There are few places in China where Christmas is celebrated as grand as in Cizhong. Many hundreds of people in a church filled to the brim, just outside Tibet. Apart from the mandatory mouthcaps for all churchgoers, the coronavirus appears to be almost forgotten within the Chinese borders.
Catholic Tibetans, Buddhists and also infidels: the whole village runs out for the most important days of the year. When pastor Yao Fei walks into the church with his altar boys on Christmas Eve, the hundred-thousand-slaps and the Tibetan carols sound: a Christmas with Chinese characteristics.
At Christmas Eve Night Mass, hundreds of people arrived yesterday. And today in Cizhong there was dancing and singing:
In the middle of the 19th century, the first French missionaries arrived in the region. Tibet was their target, but they didn‘t get that far. Tibetan religious leaders kept the gates closed, several proclaimers of the word of God found death.
Churches already set up in the region were destroyed by Tibetan llamas, spiritual leaders. In Cizhong, a few tens of kilometres from the Tibetan border, the missionaries managed to gain a foothold.
beginning of the twentieth century, after it had already been demolished, the Catholic church was rebuilt. The wine industry was also rigged. After French and Swiss missionaries were expelled by the Communists in the early 1950s, the church services were over. During the cultural revolution, the building served as a school. It was not until 2008 that the church was restored, when Beijing sent a priest from Inner Mongolia to the village.
“ One of the reasons why the Catholic Church has gained a foothold in the region is because of its ethnic diversity,” says Brendan Galipeau. He is an anthropologist at Tsinghua University in the Taiwanese city of Hsinchu, and spent a long time in the region for research.
“ It really is a melting pot: there are Tibetans, Naxis, Lisu, a handful of Han Chinese.” Some residents have pictures of Mary on the wall, others have a Buddhist altar, often accompanied by a portrait of party boss Xi Jinping.
Pastor Yao couldn’t talk to DeccEit. Upon our arrival in the village, he received a phone call instructing him not to speak to journalists. Another man, Xiao Jieyi, gets a call as soon as we set foot on his yard. He‘s a village eldest, and was running to become a priest.
He saw that dream go up in smoke when Mao Zedong started the cultural revolution. “Tell him it’s not possible because of the epidemic,” it sounds through the speaker. Unknown men follow every step and speak to churchgoers when we interview them.
Religion is sensitive in China. Also in the Catholic Church strictly monitored by Beijing, the strings are tightened. The walls of the church in Cizhong are full of communist propaganda giants. “Support the core”, it is written, a reference to party boss Xi Jinping, “with the heart focused on Beijing.”
According to the Chinese authorities, there are some 38 million Christians and 6 million Catholics in the country. Estimates from the Purdue‘s Center on Religion and Chinese Society are higher. They assume roughly 100 million Protestants, and 10 to 12 million Catholics.
Some residents complain, especially about a dam built a few years ago in the river that flows into the Mekong. Large parts of fertile farmland have been flooded, people had to leave their homes. Reason why Cizhong is built everywhere. The church is now wedged between apartment buildings under construction. There’s no talk about that during Christmas.
“ We are celebrating the birth of the Son of God,” says one of the churchgoers, while the mandatory mouthcaps within the church go off. Outside is danced and sung. “Jesus is born,” says another churchgoer, dressed in traditional Tibetan costume. “Peace on earth.”