Placing Christianity in a Contemporary Chinese Village

The topic of Christianity in contemporary China raises many questions: Just how widespread is this phenomenon, and what does it tell us about China today? Where and when have Chinese turned to Christian beliefs, and why in those particular places and moments? Perhaps most importantly, who are these Chinese Christians, how do they express their Christian identity, and why do they hold their beliefs? I cannot fully answer any of these questions, nor even address most of them, but this paper will try to suggest a context, or interconnected series of contexts, in which to place a preliminary understanding of "Christianity" in China . I will argue that a sense of place plays a key role in the way Christianity is absorbed, transformed, or localized, and that the apparent rising interest in Christianity is best understood as part of the broader resurgence of tradition and search for values in China today. The implication of this argument is that, when it comes down to how the concept is understood at the village level, Chrisitianity in China tells us far more about being Chinese than about being Christian.

Between 1991 and 1993, we saw the resurgence of many traditional practices in the village, culminating in the revitalization of the Chuanzhu temple. We also frequently heard villagers complain about the breakdown of moral order in society, and talk about their own values and ideals. In general, Christianity was not a major factor shaping their thinking. To borrow a metaphor from the village's landscape, Xiakou was outside the mainstream of Chinese Christianity, an eddy into which Christian influence sometimes drifted to mingle with other, stronger currents of belief. Still, in an area closer to Chengdu there was a significant "house church" revival movement known to the villagers of Xiakou, and two of the people we came to know best in the village did in fact identify themselves as Christian. The ways these two individuals understood their Christian identity provide interesting, though very limited, case studies in the localization of Christianity in China . Before discussing these two individuals, however, I need to briefly describe the broader contexts within which their stories unfold.

The broadest of these contexts is the villagers horizon of historical memory, very roughly divided into jiu shehui ("the old society"), jiti ("the collective"), and xiahu (the post-Mao reform period 1 ). Lived by few but preserved in the village's collective memory, jiu shehui is remembered as an idealization of both the good and the bad. 2 The period serves as a kind of mental storehouse of archetypal values, and, as such, is an important source for values in the present. Although the official event dividing jiu shehui from the jiti period was the village's "Liberation" by communist forces in 1949, by far the greater historical watershed was the Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine (1958-1961), during which nearly half of the village starved to death. The effect of this tragedy, even on those born after the calamity, cannot be overestimated. The villagers who survived lost not only family members but also their faith and trust in the Party. This loss of faith was a painfully long process of deepening disillusionment over the course of the collective period, when villagers were denied the power to make local decisions, exploited to supply urban industrial development, terrorized by political campaigns and irrational production targets, denied local institutions, customs and beliefs, and stripped of their local identity.

The next remembered turning point was the concatenation of events occuring in 1976: the death of Mao Zedong, the bad harvest and mini-famine across Sichuan , and the simultaneous political crackdown on private production that once again reduced Xiakou's residents to scouring the hills for wild food. This time the villagers voted with their feet. The decollectivization of the xiahu period that in the early 1980s returned agricultural production to farm families under the "responsibility system" was actually official sanction of a process already well underway at the local level. We might think of this horizon of historical memory as the tableau upon which villagers superimposed contemporary events, a background of experience coloring (sometimes shading) their understanding of the present. The main theme of the tableau is chaos, disillusionment, and moral loss. Within this historical context and its legacy of anomie the economic transformation of the village in the reform period prepared the ground for the villagers reassertion of moral order, of which Christianity can be seen as a small part.

The villagers welcomed the reform policies, but the disillusionment they felt toward the Party -- or what intellectual social commentators began to call the "crisis of belief" ( xinyang weiji )-- was too deep to be reversed; indeed, the economic context of the reform period has only reinforced their loss of faith, especially after the first blush of post-decollectivization prosperity grew wan. While the village's standard of living had improved sporadically since Liberation, decollectivization brought rapid progress to Xiakou as farmers were able to take fuller advantage of new hybrid variety crops, develop a new sideline of dairy goats, and, especially, pursue opportunities for wage earning. But these real gains made after decollectivization actually began to erode after 1986, as inflation ate away at stagnating incomes.

Although Xiakou has always lagged behind the prosperity achieved in rural rice growing regions and suburban villages close to large urban centers, the reform economy exacerbated these disparities, making Xiakou's farmers feel relatively even more poor and left behind. At the same time villagers began to feel the pressures of inflation, they also saw the tremendous economic boom in urban (especially coastal) areas, and the rise in waste and corruption that accompanied loosening government controls on the economy. Resentment of official corruption and of increased taxation began to crest after Deng Xiaoping's December 1991 "trip to the south" to investigate the effect of the more liberal opening-up policies being tested in the coastal development zones such as Shenzhen in Guangdong Province. Deng concluded that these market reforms were beneficial to the Chinese economy and that the benefits of this brand of "socialist-market economy" should be made more widespread. Following his conclusions the government issued the important "number two document" ( erhao wenjian ) of 1992. This document opened the door for government work units to become financially more self-sufficient and even encouraged government employees to seek "second jobs." Even more important than the specific policy measures was a widespread fever to "jump into the sea" ( xia hai ) of the market economy and get rich. In the eyes of the villagers, the general picture was one of a shift of resources from public welfare to private gain, of decreased opportunity for rural areas to increased corruption yielding benefits to some urban dwellers.

The political and economic changes that ensued from Deng's Southern Tour directly affected agricultural production in Xiakou. With the changeover in local township personnel, part of the general bureaucratic restructuring initiated by the shifting winds, there was a period of adjustment during which local infrastructure was poorly maintained. For example, the township failed to pay for routine repair of irrigation canals. Leakage from the canal resulted in water shortages when the rice shoots were planted and soil erosion on hillsides below the canal. The officials = extensive and unregulated use of public funds to start new businesses resulted in a severe banking crisis; farmers' loans were called in and many villagers found themselves short of cash. Reorientation of government-owned factories interrupted the supply and affected the quality of basic inputs such as fertilizer and seed. A retaining wall was built in front of the village along the public road following a severe flood in 1992, but due to corruption in the traffic bureau sand was substituted for cement and the first high water in the spring of 1993 obliterated the entire construction. All of these examples point to what villagers see as an alarming trend toward "chaos." Mismanagement and corruption by government officials were commonly compared to the situation under the last years of Guomindang (Nationalist) rule. Many villagers complained about inflation and an increase in crime. Higher taxes and pressure to pay back government loans were also contributing factors to growing dissatisfaction. Against the background of an eroding standard of living, villagers saw the changes brought by the "socialist market economy" as, at worst, a threat to the infrastructure of government service on which they rely and to which they contribute ever higher taxes, and, at best, as an economic boom in which they could have no part.

It was within these inter-nesting contexts of disillusionment-- based on bitter historical experience-- and outrage 3  -- born of the reform economy's inequality and corruption-- that villagers from Xiakou and other villages in the township began to bring the Chuanzhu temple back to life. We have described the temple's revitalization elsewhere, but for our purposes here, the important points are, 1) that it took place in defiance of the local authorities, as an assertion of both local identity and moral order; 2) that it served as an institution for older villagers to pass on their values to the youngest generation, as an antidote to the moral decay and lack of belief they saw in society; and 3) that it happened when it did, since I would argue that the same timing applies to the Christian house church movement that took place in Heizhu, an area not far from Xiakou.

The "religious revival" aspect of the resurgence of tradition was widespread in China throughout the reform period, and included not only temple building but household-based rituals of ancestor worship and offerings to the "kitchen god," ritual offerings to the many "earth gods" ( tudi ) scattered in small shrines throughout the landscape, and, especially in southeast China, the re-opening of lineage halls and local festivals (e.g. Siu 1989b). In Xiakou, furtive acts of individual worship-- primarily the burning of incense and paper money at family altars, graves and tudi shrines-- continued even through the collective period and began to be more openly practiced by the late 1980s, but smaller local temples only began to reactivate in 1992.

In light of the fact that in other areas of China temple building also began earlier during the 1980s, the question of why the temple 'revived' when it did is especially important. One possible answer is that market reforms spur temple reconstruction both in the sense that, traditionally, a certain level of prosperity gives rise to investment in prestige through donations to the community, and in the sense that temples and local festivals offer opportunities for developing the guanxi networks that underpin business, even at the expense of the ritual's consequent "vulgarization" (Siu 1989b:127). Thus it seems to make sense that more economically developed areas such as southeast China would have earlier temple revivals, especially given the influence of returning emigres from nearby Hong Kong and Taiwan . In more remote and poor locations, such as Sichuan , the time-lag in temple construction might reflect the time-lag in economic development. This explanation seems even more persuasive when put in the context of Deng's southern tour and "document number two", which aimed to spur economic growth in the hinterland by urging people to "learn from" the example of booming coastal regions like Shenzhen (next to Hong Kong).

The reconstruction of Chuanzhu temple seems true to this pattern-- except that the connection between market reform and temple building is exactly inverted; that is, the motivation behind rebuilding the temple was not for guanxi or economic reasons, but against the commoditization of relationships and rampant corruption accompanying market reforms. One might safely conclude from this that market reforms can be linked to the timing of temple revivals, even if that linkage cannot tell us why any specific temple is undergoing revival-- after all, China is a big place, with great variation in local conditions. That said, it is quite possible that the mixture of religious revival and economic motivation exhibited in the (well-studied) southeast of China is an exception rather than the rule; the hinterland is vast, and most of it a world apart from the freewheeling prosperity of villages in, say, Guangdong province. In fact, I would argue that this disparity of wealth is one of the phenomena stemming from market reforms that feeds the fire of discontent in Sichuan , discontent expressed in the reactivation of local temples. This point is based on an important distinction in what we mean by a "temple", and this distinction, in turn, further explains the timing of temple building.

As the terms "local" and "reactivate" suggest, we are referring to temples which are revitalized from the spontaneous initiative of local villagers , as distinct from those primarly reconstructed at state initiative, developed as tourist centers. While the latter frequently house clerics and are visited by worshipping pilgrims as well as tourists, their religious activities are state-approved, and their significance is more redolent of a cultural-nationalistic invention of essence or heritage ( guoqing ) than religious. 4 Local temples, by contrast, are centers of Chinese "popular religion" or "folk religion" ( minjian zongjiao ); or, less charitably and more frequently, of "feudal superstition" ( fengjian mixin ). 5 For the present discussion, it is important to understand that local temples are the assertion of a specific community's historical memory, and that a moral judgment of the present is both implicit and explicit in that assertion. Further, the tension between the classifications "feudal" ( fengjian ) and "folk" ( minjian ) mirrors the ambivalence in the state's interactions with local communities, and the top-down normative proscription of behavior enforced by state agents. For these reasons, the state perceived the temple as a threat and, until local authorities tried to coopt the temple in 1992, resisted the activities there-- which underscores the contention that the timing of the temple's revival is crucial for understanding the motivations behind it.

How does all this relate to the motivations behind Christianity in the Chinese countryside? From the fact that the house church revival movement in Heizhu (a community about an hour closer to Chengdu than Xiakou, located along the main highway) occurred at the same time as the temple revitalization, I would surmise that many of the same motivations were at play in both places, specifically the desire to fill the "vacuum of values" with a system of belief, and the spontaneous grassroots reaction against crime, corruption, the commoditization of relationships, and moral decay. Further, both the temple revitalization in Xiakou and the Heizhu Christian movement were opposed by the authorities because they were spontaneous, uncontrolled, and thus threatening: the temple was (at first) shut down as a den of heterodox "feudal superstition," and the leader of the Heizhu house church movement was reportedly arrested. I did not witness the events in Heizhu, so I can only surmise these similarities, like trying to gauge the main current's direction from the swirls in an eddy. But there also seems to be a difference between the two cases, since local identity was at the heart of the Chuanzhu temple revitalization, and it hardly seems likely that a Christian movement would have this characteristic. Still, for one of the villagers of Xiakou I came to know, the identity of "Christian" was quite important to her self-definition.

An Niyu was born into a Catholic family that lived in the rice-growing village of Caoba on the plain close to the city of Ya'an . She met her husband, Wu Guangxing of the dominant Wu clan in Xiakou, during the mass mobilization of labor of the Great Leap Forward, when they both worked at the coal mine in Yunjing. After the worst of the starvation had passed, An moved to Xiakou with her new husband, and entered into a continually turbulent relationship with the rest of the villagers. While the particulars of all the feuds in which An Niyu was involved are too numerous to recount here (and further complicated by each having at least two sides!), the common source from which all this dissension arose was her persistent desire to be different-- or, more accurately, better-- than the others. Her professed identity as a Catholic was a significant part of her efforts to raise her status in the village, efforts that earned her the nickname "old rotten heart and lungs."

The animus An inspired stemmed not from her religious convictions, but from the way she pursued her ambitions for her family, primarily by currying favor with officials. Her strivings contributed to her husband's success in landing the job of team accountant during collective times, and her own position in charge of the village store-- both prizes that made the family a lightning rod for suspicion and controversy. Add to this the fact that she was pregnant for virtually the entire collective period, during which she was allocated a portion of the team's production despite her inability to work in the fields, further arousing the other villagers' resentment. For all these reasons, An Niyu was frequently involved in the struggle sessions of the 1960s and 1970s-- where personal rivalries and grievances were dressed-up and vented as political crimes-- sometimes as target, sometimes as accuser. By all accounts, she was good at "getting" people; she is even today an indisputably pugnacious arguer. An is also skilled at winning support from levels of power above the village, some say through generous feasting, while others maliciously hint at other forms of generosity.

Through it all, An Niyu bears the opprobrium heaped upon her by her neighbors with equanimity, even pride. She wears her difference as a badge of distinction, and it is in this capacity that she claims to be Catholic. The only immediately discernable outward sign of her religious identity is a picture of Jesus that hangs in the family bedroom, and she has only dim childhood memories of attending mass in Ya'an before Liberation. Her knowledge of Catholic doctrine is very limited, but she knows that Catholicism ( Tianzu jiao ) is distinct from Protestant Christianity ( Jidu jiao ), and, more importantly, that it is different from traditional Chinese religious practices. An is quite sure that the chief characteristic that makes her Catholic and different from others is her refusal to burn paper money in honor of dead ancestors, at first glance a rather trivial distinction, but one that in fact holds a great deal of symbolic significance. On the one hand, since the ancestors she would worship are those of her husband's clan, her failure to carry out the traditional practice is an act of defiance against the dominant clan of the village, and an assertion of her independence even from her husband's authority (for which, along with his willingness to help with household chores, he was generally pitied as "henpecked"). On the other hand, An Niyu's Catholicism allowed her to reject not only burning paper money, but the whole gamut of traditional practices, on the grounds that, as a Catholic, she did not believe in "feudal superstition." This last was perhaps the most meaningful aspect of her religion, for it gave her, ironically, a kind of iconoclastic high-ground from which she could relate to non-believing officialdom, and look down on the ignorance of her fellow villagers.

An Niyu cannot be considered a practicing Catholic; she "believed" in Christianity not as a faith, but as an identity , and that identity was important to her in the way she negotiated through the complex web of relationships that is village life. Perhaps hers is a kind of vestigial Catholicism, the shadow of a once vibrant community of faith, whose meaning is now localized to the point of defining not what the believer is, but what she is not. In some ways, An Niyu's almost pragmatic understanding of Christianity brings to mind the opportunism of some nineteenth century Chinese converts who used their Christian identity to gain power and protection from foreign missionaries-- and who reaped the hatred of their countrymen for doing so. I believe that her conviction in her Christian identity is genuine, however, even if she never spoke of it in terms of faith or values. In contrast, while the degree to which the Heizhu house church movement was motivated by "identity" is uncertain, it seems to have been largely animated by faith, at least according to the sole Xiakou villager who took part in the movement, a man named Zhu Congde.

It has always been difficult for me to write about Zhu Congde because he was a very good friend, and because he died while I was away from the village for a few months. He taught me, with much kindness, a great many things that I am still trying to understand. One of these things was his understanding of Christianity, the way he localized it to speak to his own values, and why in the end he gave up the new faith he had believed in so fervently.

Zhu Congde was an old man when I met him, with a well-known history in the village as an idealist and something of a character. They ironically referred to him, with some affection, as "Zhu De," the name of the Sichuanese leader of the Red Army, second only to Mao as an early hero of the Revolution. The irony was that Xiakou's Zhu De was not a great man, and not a brave man, but he did show enough courage during the famine, when he was a small brigade leader, to distribute grain among some of the villagers against the commune's orders. He had lived a hard life. Born into poverty and forcibly conscripted into the Guomindang army in his youth, Zhu Congde experienced the depravation and fear of the "old society" and was a great performer during the "recall past bitterness" campaigns. He became a local activist for the Party after Liberation, and loyally filled a series of village-level posts until his desparate defiance of the commune brought him before an "anti-right deviationist" struggle meeting. While he was not "capped" a rightist, he was so traumatized by the experience that he never again held an official post, even when the leadership asked him to. In his defence, he said that he never used his position to profit himself or his family; during the famine his parents, his wife, and two of his children starved to death. The one son who survived later became for a time the village Party branch-secretary, but he only tolerated his father, and left Zhu Congde to do the farm labor while he went off to "do business." At 77 years old, Zhu Congde was neglected, malnourished, and had only corn cobs to burn for his fire, but his wiry frame could still shoulder the heavy buckets of nightsoil up the steep path to the distant plots, and he still spent days at a time in a lean-to on the mountain, breaking new ground and gathering medicinal herbs from the mountainside.

Zhu loved to talk, for which he was sometimes ridiculed as "acting like an old woman" (but for which I was grateful). A man of some learning, he had been educated in the "four books and five classics" of the Confucian canon, and held a carefully hand-written transcription of the Sui Shen Bao into which he had copied his family's geneaology, as well as some local lore and legend 6 . He could find New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco on his map of the world, and he talked about current events such as the role of China in the United Nations and the break-up of the Soviet Union. He could sing the old mountain songs, so well that a folklorist from the city once came to record him. It was with this spirit of learning and respect for culture that he approached Christianity. Zhu's grandson's wife, who did not live in Xiakou, but came fairly often and seemed to care for the old man, introduced him to the house church in Heizhu. The experience impressed Zhu Congde; he went there several times, and he talked about it with me. Rather than analyze his beliefs, let me quote from my notes taken from some of those conversations:

November 13, 1992

Zhu Congde found Christ in his heart last week! He first said that he had "prayed to Tianfubaba [Heavenly Father] to arrange a good buyer" for his brooms, and then we found out that his grandson's wife took him to a Christian meeting in Heizhu... According to Zhu,

some call it crazy, but I say it is realism [ xianshizhuyi ], the things they say make sense: a person doesn't need to be rich, all a person needs is to eat enough, have enough to wear, that's all. The point is to be saved; 'if your heart is sincere, heaven will answer.'

He approved of the church, quoting Chairman Mao's dictum that their "words and actions were in accord" (kou hao he xingdong yi zhi ), and he liked their egalitarianism: "no seniority, they all call each other brothers and sisters." Above all he seemed to relate to the universal message of Christianity; he said that "the most fundamental thing in human nature is freedom," which he equated with faith, and that "people are the same all over, they all have conscience." The way he talks about Christianity reminds me of his stories of the Wu lineage temple in the "old society" and of the Party movements in the early 1950s when he was a member of the poor and lower middle peasant's association. He seems to be happily making connections between his new-found religious belief and all the values he has gathered from his own experience-- everything from Confucianism ("rectifying the heart and making the will sincere"/ zhengxin chengyi ) to the quotations of Chairman Mao...

January 30, 1993

Today we visited Zhu Congde who is still taken by his " tianfubaba ". I got some more insights into the nature of his belief from two things: first, his explanation of the essence of Christianity and of the ten commandments, and then from the way he explained the appeal of the religion as lying in its frugal and modest style. On the first I was struck by a couple of points: he said that his own interest and belief comes from the simple maxim " xinjiu dejiu " (if you believe you will be saved),but this belief is not just a way to be blessed with riches and 'worldly achievement'; rather its soul is sincerity, hence the interpretation of the fifth commandment as meaning not simply 'thou shalt not kill' but that one should not have bad thoughts or wish bad things on others. He also was at pains to differentiate his new religion from superstition and Buddhism not only in terms of ritual differences, but also in terms of a kind of simplicity : he contrasted the opening of the local Chuanzhu temple and all the money spent on it (both government funds and funds solicited from the masses) and all the money they ask of you (buying paper money, incense, contributing to the temple) with the austerity of the " jidu jiao " (Protestant Christianity):

They don't ask for money. If you don't have money to buy a bible-- this thick ! as thick as the Collected Works of Mao Zedong! It would take two years to read it all !-- then those with money buy the bibles and give them to those who don't have money.

He seems to have internalized the inner sincerity of this new religion. I might be stretching it, but I think Zhu Congde's attraction to Christianity lies in the values of sincerity and equality and simplicity that he perceives in it. I suppose that there is also an element of feeling different and special ("people in Ya'an don't believe, they say I'm crazy !") but there is no question that he takes to the study of it seriously, and, of course, he studies it in the same way that he once studied the classics: he carefully copies the main points into a little red notebook that he keeps, the same way he copied the Sui Shen Bao and his jiapu (family geneaology): new wine in old bottles?

Here the contrast with An Niyu is instructive. She wears her Christianity as a kind of exotic identity but knows very little about it except that you don't burn paper money or incense and that you're supposed to nian jing [recite scripture], but to her all that is a part of a separate world of learning, one that she (as an illiterate peasant woman) is not and cannot be expected to be a part of. For Zhu Congde, it is just because Christianity is a part of that 'world of letters' that he is attracted to it and can assimilate it. Finally, as part of that greater world, his association with " jidu jiao " and with the bible makes him a part of something even greater. As he will tell you: "The whole world reading one book, that brings the whole world together as one."

March 28, 1993

After everyone left he told us about his latest reflections on Christianity. He explained that he no longer believed because no one else in Ya'an believed, and he needed the support of a "society" to practice his religion. To him the idea that belief is personal and can be carried out despite one = s isolation from others was conceptually impossible. But he then went on to articulate his attraction to jidujiao, first talking once again about the egalitarianism of the meeting and how everyone was brother or sister, with no ranks separating them. Then he explained the phenomenon of the Heizhu religious revival as being related to "reality" that one could experience ( tihui ) directly. In fact, he told three stories that he used to counter charges that Christianity was not realistic and ineffective; all "true" and taking place around Heizhu recently:

The Christians and the robbers

There was a couple from Heizhu who believed in Christianity. One Sunday they went off to the church meeting, and they locked the door to their house. Two robbers decided they would break in and steal their rice. They broke the lock and went inside, but when they grabbed the rice, something strange happened. They both suddenly felt very tired and fell asleep. When the couple returned from church they found the two robbers, but instead of beating them, they prepared a big meal, cutting up some smoked ham for the occasion. When the food was ready, the robbers woke up and accepted the invitation to eat. After dinner, the host said 'you must be very poor and hungry to come here and steal our rice. Go ahead and take it back with you.' The robbers were too ashamed to do this, and they started coming to the church after this experience. You see, God made the robbers fall asleep. He protected the family, but it was their belief in the good and their good deeds that saved them. So those people really believed and you can see that it is real-- you can experience it!

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The pious parents and the resurrected son:

There was an older couple, also from Heizhu, who believed in Christianity. Their son did not believe and laughed at them. One day he had to be rushed to the hospital because his appendix burst. When the parents came, the doctor told them it was too late-- their son had died. They took the body to the morgue and the parents prayed over his body. After a while the doctor heard a voice coming from the morgue and discovered that it was the young man come back to life! After this, the son went with his parents to the Christian meeting and believed.

The last story was not a miracle, but to Zhu Congde it was also an experience that showed the reality of Christian faith in action:

After the meeting, the leader (huishou) had everyone to his house to eat. Of course there were too many people to feed them well, so they ate rice porridge and sweet potatoes [the symbol of poverty]. But since I was a guest they treated me very well and gave me fish to eat.

It seems to me that his (former) faith was motivated more by a respect for Christian values than by the tales of the miraculous and the potential for Christianity to profit him. The miracles are no doubt important to show the efficacy, the "reality" of religious belief, but I get the sense that Zhu Congde was really moved by their simple generosity (the meal that they shared-- hongshao xifan [rice gruel and sweet potatoes] for themselves and fish for him, the ultimate symbols of poverty and abundance-- was the symbolism intentional?). Such a stance of worldly denial must have a strong appeal in these times of greed and materialism-- what Zhu Congde calls "pocket stuffing"-- especially to someone like him who has so little, and so little prospect for getting anything more from life...

April 18, 1993

Later we ran into Zhu Congde coming back from hoeing the fields (at 77 years old). We got to see at first hand the pitiful straits he is reduced to. That morning he only had a mouthful of rice, and then his family left and locked the door. He was returning after a hard day = s labor and was very hungry. In the common room his only cooking facilities were three bricks and a wok (with only grass and corn stalks to burn). Only enough to cook a few noodles at best. He invited us in, but we first went to the store and got some cookies and bean noodles for him. When we returned and presented these to him, he wouldn't take them:

Comrade Fu Lean, comrade Chen Naxin, I can't take these from you. You come here and always bring things to an old man-- but I have nothing to give you! It's not right I tell you... You see a hungry old man that no one takes care of-- you are guests here; look how many people there are here who have known me for years-- do they help? Now it's everybody out for themselves...

Then we pointed out that friendship is not like doing business -- he doesn't have to give us something to receive something... He finally relented and made things right with himself by vowing to "send you wild tea when you return to America." Chen Naxin notes morbidly that "if they fed him he would probably live to 99! That's probably why they don't feed him."

December 5, 1993

Return to Xiakou...

Zhu Congde is dead. Most everyone is pretty matter-of-fact about it. He was, after all, 78 years old and his time had come. Most accounts of his passing are vague: "he died one week ago-- two weeks ago?" .He caught a cold coming back from Huanglong... he had stomache cancer... he froze to death." All agreed that he succumbed to a combination of being unable to eat and a wicked cold snap. Only Wu Suyong seems more sympathetic (her nature, I'd guess) and more forthcoming with details:

It's too bad you didn't come back a week or two ago-- old Zhu De would still be alive and glad to see you. He had something wrong with his throat and couldn't eat. His legs got all swollen from malnutrition and after half a month he died... His daughter-in-law took care of him. She washed his face and feet for him and made him corn porridge-- he could barely choke it down. But it wasn't enough and he finally died. His sickness could have been cured, but he didn't have enough money to see a doctor-- probably he didn't want to. In the countryside people don't have the money to see a doctor and get medecine; they just die when their time comes... he was a good man.

Zhu Congde is buried up in team one with the other Zhu graves. His coffin is made of wutong, a soft cheap wood. His son would have dispensed with the daochang [daoist funerary ritual], except that Wu Guangliang warned them that no daochang meant that the soul would stay in the house and haunt them. In the end they invited two daoist priests from Taiping to sing Zhu Congde to his grave.

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I have presented these (over-)extended glimpses of two villagers' encounters with Christianity in order to suggest that the question of what it means to be a Chinese Christian can only be approached through looking at local contexts, including those of experience and personality. This is perhaps a self-evident point, applicable to understanding what it means to be a Christian anywhere, but I think the caveat is especially salient to China, where so much attention is focused on head-counts and political or religious persecution, and indeed to Christianity, for its very familiarity can beguile us into thinking we recognize what may or may not be there.

The further suggestions that Christian religious movements in the Chinese countryside are part of a broader search for meaning more commonly expressed in the revitalization of traditional practices and institutions, and that Christian movements, like the resurgence of Chinese traditions, are spontaneous local responses to a morally bankrupt politics and social anomie , are only surmise on my part. I can say with more confidence that An Niyu and Zhu Congde each had very different understandings of Christianity, each of which puzzle me. How could An Niyu stick so strongly to her Catholic identity, despite its negative consequences, yet evince no interest in "faith". How could Zhu Congde be so sincerely attracted to the values of the Heizhu house church movement, yet give up his faith for lack of a community of believers? The sense of isolation that made Zhu give up is precisely the sense of distinction that kept An going, which is no doubt why they never got together, even though they lived quite literally a stone's throw apart. I know the "answers" to these questions, and I understand some of the particular circumstances that kept Zhu and An apart, but that very particularity surrounding these two individual cases of Christianity in Xiakou gives me pause when it comes to talking about Chinese Christianity in general. For that reason, I can only venture that while it seems likely more and more Chinese villagers will become "Christians," what that means will depend very much on how they localize Christianity to make it speak to being Chinese.

Literally, A down to the families, @ referring to the responsibility system of land tenure.

To a certain extent, the (negative) idealization of the past was encouraged in the A recall past bitterness @ campaign of the 1960s, designed to suggest, especially to young people, a present utopia created by the Party in contrast to an equally dystopian past.

During this period, from many parts of Sichuan we heard of numerous cases of angry confrontation between farmers and officials. Farmers were angry about the abuse of power and frustrated at the growing disparity brought by rampant corruption. At a township just a few mile away, farmers held a county official captive for twelve or more hours until they were given some credible assurance that a fund which had been collected for the sale of their farmlands had not been squandered in unauthorized speculation. The international press followed the actions of angry citizens in Renshou county in Sichuan as they took action against the imposition of too many ad hoc fees imposed by officials in the name of highway development

These A tourist temples @ are overwhelmingly Buddhist, although Sichuan boasts some of China's most notable Daoist temples, especially Qingyang Gong in Chengdu, and the temples of Chingcheng Shan.

This is a crucial distinction of perspective that draws one into the larger debates surrounding cultural nationalism, modernization discourse, and issues of the interwoven identities of "peasants" and "intellectuals"-- issues that I pursue in my PhD thesis.

A Confucian education was not unusual for the older men in the village. This was not A philosophical training @ but memorization of texts to acheive basic literacy. In addition to the A four books @ students also learned from the Dang Jia Shu and Sui Shen Bao , practical handbooks listing the names of common household items, and the rules and rituals governing family affairs.

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About This Essay


This essay provides a brief account of the history of Christian missionary activity in Ya'an, and a more in-depth look at how two villagers in Xiakou understand both Christianity as a religious belief and their own identities as Christians. John Flower presented an earlier version of this essay as part of a panel at the Southeast Regional Association of Asian Studies Conference in 1997.