South Gaoluo: the Catholics

My brief outline of Catholicism in north China reminds me that one fascinating sub-theme of my Plucking the Winds is the Catholic minority in South Gaoluo. [1]

The Boxers: background
Although we had no idea of this when we first visited the village in 1989, Gaoluo is known to historians of modern China for a major incident in the Boxer uprising in May 1900, in which several dozen Chinese Catholic converts were murdered, and which led to the killing of a Qing general. The continuing unease caused by the presence of a minority of underground Catholics still active in the village today made our research sensitive, but the history of the village, and of the ritual association, is inextricably linked with their activities.

The Boxer incident at Gaoluo is also remarkable in that it prompted a major investigation in the immediate aftermath, producing lengthy documents which are perhaps the only detailed official material on the village in its entire history: the only time the village has ever aroused such attention from county officials. Of course, the official sources may be no more, and perhaps less, reliable than oral accounts handed down in the village since.

The incident was a major event for the whole village, including the members of its ritual associations, fathers and grandfathers of those still practising in the 1990s; indeed, it doubtless remains a significant element in the villagers’ collective psyche. Since most villages had ritual associations, naturally many of the Boxer reports concern villages where we have done fieldwork; though the Boxers’ ritual practices were quite distinct from those of the ritual associations, they supported the traditional indigenous religion represented by the associations. In Gaoluo, several members of the ritual associations became Boxers and took part in the massacre—we first learnt of the conflict from formidable association leader He Qing, whose father He Jincai (1880–1958) was not only a pillar of the association but had himself joined the Boxers in 1900, when he was 21.

The Boxer movement became a major popular uprising throughout the area south of the capital. Groups of poor peasants, practising martial arts and magical techniques by which they rashly claimed invulnerability, assembled in many villages on the central Hebei plain from 1899. Despite the later Maoist idealization of the uprising, it was more anti-foreign than anti-dynastic, but it sounded the death-knell for the crumbling Qing government. The Boxers were hostile to foreigners, including Catholics, whose influence had been spreading since the mid-19th century, and sought to destroy alien intrusions into the landcape such as churches and railways, thought to damage Chinese fengshui. Ironically, the railway which passes just north of Gaoluo had recently been built not to facilitate foreign trade or foreign religion, but to enable the imperial family to pay homage to its ancestors buried at the Western Tombs in Yixian county.

The conflict in Gaoluo went back to the early 1870s, when six families of “Manicheans” (Monijiao) in the South village had a dispute with the village chief Yan Laofu. He is described in the primary sources, along with other enemies of the Catholics, as a “bandit”. But he was well connected; his son, indeed, was a graduate of the “civil” examinations. Yan Laofu was said to have forced the sectarians to eat dog meat, conventional sign of repudiating heterodoxy, since they were vegetarian. “Hating their heterodoxy”, Yan requested the county chief to rebuke the Manicheans.

In  1998 we finally discovered a “dragon placard” from the 15th day of the 3rd moon in 1875 (Guangxu era, 1st year), inscribed with the characters “Myriad years to the reigning emperor, myriad myriad years”. Rather than marking the accession of the new emperor in distant Beijing, I suspect the making of the dragon placard may have been prompted by the new threat to orthodoxy from the Manicheans in the home village.

Manicheanism might have seemed no more than another of the popular sects often grouped under the umbrella term of “White Lotus”, whose beliefs were similar to those of the other ritual associations in the village, and one might think that no conflict need have arisen. But significantly, the magistrate investigating the massacre was told that the sectarians were unwilling to “pay the association- money”—that is the levy, generally before New Year, still given by villagers today, to support the village ritual association. Still, rival ritual organizations, with their respective geographical catchment areas, have happily coexisted in the village throughout the 20th century, so the conflict must have had another reason. An elderly Catholic in 1996 who had heard of the sect admitted that they were loners. Most came from the “eastern” branch of the Cai lineage, though by the 1890s their leader was named as Zhang Cai.

The six “Manichean” families bore a grudge against Yan Laofu and his clique, and, in a pattern then becoming common among village outsiders, entered the Catholic faith, giving allegiance to French or Dutch Lazarists who had recently established a base at Anzhuang village in Xushui county just south—still a major, and beleaguered, Catholic village today. Hoping the prestigious foreign connection would give them protection, they announced their plan for revenge to the missionary at Anzhuang, but he hemmed and hawed.

A dispute in 1886 over land and trees was resolved by county officials, but no further incidents are reported until trouble flared up again at New Year 1899. As we saw, the South village had probably had its own ritual association since the building of the temple in the 1840s. For the New Year rituals the association erected its customary lantern tent, called “association tent to receive the gods”, before the temple near the central crossroads in the centre of the South village, in the very area where our friend Cai An and other musicians live today. But this was also just behind the houses of the Catholics; Zhang Cai’s house, indeed, was at the crossroads. Friction was exacerbated by the parading of competing ritual images. Violence soon broke out; both sides later formally accused the other of smashing their icons in their respective places of worship.

For a while after the New Year 1899 fracas no action was taken—according to the pro-Catholic sources, the Yans managed to bribe the county officials into dismissing the case against them. But eventually the beleaguered magistrate felt obliged to set an example in protecting the Catholics. Village chief Yan Laofu and five others were sentenced to pay a heavy fine of 250 taels, and to give a banquet for Catholics from the villages of Gaoluo, Anzhuang, Shizhu, and Ruhe, as well as for their priest, at which Yan Laofu, ignominously, had to kowtow. The ritual tent was no longer to be erected before Zhang Cai’s home.

As the Gaoluo Catholics grew more confident, new converts increased their ranks to over twenty families within half a year. At the following New Year early in 1900 the Catholic minority was apparently still in the ascendancy, since there is no report of any trouble. But by this time, groups of “Boxers” had begun assembling and threatening Catholics in counties further south, and soon the movement spread north into Laishui county. Gaoluo had its own martial arts associations, readily organized into Boxers. Early in the 4th moon, not long after the temple fair on the Houshan mountains, a large-scale annual migration of pilgrims, Yan Laofu and his cronies summoned Boxers from all around to gather in the compound of the great temple in North Gaoluo and intimidate the village Catholics.

In some villages, musicians have made a clear link between the Boxers and the ritual associations—villages in Langfang district claim that their associations played to accompany the Boxers into battle against the Allied troops, a theme taken up in Zhang Zi’en’s 1986 film Holy Whip (from 1.11.48). But the link was not so complete: the folk religion of the Boxers was similar to that of the ritual associations, that is all, and such associations naturally had the support of most villagers. In Gaoluo today all agree that “the ritual association wasn’t the same as the Boxers”; however, it was precisely the New Year’s ritual tent, still the domain of the ritual association today, which was the focus of the 1899 conflict. Among the original leaders of the dispute were members of the traditional ritual association; as the Catholics threatened their worship, it was natural that the Boxers should now arise to support the village heritage against the foreign religion.

The Boxer massacre
As Boxers assembled menacingly, the Gaoluo Catholics armed themselves with guns and cannon, while the missionary in Anzhuang sent urgent pleas to the Laishui county magistrate Zhu Fu for their protection. On the 14th of the 4th moon (12th May) in 1900, Zhu Fu went with four runners to investigate, but was himself surrounded by Boxers—only after intervention from the village gentry was he able to retreat. That very night the threatened battle took place. The Boxers butchered Catholic families, men, women, old and young, threw their bodies down the wells, and burned down their church and houses.

As the plausible tradition goes in the village, it was like a pitched battle; both Boxers and Catholics had come from other villages to join in. Indeed, most of those Catholics killed are thought to have been from outside, since Gaoluo Catholics were more easily able to find refuge. Soon after the massacre, the French missionary Fréri reported accounts from survivors who had taken refuge in Beijing:

The massacre in Kao-lo was horrible: the victims numbered more than 80. Small children were quartered, women were burned in church or run through with a sword, men were stabbed or shot; it is rumored that some were crucified. 20 persons escaped because they were absent at the time of the massacre. A young man, 18 years of age, was thrown into a well where he remained for 48 hours; when the assassins left, he made his escape and has just arrived among us.

Two days later, deputies from Baoding came to investigate with twenty cavalry, but were unable even to enter the North village, and when they entered the South village the next day they learnt nothing. The county magistrate was surrounded and nearly killed by the Boxers; again he was forced to retreat. He immediately requested reinforcements. A visit on the 16th was also fruitless.

On the morning of the 17th, reinforced by prefectural troops under the command of colonel Yang Futong, the officials managed to close the boxing ground in the North village temple courtyard, as well as the temple itself—by this time only a few dozen Boxers from Gaoluo remained, those from other villages having moved on. When Boxers reassembled there on the following day, Yang Futong routed them, capturing some. In another battle outside the village, he defeated more Boxers, killing about 60. But as Boxers assembled in ever greater numbers, Yang was ambushed and killed at Shiting north of the county-town on the 24th (22nd May). Although the Boxer slogan was “support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners”, this was the first clear sign for the Qing government that the Boxers might not be so loyal to central authority.

The official investigation, though detailed, admits to a stonewall of secrecy in Gaoluo surrounding the massacre. The constable of South village, himself a Catholic, had disappeared; the constable of North village was one of those accused by the Catholics. If any Catholics had survived, they had all fled. The church was said to have been destroyed by a natural fire, and no-one knew where the Catholics had got to! Eventually the investigators managed to recover a few bodies.

Gaoluo Catholics who managed to escape included Cai Laoyun and Cai Zhiqi. Cai Laoyun was a competent martial artist; his son Yongxun was later ordained as a Catholic priest. Despite the 1900 conflict, by 1930 Cai Zhiqi was one of the main donors to the ritual association; his grandson was to lead the village Catholics in the 1990s.

Some of the Catholics took refuge in the Catholic stronghold of Anzhuang just south, while others, including one Shan Zhong, fled to the Xishiku church in Beijing—the only survivor of his whole family from the massacre; two sons and a pregnant daughter had been slaughtered.

The Boxer uprising throughout northern China was eventually put down later in 1900; the Allied troops carried out many savage reprisals in the counties south of Beijing, and perhaps even in Gaoluo. The last Boxer leader in the area, from Laoping northwest of Laishui county-town (another village with a strong tradition of vocal liturgy, by the way), was executed in the spring of 1901 in the Houshan mountains.

As to the Gaoluo troubles, the anti-Catholic ringleader Yan Laofu fled, but he and his son were later captured and beheaded. Another Boxer leader called Shan Laoqing was eventually arrested after the Allied troops gained control of the situation. His property was confiscated for the Catholics as indemnity. Despite the massacre, it was on this site that a handsome new church was to be built.

Despite the massacre and the renewed energy of their antagonists, the Gaoluo Catholics soon revived, setting up house again at the south end of South village, where their descendants still live today. Some of the original Catholics abandoned the foreign religion, but sensitivity was now shown. For the New Year’s celebrations thereafter, the ritual association took care to hang out only the more secular Three Kingdoms paintings in the alleys running past the Catholics’ houses—the Catholics might take offence at the paintings depicting the battles between the gods for the city of West Qi, the Star Wars of its day.

The Catholic revival
In 1927 Padre Tarcisio Martina arrived in the district with a small but devoted group of Italian missionaries to continue spreading the gospel, building an imposing Catholic church in South Gaoluo in 1931.

This must have seemed a danger moment for the village’s ritual associations—indeed, it was such a major event that they not only refurbished their own ritual apparatus but thought it prudent to represent the village “pagans” in offering good wishes for the benediction of the new church.

The Boxer incident had curbed Catholicism only temporarily. Lazarist priests were still active in the area in the early years of the 20th century, but the Yixian region (including Laishui county) was too distant from their base at Baoding, so in 1925 they ceded it to the Stimmatini fathers from Verona, who were newcomers to China. The Stimmatini (the name refers to the holy stigmata) came to Yixian diocese in 1926, in the midst of warlord fighting. [2] Their leader, Padre (later Bishop) Tarcisio Martina (c1887–1962), was to become infamous for his showtrial and imprisonment under the Communists from 1951 to 1954. Note that the Catholic mission was only really active from 1927 to 1937; after the Japanese invasion, and as Communist power increased, their activities were severely restricted. Meanwhile Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist Party took power throughout much of China by 1928, after over a decade of debilitating warlordism, but the countryside continued to suffer from chronic poverty and banditry.

South Gaoluo was one of the main sites of Catholic worship in the whole diocese; as the missionaries noted, it was one of the communities of “old” Catholics (meaning two or three generations) there which needed support. Though the Gaoluo Catholic community was said to have grown from six families in the 1870s to around twenty in 1899, by 1932 the missionaries could still claim only a dozen or so Catholic families, around eighty people.

The mission headed by Martina was based in Lianggezhuang village just west of Yixian county-town, and he himself was indefatigable in touring the large and unwieldy diocese. He made frequent visits to South Gaoluo from 1927, and several of the other Italian priests often came to lead Mass and to direct the strengthening of the Catholic community there. Venerable Shan Zhihe recalled that Martina used to arrive in a special two-wheeled sedan chair, pulled by horses, mules, or donkeys. Villagers saw him as a grand official; his word had great influence with the county mayor, so the Catholics enjoyed his secular as well as spiritual protection.

Gaoluo had its Confucian schools, but the county government had not succeeded in introducing new-style education here. Still, in February 1930, only a couple of years after the Stimmatini had arrived, a mission school in Gaoluo was going well. Though the Italian missionaries were ever aware of the difficulties of converting the “pagans”, some of the young children who studied there had some amusing memories in the 1990s, including our delightful musician friends He Yi and Li Shutong.

Before the building of the new church in 1931, and apparently even before the arrival of the Stimmatini, a Chinese priest called Master An used to come from Anzhuang, from where the Gaoluo Catholics had originally been evangelized, to teach in the nearby villages which had Catholic communities. He provided everything, like books and pens, and there were tables and chairs in the classroom. He Yi and Li Shutong reckoned, “There was no illiteracy among them Catholics, they could all read and write.” There were forty or fifty pupils, including some from Wucun village just south. Four subjects were on the curriculum: Chinese, General Knowledge, Nature, and Geography, as well as Games. The school continued until at least 1938.

Hoping to make new converts, Master An also got young “pagan” children to come to the little house-church and study with him—they went along for fun, as it was free, unlike the village’s private school, and they were curious. Their families realized the object was to convert them, but they didn’t believe in the outlandish religion, and besides the Boxer massacre was fresh in people’s minds. Venerable Shan Zhihe recalled, “The Catholic teachers had a good try at converting the village’s private school teacher Shan Hongru, but in the end he wouldn’t go for it, making the excuse that his uncle wouldn’t allow him to. The Catholics even tried to convert my mother, but my father protested that the family didn’t believe in any of that stuff, neither Buddhism, Daoism, nor Catholicism.”

Li Shutong went on: “Father Martina came quite often, bringing the village children candies, and fried peanuts in a big linen pouch, so we always looked forward to him coming!” Villagers admired him, though: “It’s not easy being a Holy Father, you have to speak all those languages, and he spoke Chinese jolly well. When the other Italian priests came they were too busy looking after the children to try and preach the gospel—they were popular visitors. Later, too many children wanted to study, and the Catholics couldn’t keep the school going. They weren’t making any new converts, anyway—they really fell for that one!”

Ritual rivalry
During 1930 both ritual associations in South Gaoluo undertook a major refurbishment of their ritual apparatus, commemorated by handsome donors’ lists. There may be several explanations for this initiative. It is possible that some of their old god paintings had been lost or were just too decrepit. As we saw, ritual icons may have been destroyed by the Catholics in 1899 in the prelude to the Boxer massacre; we also heard a story that old paintings had been destroyed in a fire on the Houshan mountain about thirty years before the Boxer incident. A more likely reason may have been a brief restoration of peace in the area from 1930, after many years of fierce fighting between warlords. In nearby Yixian county New Year 1931 saw something of a revival of village culture after years of warfare; although no Gaoluo villagers could recall this, it may have been significant, and throughout the history of the village we find cultural restoration accompanying peace.

However, I very much suspect that the major reason for the 1930 initiative in South Gaoluo was competition with the renewed energy of the Catholics. No doubt the conflict over the New Year’s rituals which led to the Boxer massacre in 1900 was still very much in people’s minds. From our talks with senior villagers in 1996 it was clear that the commissioning of new god paintings by both associations was indeed inspired by the threat from the Catholics. Venerable Shan Zhihe summed up the competitive spirit: “What it meant was, you believe in your Catholicism, we’ll uphold our Buddhism!”

Such public expenditure as commissioning new ritual paintings is commonly commemorated in a donors’ list. The 1930 donors’ list of our “Southern Lantern Association” was entitled Wanshan tonggui “The myriad charities return to the same source”.

By 1995 this list was much deteriorated, but fortunately on our first visit in 1989 I had taken good photographs, copies of which I later sent to the association. After all our enquiries into the stories of our friends’ fathers and grandfathers, the 1930 list truly came to life.

As in many villages, apart from the god paintings to be hung inside the ritual building, the Gaoluo associations also had beautiful sets of ornamental hangings (diaogua) to be displayed outside each house along the alleys throughout the village at New Year.

The 1930 donors’ list of our South Gaoluo ritual association commemorated the commissioning of forty-three such groups from the painter Sun from Doujiazhuang village in Zhuozhou county just north. 108 of these paintings were still on display in the alleys during our first visit at New Year 1989.

These paintings were hung along both sides of the alleys, a magnificent spectacle—people used to come from other villages to admire them. Tradition goes that the old ritual paintings which had survived the Houshan fire in the 19th century were painted meticulously over a considerable time, but that Sun’s 1930 paintings were less beautiful since he did them rather too quickly; still, to us, they in turn had a spiritual beauty which yet newer paintings could not attain.

Later in 1930, in preparation for the following New Year’s rituals, the Guanyin Hall Association in the northeast of South Gaoluo also made a donors’ list for the commissioning of twelve new Buddha paintings. North Gaoluo also has its own ritual association, mainly serving the “great temple”, as well as an “East Great Street Baiyi Lantern Association” (Baiyi, “White Clothes”, again referring to Guanyin).

A fine church
Meanwhile the Italian missionaries resolved to build a church in South Gaoluo. It was being built from at least March 1931; in July, a letter tells us, Padre Zadra set out from the Stimmatini base at Yixian to liquidate the debts for its construction but was turned back by torrential rain, a common problem in the summer. Six Italian missionaries took part in an imposing benediction ceremony on 6th September 1931, with the celebrated Belgian Father Lebbe coming to preach from his diocese of Anguo to the south. The Stimmatini were proud of the church, since it was the first “worthy of the name” in the diocese.

churchWhat I only realized when I went to Verona to consult the archives there was that our “pagan” ritual association performed for the benediction of the new church.

In view of the Boxer massacre only thirty years earlier, and the somewhat strained relations today, I was impressed. The building of the church was evidently a major event for the whole village; it must have dominated the landscape. The charming Stimmatini report, published in the 1932 issue of their journal Per il Bene for their Italian faithful, describes the events thus:

Maybe people will laugh at all this fuss over such a modest undertaking. But I assure you that the villagers don’t see it that way, so much so that the word has got round (among the pagans, I mean) and they decided to make Father Martina some sign of their recognition. Through diplomatic routes they found out first if this would be welcome and, reassured that there was nothing to fear in this respect, on the morning of the festival, which was the 6th September, they presented themselves at the T’ien Tchou T’ang [Tianzhu tang]. […]

They set off firecrackers, play oboes [pifferi], beat drums, and in a flutter of pennants and a throng of people here they are, entering with solemnity by the main gate of our land, two beautiful dragons, similar to those which have been described for the New Year; then, each carried by two people, two large tablets, one in decorated wood, the other in red silk on which stand out Chinese characters describing the recognition of the village for the blessing of the new church. Of course, for the offerers the blessing was of a purely aesthetic and decorative nature; you can imagine just how much they know of our religion. However, Father Martina didn’t think of it thus. Who knows, he said to us, if for these people the festival is not a great shake to wake them up and force them to come closer, to interest themselves a bit in religion! [sic!!]

Meanwhile the courtyard was gradually filling up. Chattering for all they’re worth, noses in the air, curious glances inside the church. The function begins. Father Martina comes out to the facade, dressed in holy robes, his assistants Fathers Adami and Valerio come out, and also many seminarists and fathers who have come for the occasion. The Asperges is sung. During the function, the church, as has been arranged, is empty; but after the last prayers men and women rush in, hurrying to grab the best places to take part in Solemn Mass. I couldn’t assure you that during the celebration of Mass there was a perfect silence among that crowd, nine-tenths pagan; but still attention remained alight until the end, and was still more intense during the sermon, on the Gospel. Father Lebbe of the Vicariate Apostolic of Nankuo [An’guo] gave the sermon. […] He spoke of the Gospels, but already the previous evening he had held a sort of open-air meeting in one of the streets of the village, and he spoke several more times in the courtyard to the pagans who had assembled, explaining to them the necessity of saving one’s soul, the truth of our religion, exhorting, and refuting accusations and prejudices. (Some of our masters also spoke, and were listened to with interest.)

Outside there had been erected for the occasion to the side and behind the church, large tents of matting, under which there was a continuous to-ing and fro-ing of guests busily consuming the good food prepared by fine cooks in improvised kitchens. In another area, numerous water containers boiled over another stove for the distribution of tea for all who wanted it.

The day passed thus in sounds, explosions (of crackers), shouts, and discussions, in beautiful harmony and in continuous animation. The evening shadows took us by surprise, while here and there groups of boys and men chattered and joked happily with our padres.

The plot of land, in the southeast of the village, occupied about 3,300 square metres. The new church was 18.3 x 8 metres in length; the side naves were 7.2 metres high, the central nave 8 metres, and the facade had a maximum height of 13 metres. There were ten windows, two of which, to the north, illuminated the presbytery. Inside, the church was quite bare, but there were railings and a wooden altar, on which there was a beautiful Sacro Cuore image of Christ. Next to the church and communicating with the presbytery, a little annex was built, with two rooms, one for the sacristy, the other to lodge visiting missionaries.

In 1996 we returned to Gaoluo equipped with copies of the 1931 Stimmatini photographs; “pagans” and Catholics alike were delighted to be presented with a long-lost part of their heritage.

We now sought further information from elderly villagers. Venerable Shan Zhihe, then 13 and still studying in the village private school, remembered the church well, and we also met the amiable Cai Min (1915–2000), who had taken part in the construction work.

Cai Min thought that Bishop Martina had designed the church; it was built by the villagers, who were paid one mao per day for their labour, besides three basic meals a day of the bread bobotou. After they started building and the walls were about a metre high, Martina decided it was not going according to the design, and they had to start again. In a bold combination of foreign and native elements, traditional Chinese drum and bell towers flanked the church—Shan Zhihe recalled that he was the first to climb them!

Villagers recalled that the ritual associations from South and North villages had combined to perform, and that the chaozi group from the Guanyin Hall Association in the northeast end of South Gaoluo had also played. As I joke with the villagers, if only they had made a recording, even a film, that day, as well as taking photos!

Of the two inscribed tablets (hebian, “congratulatory plaques”) in the 1931 photograph, the wooden one read Hui wo dongfang “Mercy upon our eastern quarter”; the silk inscription read Wanyou zhenyuan “True source of the myriad abundances”. Indeed, in 1996 some of the musicians thought the wooden tablet still survived, but further enquiries bore no fruit. One morning in 1998, just as we were finishing breakfast, some villagers came to tell us that the tablet had been found. Excited, we set off through the alleys to visit the house of one Chen Yizhong, just opposite the site of the old church.

A group of people gathered round as we took the tablet out into the courtyard, bathed in sunshine, and cleaned and photographed it. The wood has become discolored, it has a crack, and two vertical struts of wood have been added to hold it together. But it is really quite well preserved, and after a bit of a wash, the inscription is still clearly legible.

On the right are carved the characters

Congratulating the Catholic church of Gaole village in Laishui county,

and on the left,

North and South Gaole villagers bow together on the auspicious day (gudan) of the 24th day of the 7th moon, 20th year of the Republic of China

reverently inscribed by Zhang Wenhuan.

Villagers told us Zhang Wenhuan came from North Gaoluo. In the church the tablet used to constitute the sole decoration on the west wall.

Naturally the delegation of the ritual associations for the benediction of the church represented the village, and the tablets were paid for with village funds. With public and ritual domains nested, the ritual associations were still considered an essential and prestigious part of the village structure. As venerable Shan Zhihe observed, “you couldn’t be without blowing-and-beating (chuichuidada) when the tablets were presented.” Indeed, the core membership of the associations has anyway been composed of prestigious and influential members of the community, under all political systems. The term guanshi “organizer” is popularly used for the leaders of both the village and the ritual association.

Venerable Shan Zhihe gave some convincing insights. People at the time were quite obseqious towards the Catholics, since a word to the county authorities from the Italian priests could be very useful. That is borne out in other accounts of missionary activity in China before the 1940s. Thus even the ordinary village Catholics were looked on as a higher class. This was quite enough to explain the delegation of congratulation on the consecration of the church.

Shan Zhihe also pointed out that the “Buddhist” believers of our ritual association had no great ideological conflict with the Catholics, but perhaps there was something of a psychological barrier between them, just as now. Indeed, typical of class relationships the world over, at the same time as looking up at the Catholics, ordinary villagers looked down on them. They had a folk saying, “Catholics, landlords, old sows’ arses” (Tianzhu, dizhu, laomuzhu pigu)—I wish one could bring out the rough beauty of this rhyming expression, lord of Heaven, lords of land, and the pun on lord and pig! The village Catholics were said to be on the make, “fishing for goodies in a mixed soup” (huntang lao woguo). They were known disparagingly as “number two hairies” (ermaozi)—the original “long hairies” being the Taiping Christian rebels back in the 1850s, and “number three hairies” Chinese with Catholic connections. A deep xenophobia and cultural gulf made conversion difficult, as we saw in the accounts of our musician friends about their experiences at the mission school.

Nonetheless, after the 1900 Boxer conflict, many clues from the following decades show that there was no direct conflict between Catholics and the other villagers until the Communists saw fit to stir it up. Indeed, they remain peaceful neighbours today. Some Catholics even donated to the ritual association. Indeed, the association soon repaid the compliment. For funerals, while the Catholics perform their own liturgy, the ritual association also sometimes plays its shengguan music briefly to show respect. At least one member of the association had converted to Catholicism, though that was rare.

If the church must have been something of an eyesore for most villagers, it was of great significance for the Italian missionaries. They were unable to open a mission in Laishui county-town until September 1936, which only just managed to keep active after the Japanese invasion a year later.


Cai Yongxun at his ordination, 1932: Bishop Martina on right, Mons. Giuseppe Zhou [Tchow], Vicario of Baodingfu, in middle. Courtesy Il Missionario.

 The other distinction of South Gaoluo for the missionaries was that it produced the first Chinese deacon in the diocese, Cai Yongxun, given the Catholic name Agostino. He was ordained in Yixian on 10th June 1932; celebrations were also held in South Gaoluo. He was well educated: Shan Zhihe reckoned he could speak six foreign languages. He was the second son of another of the village Catholics who had escaped the Boxer massacre. In 1938, after the Japanese invasion, Cai Yantian, given the name Giobbe, was also ordained. Villagers were bemused that his own father called him Father (shenfu, holy father) too!


Cai Yantian at his ordination, 1938. Courtesy Il Missionario.

But after the Japanese invasion in 1937 the missionaries were barely able to care for their Gaoluo flock, and the village Catholics were increasingly vulnerable. By 1938, despite the missionaries’ hopes for further conversions inspired by the new church, its schools, and their illustrious new priests, the diocese records listed only 66 Catholics, a literary school (with 8 Catholic and 14 “pagan” pupils), and a Catechist school (with 8 “pagan” pupils) – perhaps no more than when the church was built in 1931. They were not making any new converts.

Meanwhile the Italian priests can have had little success in introducing their own vocal and instrumental music for liturgy. They had a harmonium, and themselves loved to sing liturgical pieces by contemporary Catholic composers such as Perosi, but it would have been most ambitious to teach such music to the Gaoluo faithful.

One modern invention was introduced by the missionaries in the early 1930s. At the house of village Catholic Cai Yantian, young Li Shutong saw a wind-up gramophone brought by the missionaries, probably the only such machine before the radio in the 1960s and the cassette-player in the 1980s. “It was great, it played all kinds of music—the village kids all went to his house to listen!” This early exposure of villagers to modern and foreign music makes a fascinating image: what kinds of 78s did they hear? Puccini and Neapolitan songs, or Shanghai film music, the jazzy new Cantonese music, the erhu fiddle pieces of Liu Tianhua? Villagers also recalled recordings of speech: could it have been Mussolini, or was it a Catholic lecture, perhaps the Pope?

One might expect this to have been a watershed in the village’s culture, yet it was utterly marginal to their lives. When Li Shutong said it was “good to listen to”, he expressed more its curiosity value than any lasting musical impact. Over half a century later, villagers have daily access to modern and Western music through the TV, but no-one pays much attention to Puccini except me, and they still don’t even know the erhu pieces. What young people do like today, though, is (Chinese) pop music.


Pipe-smoking Bishop Martina with his bicycle. Courtesy Il Missionario.

A more practical device also seems to have been introduced by the Catholics. Bishop Martina sometimes rode a bicycle, and village priest Cai Yongxun was perhaps the first villager to have one, in the early 1930s. The notion that “two wheels can carry one man” was considered a miracle at the time. Seeing this wondrous machine (a macchina ex deo?) parked against the church wall, young Li Shutong was curious: “I started spinning a wheel to see how fast it would go, but all of a sudden the lock got all caught up and the spokes got bust, so I scarpered!” Later landlord Heng Demao also acquired a bike—villagers thought it was made in England. Bikes were still rare even after the Communist Liberation; they became a bit more common by the mid-1960s, but for many years a special permit was needed to buy one, so even with enough money it was difficult to get hold of one.

It’s unlikely that the villagers ever heard a very full or reliable account of the wider repression of Catholicism in the early days after 1949. Amazingly, He Qing told us that Cai Yantian plotted with Bishop Martina to blow up the leadership in Tiananmen square on 1st October 1949. Martina was sentenced to life imprisonment in Beijing on 17th August 1951, though not even the inquisitors accused him of plotting to blow up the leadership—he was sentenced for the less spectacular crime of spying in Yixian county in 1947. He was released from labour camp on 26th December 1954, returning to Italy by way of Hong Kong.

It transpired that the village Catholics were not seriously attacked until the “Root out counter-revolutionaries” campaign of 1955–7. Cai Yantian and Cai Yongxun were arrested and sentenced to long “re-education” terms in labour camps. Yongxun died in a camp in Jinghai in around 1960.

The Catholics, thoroughly intimidated, were further victimized in the Cultural Revolution. Even then they continued to practise in secret.

The reform era
After the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Catholicism revived in many Chinese villages; one might compare the extraordinary revival in “Longbow” village in Shanxi, for which Hinton’s meticulous documenting of the political revolution there fails to prepare us.

After the dismantling of Maoism, village Catholics throughout the area began to host underground Chinese priests to direct services in their house-churches, though their refusal to accept representatives of the official “Patriotic” church meant that their activities still remained more or less underground. The Gaoluo Catholics were also able to practise with less fear of repression. Symbolic of the belatedly liberal policies was the return of former priest Cai Yantian after over twenty years in labour camp. When he died at home in 1986, aged over 80, Catholics from all around attended his funeral.

From at least 1989, the Catholics in the whole area were under renewed attack from the police. In 1991 there was a brief revival of the Socialist Education campaign, which soon blew over. But in South Gaoluo the Catholic community were again targeted. They were put under pressure to conform by the work-team and the village cadres, but at New Year 1992 they paraded the alleys with their new brass band and pennants, in what my village friends called a kind of demonstration. The cadres reprimanded the Catholics, forbidding them to perform in public again or propagate their faith outside the village. The campaign had only made relations worse, but thankfully in Gaoluo there had been no serious incidents by 1996, unlike in many nearby villages.

By the late 1990s the often-violent police repression of “underground” Catholics in several villages in the area was only one cause of popular unrest, which was flaring quite widely about both official and unofficial levies from the government. In 1997 a new tax system provoked organized resistance in another part of the county. Police arrests led to demonstrations in the county-town; after vehicles were set on fire and county cadres taken hostage, the tax system had to be abandoned. Gaoluo villagers were furious in winter 1998 when their electricity supply was repeatedly cut off as punishment for arrears in payment; a threatened demonstration in the county-town was narrowly averted. Teachers and other state employees were desperate about the protracted non-payment of salaries.

During the New Year’s rituals in 1995, in the late afternoon the village Catholic brass-band paraded the alley near the association’s ritual building, in a kind of demonstration, which was controversial. The band—with a fine sense of sick humour, I feel, given their fragile relations with the authorities—wore second-hand police uniforms.

Catholic bandIn a totally different style from the ritual association parades earlier in the day, they marched in time to their brash music, playing popular pieces like the theme-tune from the TV series Longing (Kewang), a conductor beating time with a long baton. The large crowd was attracted partly by the startling novelty of the parade, partly by the popularity of the music, if not by the refinement of the playing. Latest score in my book: Buddha 10, Jesus 0.

But irrespective of musical taste, the Catholic procession was a bold and confrontational move. Our friend Cai Yurun, leading guanzi-player in the ritual association and then village Secretary, saw the parade as impertinent, since they had not asked permission; but seeing it was New Year he didn’t want to spoil everyone’s fun by telling them to stop. Moreover they had claimed two free cartons of cigarettes from Cai An’s store, to which they were not entitled without prior agreement. Yurun refused to sign for it: whereas he has no political power over them, he can at least express his displeasure thus. Their parade, like those of the other associations, drew a large crowd, without incident, but the tensions remained. I couldn’t help recalling the conflict which had erupted at New Year 1899, prelude to the Boxer massacre.

Like most Catholics in this area, hotbed of underground Catholicism, the South Gaoluo faithful have never felt able to accept the official “Patriotic” Church. For many years they have been watched by the county police, and are under the control of the village cadres. I don’t wish to cause them any trouble; the ritual association hopes I won’t too, for my and the whole village’s sake, as much as that of the Catholics. So my information is gleaned indirectly; after all, they are all related. God must seem to them to be moving in mysterious ways, since the only European to visit the village since Bishop Martina in the 1940s spends his time studying the “pagan” religion of the ritual association, and can offer them no guidance whatsoever about Christianity.

The Catholics still live mostly in the south end of the South village. In 1998 they were said to number about 168, in 43 households, apparently rather more than in the 1930s but still little over 5% of the village population. This is said (perhaps unreliably) to be the largest membership in Laishui county, although some villages not far south, and further afield in northern China, are entirely Catholic.

The local term for Catholicism, apart from the “standard” Tianzhu jiao, is fengjiao “upholding the teachings”—contrasted with the indigenous religion Dajiao “greater teachings”. The Catholics are defiantly open about their faith, many of them having the symbol IHS painted on the metal gates of their houses; they wear crucifixes around their necks and rosaries around their wrists. They are baptized at birth and given a Chinese Christian name. They hold morning and evening services daily, and also perform Mass every Sunday. Christmas and Easter are observed devoutly.

Catholic vespers

Vespers, 2001.

All this makes an intriguing contrast with the casual attitude of adherents to the ritual associations. Catholics of all ages, including young children, kneel throughout the daily services as they join in the prayers and singing. For the occasional rituals of our association, however, people come along to burn incense but don’t take part, and piety is hardly evident. Why are children so easy to cultivate into the church, when no young men are willing to learn the shengguan ritual music or the vocal liturgy? There must be several factors. Does the clandestine nature of the church itself encourage a spirit of defiance, a siege mentality? Are the Catholics less mobile, more village-bound? In rural China Catholicism is a whole life-style, resisting, almost defined by, state suppression, whereas our local folk religion has long been under threat from more natural forces of secularization.

Even Boxer’s son He Qing, otherwise quite out of sympathy with the outlandish religion, had to admire them for their conscientiousness, praying and reciting their scriptures every morning and evening. The atmosphere in their humble house church is moving, by contrast to the less serious mood in the temple of the ritual association. The chief celebrants sit behind a screen with the altars to the virgin and saints. On the walls are images of the ten stations of the cross. Unlike Buddhist and Daoist ceremonies, it is a communal service in which the whole congregation takes part. All kneel on prayer mats, facing the altar devoutly, men on the left, women on the right. Though they have some printed hymn books with melodies written in cipher notation, they can’t read the notation, and the congregation sings from memory without written texts.

They have a harmonium, bought since the 1950s, though no-one can play it. They seem to have had no kind of instrumental ensemble until the 1980s. Soon after they began practising their faith relatively openly again, they bought a set of traditional instruments, apparently hoping to learn “Southern Music”, but they found it too hard to learn and soon gave up. After their failure with indigenous instruments, they then bought Western brass-band instruments, including trombones, trumpets, and euphoniums, and invited musicians from the nearby Catholic stronghold of Shizhu village to teach them. In the winter of 1995 they were practising most evenings after supper, their strangled oompahs making a bizarre accompaniment to an early evening stroll.

Many other Catholic groups in north China use shengguan (at least “Southern”) music for their services.


Catholic “Southern music” band in Xinli village, Wenshui county, Shanxi, 1933.

The famous martyred underground bishop Fan Xueyan (1907–92) is said to have loved shengguan music and encouraged his flock to use it, but he seems to have fought unsuccessfully against the incursion of brass bands in this area. This illustrates that the constant tension between foreign and indigenous (yang and tu) cultures, engaged during the Communists’ period at Yan’an in the 1940s, and a constant theme of urban ideology, has also been felt in the Catholic community. Of course, like Buddhism, Catholicism is itself “foreign”, but adopting the faith does not imply unquestioning acceptance of all foreign culture. Indeed, Fan Xueyan could be seen as a great patriot musically—more so than the central Communist leaders at whose rituals Western brass bands are often to be heard.

The Gaoluo Catholics are thought to have been evangelized originally from Anzhuang just south, and their links remained close. Every May, like most Catholic villages in the area, the Gaoluo Catholics make great efforts to attend the major Madonna pilgrimage at East Lücun in Qingyuan county to the south; doubtless they have gone as often as they could since it began, apparently in the late 1920s. Though under orders to request leave from the village Secretary if they wished to be absent from the village, the Gaoluo Catholics left for East Lücun on the 15th, but it was always hard to get through the police roadblocks in Qingyuan county, and they generally had to turn back.

In general, by the 1990s there was no dispute between the Catholics and the other villagers, but the Catholics still tend to keep themselves to themselves, and to work together. They were no longer at loggerheads with the ritual association: as both sides agreed, the purpose of both religious groups is to “do good”. But their presence might be seen as somewhat akin to that of a Hindu temple in an English village, which has also created frictions. So the association members were still somewhat uncomfortable about the Catholics, although as close neighbours and relatives they often played dominoes and mahjong together or dropped by for a chat.

In a jovial discussion with our musician friends, I put the point that the ritual association wouldn’t welcome representatives of the official Chinese Buddhist Association from Beijing coming to tell them that their ritual is all wrong! The musicians’ main argument—ironically, considering the history of their own Buddhism—was that Catholicism is a foreign religion. And the other villagers were naturally unhappy that the Catholics felt unable to recognize the Communist Party over the Vatican, a situation somewhat reminiscent of an American cult. But non-Catholics too were fearful of the upset which might be caused by a central decree curbing the Catholics.

A silly story illustrates both the macho rivalry and jocular atmosphere in the village. Perky Shan Yutian, who played dizi in the ritual association, had married a girl from a Catholic family in 1971, during the Cultural Revolution. He liked to swear—in this he is not unusual—and one day at the New Year’s morning ritual, getting a bit fed up with the queue of musicians kowtowing before the pantheon, he remarked, “What’s the point of all this bloody kowtowing?!” Formidable He Qing came back with “You’d better, mate—or shall we come over to your place and piss all over your portrait of Jesus?!” Of course, Shan Yutian wasn’t a Catholic himself, and even his wife was less than devout, it was just a macho joke. But in the background we might detect shades of the Boxer incident.

Catholics fought on both sides in the warfare of the 1940s. Few Catholics held any official positions in the village after Liberation, but Shan Rongqi, a former Communist guerrilla, was a cadre in the 4th production-team under the commune system. In the 1980s the county authorities requested a Catholic delegate from South Gaoluo to act as committee-member on the county government association—which rather than being an effort at democracy was an attempt to get the Catholics to conform. The village committee recommended Shan Rongqi, and he went to live in the county-town.

Under the communes, Shan Rongqi had always been reluctant for his production-team to give grain to the ritual association, and when the topic came up at meetings he would always prevaricate by saying “Well, let’s discuss it!” But when his mother died, he came to request the association to perform, and formidable He Qing got his revenge by exclaiming “Well, let’s discuss it!” They only agreed to take part after he had come three times to implore them. Still, some said he wasn’t a very devout Catholic; more “obstinate” Catholic families were unlikely to invite the ritual association. Indeed, some Catholics have supported both the opera troupe and the ritual association; the name of their leader appears on the donors’ lists of both. And individual Catholics come to join in the fun at the Lantern tent for New Year, with none of the animosity of 1899.

Several types of instrumental ensemble may be invited for Catholic funerals, either individually or simultaneously. Sometimes the ritual association performs, though the musicians admit they behave rather awkwardly, just playing but not able to perform their vocal liturgy or other ritual. More commonly a popular shawm band is invited. In 1990, for the major funeral of Shan Rongqi himself, the village shawm band (founded by Rongqi’s cousin, upright policeman Rongqing) performed; the Shizhu Catholic brass band also took part—their Gaoluo pupils still not being up to a performance.

Anyway, personal village relations are more important than simple religious denominations; the style of funeral is subject to the taste of the deceased and their families, and relations within the village. When Shan Rongqi’s sister-in-law died around 1985, the ritual association accepted a request to play. A more “obstinate” Catholic died on the last day of the old year in January 1996. Although no-one came to request them to play, the ritual association went anyway, because his son was a carpenter who supported the association by making equipment for them like their drum-stand. The Catholics were happy to see them, and looked after them well. Shan Yutian’s mother-in-law was also quite a devout Catholic; when she died in the 2nd moon of 1997, the ritual association played shengguan music for her funeral.

The Catholics have stuck faithfully to their “underground” priests. Celebrated priests punished with long incarceration in labour camps have performed Mass here. A popular underground priest called Zhou Shangfu, from a village in nearby Yixian county, was sentenced to labour camp in 1955 along with Cai Yantian. He too was released after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and became underground bishop in Yixian; he was known for curing illness. He attended Cai Yantian’s funeral in South Gaoluo in 1986, along with Liu Guangdong, another influential Hebei Catholic leader. Zhou Shangfu’s own funeral in January 1989 was a major demonstration for the Catholics of the diocese, some time before that of bishop Fan Xueyan, who is still a household name in the area, not just among the Catholics.

The Gaoluo Catholics were determined to rebuild their church on its old site, but this was unthinkable throughout the 1990s. The village brigade used the convincing pretext that it has no authority over what happened during past campaigns—but with a certain irony, since they were keen to get back their ritual paintings confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. The government had given the Catholics a chance to make a token gesture by allowing a priest from the official Patriotic church to say Mass in Gaoluo, in which case permission and funding to build a new church would be readily available. Nearby the Catholics of Yongle village have done this, and now have a fine church to show for it, though they too in fact remain faithful to their old “underground” traditions. My musician friends have to admit that this might be a good way round the problem, but the Gaoluo Catholics are too obstinate even for this: if an official priest comes they will “show him their bums”.

They have been put under pressure by innumerable visits from the county Peoples’ Committee, the United Front Department, the Bureau of Religion, the Political Security department, and district and village cadres, but such is the strength of their tradition that they must stick to their faith and remain an outcast minority. Indeed, they epitomize the tenacity of traditional and religious faith which we constantly note with the ritual associations; through all the attacks that all the various religious groups in the village have endured, the Catholics seem more “obstinate” in continuing their family tradition than anyone.

The Catholics’ stance might only become a serious problem if the central government decided to make it so, and no-one in the village wants this. Still, following the directive of 1994 ordering religious activity to be conducted only in officially registered places of worship, many house-churches became even more vulnerable. In November 1995, as anti-Catholic measures intensified, the church of Anzhuang was demolished by public security forces—not for the first or last time. The nearby Catholic village of Shizhu suffered from arrests; their house-church was closed down in 1996. The South Gaoluo Catholics were branded an illegal organization late in 1996, and their house-church closed down and sealed; though the leaders were detained for a couple of days, and the village’s “black priest” went into hiding, there appear to have been no serious violence. The Catholics were now officially forbidden to practice, but life went on: the village leaders didn’t interfere, considering it the responsibility of the county authorities, and as one villager observed, “No-one would care if they just broke the seal; once the authorities have sealed it they take no further notice.” So the Catholics just went back to practising in relative secrecy.

And village courtesies continue to transcend official sanctions. Catholic Cai Shaowu, who had been paraded through the streets and beaten in the Cultural Revolution, was listed as a donor to the ritual association at New Year 1998; his wife had died in the previous year, and he now made a donation to express appreciation of the association for playing at her funeral. The Catholic brass band played too; their instruments had been confiscated when the house-church was sealed by the police, but they had used a contact to get them back on the pretext of putting on a show for the village school. But they couldn’t practise openly any more, and only took the instruments out for funerals.

Of course, if the registration directive were applied consistently, most of the indigenous rural ritual activities that we document would also face closure, including the ritual associations. At the same time, while central policy may flout its own express principles of religious freedom and incite human rights abuses, it is worth recalling that local cadres and police are doing a difficult job, caught in between central directives and what may seem wilful intransigence from the Catholics.

By 2001 the picture was changing. Not long before the old leader Cai Yongwang died in 2000, he had attended a meeting in Baoding at which he was said to have been converted to joining the Patriotic Association. The new leaders seemed ready to accept it, paving the way for their rehabilitation and state funding for a new church. It is unclear what mixture of coercion, resignation, and acumen was involved.

I haven’t attempted to update the story over the last decade, but the picture is always complex. Despite appalling exceptions—both before and since 1949—tensions are often mediated by accommodation. Village relationships are nuanced, and the status of all kinds of religious activity is constantly in flux.

For Catholic missionaries at the Qing court in Beijing, see here.

[1] This is a heavily edited version of sections from Plucking the Winds; for further detail, see my index there.
[2] Here I rely mainly on documents in the Stimmatini mission at Verona.