Governmental oppression and underground churches - perhaps the first impression a westerner would have when they hear about the Catholic Church in China. Terrifying Images of secret police cracking down on Catholic mass and arresting pious attendees would probably appear in most people’s imaginations. But I grew up in an urban neighborhood with a Catholic Church, and I never saw these scenes happening. Indeed, has anyone at the Abbey personally attended a Catholic mass in China, talk to a Chinese priest, or visited a monastery in China?
For a long time, western media tended to report on the struggling of the clandestine underground Church, those who refused to cooperate with the government in organizing the church. While the underground churches are often oppressed and censored by the government, most foreigners know little about the “official church” under governmental control.
For a long time, western media tended to report on the struggling of the clandestine underground Church, those who refused to cooperate with the government in organizing the church. As most Catholics in China today identify with the “official church” for various reasons, I want to study and perhaps reveal its current condition through a research project. This idea started in the fall term of my junior year, when I read an article about inculturation of the Catholic Church in Dr. Lavallee’s World Religion class. The class and the general religious atmosphere at Abbey have inspired me to explore the nuances and implications of religions’ interaction with our society. Thus, intending to investigate the current conditions of the Chinese “official” Catholic Church, I conducted field research in Shanghai through the specific lens of indigenization--the local adaptations of the church--for my Haney Fellowship.
Indigenization has been an important theme in the Catholic Church’s development in China. In Chinese, God in Catholicism is translated as Tianzhu (天主), a term meaning the Lord of the Heaven that were not originally used to describe the monotheistic god. In the 1600s, Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary, first designated this term to refer the Catholic God in his book Tianzhu Shiyi, marking an early attempt to indigenize Catholicism in China. Matteo Ricci also permitted a series of ritualistic adaptations that allowed Chinese to continue their local traditions, such as ancestral worshipping. However, the Franciscan and Dominican missionaries, unsatisfied with the Jesuit’s indigenization attempts, convinced the Holy See to prohibit these adaptations. The Chinese government, under Emperor Kangxi, subsequently banned Catholicism in China until China’s defeat in the Opium War in 1842.
After 1842, the spread of Catholicism become increasingly linked with imperial powers, creating huge discontent among the local people. Some missionaries, notably Vincent Lebbe, discovering the importance to incorporate Catholicism into the life of Chinese people instead of imposing them with force, spearheaded another wave of indigenization movement.
After 1842, the spread of Catholicism become increasingly linked with imperial powers, creating huge discontent among the local people.By 1926, the Holy See appointed six Chinese bishops, achieving a milestone of indigenization in China. Since then, it retained an amiable relationship with the Chinese government, until the regime change in 1949.
As a Marxist regime, the People’s Republic of China has insisted that the Catholic Church in China cuts administrative ties with the Holy See, blaming the Holy See for compromising with western imperialism throughout history. Instead, it created the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and the Bishop Conference of the Catholic Church, where bishops are elected independently rather than appointed by the Pope. Even the CCPA ceased to operate normally during the Cultural Revolution, at roughly the same time the Vatican II Council took place. Because of this, although the church in China achieved a significant degree of political and structural indigenization after the 1950s, its degree of liturgical and cultural indigenization remained low: most of the masses were still conducted in Latin by the 1970s. Starting from 1978, however, China entered into the Reform Era, where the government stopped its coercive measure against religions. Consequently, the CCPA revived and the churches began to operate normally.
Slowly, the church in China initiated their adoption of themes from Vatican II, while re-establishing an informal relationship with the Holy See. But the political tie has never been restored. The Holy See insisted on exercising their right to appoint bishops, while the Chinese government endorsed a totally politically independent church.
Despite these conflicts, the relationship between the Holy See and Chinese government was far more complex than a pure binary opposition.Because of both parties’ insistence on these two stances, numerous negotiations in the past 30 years have all failed, creating many misunderstandings and conflicts. Despite these conflicts, the relationship between the Holy See and Chinese government was far more complex than a pure binary opposition. For example, many bishops in China have obtained consecrations and ordinations from both the CCPA and the Holy See, such as the previous Bishop of Shanghai Diocese, Aloysius Jin Luxian. At the time I’m writing this report, it is reported by many media that China and the Vatican are close to signing an agreement, where the Chinese government would recognize the Pope as the political leader of the Chinese Catholics while remaining its own authority in appointment of bishops.
In my research, I primarily relied on participatory observation and interviews by attending daily and Sunday Masses in two separate Catholic Churches near Xuhui District – the historical quarter in Shanghai once occupied by France during early modern China. The historical legacy left by the French occupation has endowed this district with many Catholic landmarks. This was also one of the reasons I chose Shanghai for my research. As one of the most international Chinese cities in the last hundred years, Shanghai has a huge and well-organized population of Catholics and other Christians. For instance, most of the local attendees I interviewed during the research came from families with Catholic traditions for many generations.
Each of the two churches holds one Mass service in Mandarin Chinese during every weekday. On Sunday, the two churches hold two Mass services in Mandarin, while services in other languages (such as English, German, and Latin) are also held at varying intervals. From our observations, the attendees seemed to vary greatly depending on the language of the mass. The weekday Chinese mass attracted mostly old local Chinese residents who are retired, the Sunday Chinese mass attracted a wider range of attendees from all parts of the city, and the English mass attracted an extremely international group of attendees. The demographic differences become quite interesting, as it reveals the incredible diversity of the Catholic community in Shanghai.
As I arrived in Shanghai, I recruited my friend, Ruoqi Zhang, a freshman from Harvard University to join my research. In order to observe any possible implications or results of such diversity, we attended most weekday Chinese mass, Sunday Chinese mass, and Sunday English mass, in order to cross-examine any obvious differences between them, as any differences might be a result of inculturation. Besides these observations, we initiated many anonymous interviews with the priest and the church members, seeking to grasp the dynamic of religious life of modern Shanghai from all perspectives. To better understand the development of this indigenization process and history of the Catholic Church in China, we also read many research papers online and personally investigated the archives at Shanghai Municipal Archive to read old newspaper articles and church publications.
As the detailed summary of my research findings would be too much to list out in this report, I would summarize my findings in several aspects: liturgy, sacred music, and organizational structure. More details can be found in my research paper, which is mostly finished while writing this report.
More importantly, the church in Shanghai, under a localized organizational structure where priests were independently trained and organized, had a strong presence in the local community.Liturgically, the priests would usually incorporate many traditional Chinese rituals or gestures into the religious services, though still strictly preserving the standard mass procedure. The local adaptation of the sacred music was the most interesting aspect for me. The hymns performed by the choir in English mass tend to be similar or even identical to the ones our Schola performs. The “Gloria” performed in the English mass, for example, was the exact same version that our Schola started using this year. Yet while the hymns in Sunday Chinese mass are usually slightly adapted church music performed in Chinese, on weekdays, the local congregation would spontaneously sing tunes that were originally adapted from local Buddhist music during the communion rite due to the absence of the choir. More importantly, the church in Shanghai, under a localized organizational structure where priests were independently trained and organized, had a strong presence in the local community. As opposed to the common misconceptions that religious organizations usually show minimum interaction with the society due to governmental pressure, the churches in Shanghai are actually actively building schools and participating in charity events. Of course, censorship still exists, as the priests and church members tend to avoid discussing topics, such as the situation of a former Chinese bishop that entered into a conflict with the government.
Through this research project, I gained a clearer and more objective view of the Catholic Church in Shanghai, China. Unlike the common perception that it usually hides in the corner of Chinese society, it actually has an active role and a vibrant community in urban China.
Unlike the common perception that it usually hides in the corner of Chinese society, it actually has an active role and a vibrant community in urban China.Of course, they achieved this by shrewdly compromising a lot to the government. As for the study itself, perhaps the sample I chose is too urbanized and westernized to reveal a holistic image on the general condition of the church in China, but it is still one of the best places to study in particular the indigenization and inculturation of the Church. By focusing on this topic, I was fortunate to see not only the theological and liturgical developments my research focuses on, but the groundbreaking modernization and changes in Chinese society that have caused these developments. The topic I chose was a lens to trace out the enormous transformation of my country in the last century, and to understand the influences of these transformations. The Haney Fellowship gave me a perfect opportunity to witness these great social and cultural changes through a small independent research project, and to better understand my country and my cultural heritage with my own exploration.