Easter in China: rebirth in a Tibetan Catholic village

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The Western image of Tibet is largely one of a vast plateau cradled between snow-capped mountains where peaceful Buddhists devote their lives to prayer and meditation.

Yet this vision of the region does not do justice to the rich, diverse cultures of those who live there. This week as the Christian world celebrates Easter, a sizeable Tibetan community in China's far-flung west is also celebrating the resurrection of Christ.

Nestorian Christianity arrived in the Tibetan region more than a thousand years ago. The love-hate relations of its faithful with Buddhism and the central government in Beijing reflect the complexity of lives that gives its people in this area a unique identity.

Christianity spread to Tibet and Yunnan province via the trade routes linking Europe and East Asia a millennium ago. As early as the 16th century, the Vatican sent missionaries to evangelise to the local community. By the 19th century, Pope Gregory XVI had created the Vicariate Apostolic of Lhasa and assigned French missionaries the task of converting the Tibetan people.

But for all the myths about peaceful Tibetan Buddhists, the introduction of Catholicism to the region proved violent. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries regularly waged wars against the Catholic followers, killing priests and converts and razing churches and villages.

Worried the clashes would destabilise their rule in the region, the Qing dynasty central government resettled Tibetan Catholics from central Tibet to the neighbouring provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan where many Tibetans live.

Easter in China: rebirth in a Tibetan Catholic village

 The church was first built in 1905 and was rebuilt in 1914 after the original was burned down by Buddhists. Photo: Haiya Zhang

Today the legacy of this missionary zeal is still apparent in the village of Cizhong in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Yunnan.

At the centre of this hamlet rural town is a Gothic-style church with Chinese characteristics, first built in 1905 and rebuilt with government funds in 1914 after the previous incarnation was burned down by local Buddhists.

The Cizhong Catholic church is one of Yunnan's most important churches and has been listed as a national historic and cultural site since 2006. Out of their liturgical needs for wine during mass, missionaries brought grapes and taught local villagers to produce wine in the French tradition, making it the only place in the country with an indigenous wine culture.

The local population is a mix of ethnic Lisu, Yi, Naxi, Han and Tibetan people. While they are all heavily influenced by Tibetan culture and Tibetan is their main language, 80 per cent of the people are Catholic.

Houses are decorated with icons and religious images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and even Pope Francis. Around many of the larger icons are khatas, ceremonial scarves used in Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. While the central government is suspicious of Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism in general, here the authorities are generous in sponsoring the local church.

Hong Xing, a Catholic villager and hotel owner, has decorated his home with icons, pictures of President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan , as well as former Chinese communist leaders.

He does not see the mix of Tibetan, Catholic and communist symbols as conflicting with his religion.

Source: scmp.com (Apr.6, 2015)