Faith in the Countryside






Yang Yankang was traveling through a remote village in Shaanxi Province at dusk one evening when he heard the sound of people praying in the distance. Intrigued, he followed the voices to a courtyard, where he found a group of men and women kneeling on stone tiles, their eyes closed and their hands clasped in prayer while attending Mass.

The Chinese photographer was moved by the piety and faith of these poor farmers, and for the next six years he traveled throughout the Shaanxi countryside taking black-and-white photos of Catholic farmers living along the Yellow River. The powerful 80 black-and-white photos in Yang’s “Catholics in the Countryside” series show a cycle of religious life in rural China and offer the outside world a rare glimpse into China’s underground Catholic movement.

Shaanxi Province has been a stronghold of Catholicism since the Qing dynasty, with the people clinging fiercely to their religion despite the Communist revolution in 1949, harsh political movements in the 1950s, the bitter years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the oppression that continues today. 

The Communist Party attempted to force Catholics to join the state-run Catholic Patriotic Association, which was set up in 1957. Chinese clergy and laity who refused to renounce their ties with Rome were imprisoned, beaten and some were even killed. The campaign drove Catholics loyal to the pope underground, causing a split in the Chinese church that remains today.

But some five decades of state control and often-brutal oppression have failed to destroy the underground church. Today the “unofficial” church numbers an estimated 8 million members, compared to 4 million for the state church. While some conservative underground members refuse to have any contact with the communist-sanctioned church, the lines are beginning to blur as a new generation of Catholics, less angered by the bitter past, enters the mainstream.

Still, there are not enough clergy to take care of the members of the church in Shaanxi who are scattered over a wide area, and a visit by a priest is a special occasion. A priest may start off Sunday morning saying Mass in the provincial capital of Xi’an, travel to a rural area for service at noon, and on to a third village to say Mass in the evening, driving over bumpy and dangerous mountain roads, walking through farm fields or trudging across the desert.

Mr. Yang describes how Liu Linbiao, a young Shaanxi farmer living in a village beside the Yellow River, swam across the river on Sunday mornings to attend Mass at a church on the other side. In order to give old people and children in his village a chance to attend Mass, Liu and his uncle one Sunday suited the priest in a pair of swimming trunks and floated him to their village in an inner tube to say Mass.

In another village, Mr. Yang photographs Mass being celebrated on a kang, one of the heated brick beds found in the cave houses. A moving photograph shows a priest kneeling on the kang as he gives Communion to a handicapped man, the sunlight illuminating the priest in the darkness.

Lin Ci, a Chinese art critic, has compared Mr. Yang’s use of ambient light to the candlelight illumination used by 17th-century French artist Georges de la Tours in paintings such as “Joseph the Carpenter,” which shows the faces of Joseph and the child Jesus beautifully illuminated in the darkness by a single candle. “We should not be surprised to find the image of the carpenter and his son concealed in all of these images,” writes Lin of the series.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney