when the country’s Catholic schools came under government control and all church lands were nationalized. Even after 1950, the community continued to hold occasional services until the anti-religious campaigns of the Cultural Revolution broke out in the mid-1960s. The church would not reopen its doors until 1982. It’s back in use today, but remains a shell of its former self.
Any discussion of China’s temples, churches, and mosques must eventually touch on the violence of the past century in China. But whereas the Cultural Revolution left religious buildings in ruins across the country, many of Sichuan’s churches were spared, in part because of their connections to Communist Party history. A Catholic church I visited in the town of Moxi was preserved because Mao Zedong held a meeting there in 1935. Another church in the area was saved, because it had once hosted a Red Army party. Many of these churches have been renovated and rebuilt in recent years; however, while some have been turned into so-called Red tourism sites, many continue to be used primarily for religious activities, a sign of the strength of Sichuan’s Catholic community.
Generations of Chinese students have been taught the dark side of Western missionary activity in China: their arrogance, their imperialist attitudes, and their lack of respect or patience for China’s culture and traditions. Whatever old churches still remain were typically preserved not out of any good will, but because of their historical value, or because the expense of tearing them down outweighed any potential benefit. It is my hope, however, that as time passes, we can approach the past in a more evenhanded way. The history of these churches — and the people, both Chinese and foreign, who built them — is worth preserving.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Sacred Heart Cathedral in Dechang County, Sichuan province, Feb. 9, 2018. Courtesy of Ma Te)