Introduction
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1 The village streets are dry and rutted, flanked by high walls stained yellow by the dust. The sky too is a grayish yellow with the pollution brought by coal mining, steel mills, and the rapid industrial development of the surrounding area. A painted notice running along one wall calls on people to observe the one-child policy. Here and there the gates of courtyards are ajar. The passerby can catch glimpses of shady trees, women preparing vegetables, old people chatting, and children playing. On a summer afternoon Cave Gully is much like any other north China village, but it is also different. An auspicious phrase written in tiles over a doorway reminds people to “Believe in the Lord and Honor the Commandments .” Up the street is a church, where women are bustling about preparing for the next group of tour buses bringing pilgrims to the magnificent new shrine of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. For the people here are Catholics and as such they are part of a history that goes far beyond north China. The villagers remember the history of their community in stories. Everyone in the village seems to know some of these, but few could tell them as well as an old man who until his death a few years ago was the orphanage gatekeeper. His stories spanned the village’s history from the conversion of the first impoverished settlers three hundred years ago, to the Cultural Revolution when his brother came under attack and tried to commit suicide by jumping into the well in the church courtyard. The old man tells of how, as his brother jumped in, he was shouting, “Holy Introduction 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 1 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 1 27/04/13 3:46 PM 27/04/13 3:46 PM 2 | Introduction Mother of God, I don’t want to die, I just can’t bear it, let me get out!” The Virgin Mary saved him and he was able to climb out and run off. But most of the village’s stories are not set in any particular historical time; instead they are just-so stories of how things came to be. The story of the missionary who cursed the village with seven years of bad weather explains the origins of the shrine to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, built to remove the curse. Another story relates to why the Chinese priests are buried at the feet of the missionaries in the village cemetery. It tells of a Chinese priest who could not accept the missionaries’ ill treatment of the Chinese clergy and ran away to Rome to complain to the pope. There he knelt in the pope’s way with his petition pasted to his hat, so that the pope saw and the priest was eventually able to come back to the village justified. This tale takes a classic Chinese form in which a petitioner appeals to a just official or even the emperor, but is set in a world where Rome seems as close as Beijing. And it is in Rome that the early history of the village is recorded. In the archives of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples, bound together into huge white leather volumes, are letters sent to Rome by missionaries and priests over hundreds of years. Reading through from the seventeenth century, the world that gave rise to these stories comes to life: the diligent and kindly Chinese priest who never spoke ill of anyone and who, in 1781, was the first to record a visit to the Catholics of Cave Gully; the enthusiastic Franciscan who infuriated his congregation by bringing two live sheep into church at Christmas; the Chinese priest who got into trouble for betting a girl a considerable sum of money that she would not dare take a look at her future husband; the missionary who was driven mad by his experiences, chained up by the bishop, and wrote desperate and largely illegible pleas for help with a Chinese writing brush on tiny scraps of paper. And then in the files for 1873 there are four long letters, pages and pages of neatly written Latin, from a priest who signed his name Josephus Van and had come to Rome to complain about the European missionaries’ ill treatment of the Chinese priests.1 To write the history of one village over more than three hundred years is unusual: historians mostly write about larger spaces or shorter time periods.2 Shifting away...