6. The Four Fragrances and the Flying Bicycle
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145 People say that during the Cultural Revolution, Catholics were forced to leave the church, so they thought that the end of the world was coming . A group of women known as the Four Fragrances went around the Catholic villages urging those who had left the church to return before the Day of Judgment. They were very brave. They even persuaded officials to hand over the letters of apostasy that Catholics had been forced to sign. One of these women was speaking when soldiers broke in and arrested everyone they found in the room, but one of the men put her on the back of his bicycle and pedaled away. The bicycle went so fast that it did not touch the ground. They were flying. It was a miracle! Even people who are not Christian saw it!1 This is a familiar story to many central Shanxi Catholics, but people lower their voices when they tell it. In the face of state condemnation of religion as superstitious folly and Catholicism as a tool of foreign imperialism , it tells of the power of God to intervene in everyday lives and of ordinary people’s courage and leadership. For that reason it matters greatly to those who tell the story that they should be believed. On one occasion an old man responded to my obvious doubt by saying that he had a photograph of the flying bicycle. A short while later he came back with a pile of old glass slides. As we hunted through the slides looking without success for a flying bicycle, I realized that they had in fact been made as part of the Socialist Education Movement not to prove that miracles took place but, quite the opposite, to show the villagers how chapter 6 The Four Fragrances and the Flying Bicycle 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 145 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 145 27/04/13 3:46 PM 27/04/13 3:46 PM 146 | The Four Fragrances and the Flying Bicycle the miracles of that time had been faked and thus to persuade them not to believe in Christianity. For the old man, the original intention of the slides did not matter, instead he was preserving them as a record of what really happened. The story of the Four Fragrances reminds listeners of Catholic resistance , heroism, and supernatural powers, but it does so only by allowing its audience to forget much of what took place. Setting the whole story in the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), a chaotic period many of whose policies have subsequently been repudiated, conceals the fact that the events described actually took place in 1965 during the Socialist Education Movement, when the drive to get Catholics to leave the church began. Moreover the term Four Fragrances conceals the crucial role of one woman in opposing that campaign: Li Zhenxiang, the preacher about whom this story was originally told. And by ending with her miraculous escape the story blots out the events that followed her later arrest, when she played a part scripted by the government in a huge educational campaign that led into the attacks that caused nearly all the village’s Catholics to renounce their faith. Telling the story of the Four Fragrances allows Catholics to remember Li Zhenxiang ’s courage but avoid speaking of what subsequently happened to her and to them. Another effect of speaking of a group of women rather than of Li Zhenxiang alone is to foreground the role of ordinary people in what happened. By 1965 the Catholic hierarchy and institutions had virtually vanished, priests were effectively imprisoned, and the leaders of village congregations (huizhang) came under attack. So when government workteams began to pressure people to leave the religion, it was ordinary villagers who took the lead. Since they had no previous claims to power, their authority came from signs of divine intervention : visions, exorcisms, and miracles. The high emotional mood that made people willing to accept such signs was a product of the Communist state’s threat to the most important and longstanding aspects of local Catholic faith: public prayer, traditional morality, and loyalty to the community. It was also a product of very different understandings of the community’s history. When the workteams demanded that Catholics renounce their faith, they were acting on the narrative of Catholicism as a foreign religion introduced by imperialist missionaries . Ordinary Catholics, on the other hand, looked back through their own understanding of their history and heard the calls for them to renounce the church...