Cizhong Church in China’s southwestern Yunnan province is bathed in a golden light on Christmas Eve.
The faithful are streaming into the church in full Tibetan regalia, with the women splitting off to sit on the left in their bright pink headscarves and silk brocades, and the men to the right in cowboy hats and shearlings. Neighbors wave at each other. Heavily swaddled children run up and down the church aisle.
The rare Catholic community has survived more than 150 years here in the village of Cizhong, just a few dozen kilometers away from the border with both China’s Tibetan region and Myanmar.
Their traditions are a colorful mixture of Buddhist and Christian practices. The church embodies this amalgamation: painted Buddhist lotuses spiral around the balustrades, while Tibetan yin and yang symbols panel the ceiling.
Inside, several hundred of Cizhong’s faithful chant Catholic prayers — with a twist. My companion in the pews explains their prayers and their Bible were originally written in Latin but were translated by French and Swiss fathers into Tibetan — and written phonetically in Chinese characters. Outside, church attendants light round after round of firecrackers to announce the official beginning of mass.
Cizhong lies in a part of Yunnan province that is predominantly Tibetan and Naxi, another ethnic minority. They are both largely Buddhist. In 1852, the first French missionaries settled up river from here.
In 1905, Buddhist Tibetans attacked, killing at least two fathers and driving out the survivors downriver, to Cizhong, where the church they rebuilt four years later stands today.
“They further withdrew to essentially avoid the influences of the state. That withdrawn nature allows them to maintain that identity and that culture, despite outside influences elsewhere in China,” says Matthew Chitwood, a researcher who once lived in the region.
Cizhong’s remote location then helped it weather the decades after 1949, when China’s now ruling Communist Party took control of the country, ushering in a period of political turmoil and often violent persecution of religious and intellectual leaders.
During this time, the Cizhong church was defaced of much of its Chinese and Buddhist inscriptions. It narrowly escaped full demolition because its hefty stone walls proved too difficult to burn down.
But now Cizhong is rising in prominence as authorities work to rebrand Deqin county, where Cizhong is located, and neighboring Zhongdian county as attractive tourism destinations. In 2001, the area was renamed “Shangri-la,” after the fabled but fictional utopia of religious tolerance described in the novel Lost Horizon.
“Having this community of Catholics has also allowed the government to promote the community, you know, as a sort of a tourist spot because of this Catholic identity,” says Brendan Galipeau, an assistant professor of anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan who has done fieldwork in Cizhong.
Wine-making is becoming a draw. Cizhong’s first French fathers brought with them grape vine cuttings with them from France, and they grow to this day in a vineyard adjacent to the church. More than 20 years ago, villagers began nurturing the vines once again and planting new cuttings on their own plots of land to make a range of full-bodied red wines and ice wines that have further drawn in tourists.
The region is also the site for official poverty alleviation projects, bringing in about 400 new residents relocated from even more remote villages nearby.
“There’s a big concern the Catholics, who had been a majority, are now going to become a minority in the community,” says Galipeau.
In the past four years, the local county government tore down nearly all the rice fields and replaced them with squat cement homes for the new residents, more than doubling the size of Cizhong. The sound of construction is ubiquitous.
So is the state scrutiny. NPR was followed by several government minders in Cizhong who questioned anyone NPR spoke with.
I tried to meet Xiao Jieyi, a French-speaking 90-year-old Tibetan Catholic who once aspired to be Cizhong’s priest. Those ambitions were dashed when the church was closed during a decade of political turmoil in the 1960s.
Now, while Xiao can sing First Noel to us, he cannot talk freely. He receives a phone call as soon as I step into his courtyard: it is the police. He tells me – there are orders from above.
The same thing happens when I try to meet with Yao Fei, Cizhong’s first resident priest since the 1950s. (The last one, Reverend A.F. Savioz, was expelled from China in 1952.) In 2008, Father Yao was sent to Cizhong by the state-run Catholic Association of China, which is not recognized by the Vatican, and now runs several masses a week.
“Merry Christmas,” he manages to tell me as he finishes receiving confessions before rushing off to mass. After the service, he remains surrounded by several state minders who also prevent NPR from speaking individually to revelers.
Cizhong’s two-day celebrations conclude on Christmas Day with hours of Tibetan music and dancing. Worshipers bring large birthday cakes, which they pile in front of the altar to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Later, the cakes — as well as large vats of chicken-infused rice liquor — are distributed to anyone who comes by, including many Buddhist relatives who enjoy the festivities and help with the preparations. Many families are mixed religion, with both Buddhists and Christians among their ranks.
“Buddhism, like Christianity, has many sects, but none of us have disputes,” said a Tibetan Buddhist surnamed Xu, who spent Christmas eve slaughtering pigs with several of the Catholic choir boys, for the communal lunch the next day. “It is simple. You believe in your god, and I believe in mine.”