Daniel Wright spent the last two years in Guizhou, China on a fellowship that allowed him to study the people and societies of inland China. As he spoke with people, they expressed to him, in a variety of ways, the crisis of faith that has come with the erosion of belief in communism. The following is the account of his visit to Shimenkan, a township of the Big Flowery Miao. Editor
It has been fascinating during my two-year fellowship, living among the people of Guizhou Province, to observe a widespread quest for belief—efforts to find a meaningful worldview, peace, satisfying human relationships, moral guidance and a basis for social justice.
The question of belief is part of the reason two friends and I traveled to a remote township known as The Stone Threshold (Shimenkan), accessible only by Jeep, in Guizhou’s northwestern most corner. At an elevation of over 6,000 feet, the mountain region that surrounds Shimenkan, Wumeng Shan, is one of the most rugged and poorest areas in Guizhou Province.
The most numerous ethnic group in the region is the Big Flowery Miao (Da Hua Miao), one of a dozen or so Miao subgroupings. The Miao have long been a despised people. In fact, several Chinese have told me of a western scholar who has suggested that the two most oppressed peoples in the world have been the Jews and the Miao. Even today, prejudiced Chinese use the word “Miao” the way racists in the United States use the term “nigger.”
Of all the Miao subgroups, the Big Flowery Miao have been the most oppressed. Just over 100 years ago, for example, their ethnic neighbors in northwest Guizhou, the Yi people, though in the minority, enslaved many of them. Treated as less than human, the Big Flowery Miao were housed with the animals and forced to eat out of the same troughs the animals used.
Previously unknown and isolated, Shimenkan was put on the map by a foreigner: Samuel Pollard (1864 1915), a British missionary who moved to Shimenkan in 1904. Even to Pollard, an experienced missionary, Shimenkan was the most wretched place he had seen in China.
After relocating to Shimenkan, at the time a village of a dozen families, Pollard lived the lifestyle of the Big Flowery Miao. He wore the same clothes as the Miao, refused to ride on horses or on sedan chairs as other privileged people did, did not carry weapons, used the Miao language to communicate, ate potatoes and wheat porridge with common folk and initially lived in a thatched roof hut like everyone else. Pollard’s lifestyle authenticated his message of God made flesh in Christ.
To Pollard’s amazement, many of the Miao ancestral legends and children’s rhymes were consistent with biblical themes: a creation story, a flood myth, even Noah’s ark. For many Miao, the rest of the Bible filled in their gaps. In less than two decades, Pollard and his coworkers saw the conversion of more than 10,000 people. Churches, schools, medical clinics, a soccer field, even a swimming pool, followed. Mountainous and remote Shimenkan became known as “Heaven from Abroad” (Haiwai tianguo).
According to China scholar Zhang Tan’s thorough examination of Pollard’s life and the history of Shimenkan, there are no believers left. The primary reason Zhang gives for this abrupt change is that the liberation that the Miao’s savior had given them was a freedom of the soul, not of politics and the flesh. When another savior appeared—the Chinese Communist Party— that could provide economic and political liberation, people began turning to socialism. Faith in Christ, Zhang concludes, expired without a whimper.
Based on Zhang Tan’s conclusions, I expected to find Shimenkan a fascinating piece of pre-revolution, foreign-missionary history. Nothing more. Even so, I could not help but wonder, given the crisis of belief I have observed in other areas of Guizhou Province, whether the faith of 10,000 people had in fact simply disappeared like a lost tribe.
Seven hours over dirt-packed gravel and sometimes sloppy mud roads, we finally arrived in Shimenkan. Constant rain and thick fog made the trip seem longer than it actually was.
Then, there it was, just like the picture in Zhang Tan’s book. Market day was just wrapping up when we pulled into the driveway, so we had many curious observers. The Big Flowery Miao I had read so much about circled around us. We exchanged the curious stares of distant strangers. A group of five especially friendly Big Flowery Miao women took a particular interest in the woman accompanying me. When we reappeared from the township government offices, the women were patiently waiting and presented her with a bag of cookies.
We were then led on a tour of Shimenkan’s remnants of the past. An enthusiastic band of locals followed us, including the five women who were never far behind. As daylight turned to dusk, light rain and a blanket of fog created an almost eerie atmosphere. The last stop of the tour was Samuel Pollard’s tomb. Pollard died of typhoid in 1915 while tending to locals with the same disease. Our group milled around the tombs for about 20 minutes, then, as we tracked back down the hill toward the road, I walked behind several of the Miao women, my mind full of thoughts of their past and questions about their present.
“Do you believe in Jesus?” I quietly asked the woman who walked in front of me, eager to know for myself if they or others in the area had carried on their pre-revolution faith.
“Yes, I believe,” the woman replied, turning her head with a smile.
“I am a believer as well,” I replied. “That means we are one family.”
I sensed she was not the only one.
As we continued to walk, one of my travel companions asked the women if there were only elderly women in their church.
No, they said, there are men as well, and young people, and middle-aged people. Their church is their community.
“Are there many churches in Shimenkan?” I followed.
“Duo de hen.” (Very many!) She replied with a sparkle in her eye.5
It was almost dark and time for dinner. The tour was over. We did not know if we would see the Miao women again, so we said goodbye. An older woman came up to me and with strong hands that had obviously farmed for many years firmly grasped mine. With a penetrating look I will not forget, she said, “We will meet again in heaven. Pray for us, we will pray for you.”
The Big Flowery Miao women, dressed in traditional hemp skirts, blue blazers and muddy rain boots stood quietly at the turn in the road as we walked off. As their figures began to disappear in the mist, they began to sing. We stopped, turned and listened.
The first song sounded like a Miao melody. It was beautiful, but I could not understand it. Then they began to sing a chorus in Mandarin, well known among believers of Christ around China: Zai Yesuli women shi yi jiaren (‘In Jesus we are one family’). As they sang, I could see through the fog that several of them were wiping tears from their eyes with aprons that hung from their Miao skirts. They had met family; we had met living history—and vice versa.
With that taste of faith, I realized that Zhang Tan was wrong, or at least his information was incomplete. Religion, after all, appeared to be alive and well in Shimenkan.
When we went for breakfast the following morning, there they were—the same women from the previous evening, standing patiently down the road, now accompanied by several men. They walked up to us and presented us with a few dozen hard-boiled eggs and then returned to wait for us at their distant post.
With a bit of arm twisting, we were able to convince our hosts to allow us to visit a Miao village. Our tour the previous day had been around the township headquarter’s immediate vicinity. We wanted more. The most convenient village for us to visit, it turned out, was the home of the women who had sung to us!
Within an hour we were off to their village. We slipped and slid down a mud path as shepherds, wearing thick wool capes to protect them from the cool and rain, tended their sheep and goats on the lush shrub-covered mountains that surrounded us. The air was moist and clear.
Before long our entourage had arrived at their village. The village hovels were made of thick, tan, earthen walls and thatch roofs. Pigs moved in slow motion as chickens dashed through the inch-thick muck that covered the village grounds. Big Flowery Miao began to gather as we mingled, standing around one of their homes.
We remained in the village just a few hours, chatting and even singing. My companions and I were struck with the sense of dignity among the people. Yes, they were very poor. But compared to dozens of other villages I have visited in Guizhou, there was an absence of apology for their backwardness (I am usually overwhelmed upon arrival with self-deprecating excuses for the people’s poverty). These villagers made no excuses. In fact, Moxi (Moses), who appeared to be the local leader, stated confidently, “We are poor, but we are rich.”
Moses, as the village spokesman, said that 40 out of the 50 families in the village believed in Christ. Most of them began to follow Christ in the 1980s. The villagers gather weekly to worship.
“What difference does your faith make to you?” I asked Moses as we stood around, county and township government officials included.
Moses replied that under the government’s policy to protect freedom of religion, their community was strong. Then, calibrating his response, he added that they did not smoke, did not drink and did not carouse. His facial expressions communicated that there was a lot more he could have shared.
The sense of community also seemed quite strong. From the way they organized themselves to the way they related to one another, they appeared as one. You should have heard them sing! Old and young, men and women, they sang hymns in both Mandarin and Miao.
Before we said goodbye, I asked Moses if he had a Bible with him. I had a verse I wanted to present to their community as a gift. He reached into his bag and pulled out a Bible printed in Nanjing. I pointed to 1 Corinthians, chapter one, verses 26-28 and stepped back. Thoughts from Zhang Tan’s history of Shimenkan and Pollard’s journal flooded my mind as Moses, head down, read in silence:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong; God chose the lowly of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
Moses, now at a distance, looked up at me in tears. We understood.
As the villagers, the officials and the three foreign visitors slowly proceeded back to the main road, the Big Flowery Miao began to sing again: “In Jesus we are one family.”
One family with the despised and historically oppressed Miao of Shimenkan. It was a lot to take in.
Since that trip to the remote mountains of northwest Guizhou and the months of traveling around the province, I have thought how fascinating and noteworthy it is that during this transitional period in China’s history the search for meaning and community continues as it does: from shrines that dot the countryside, to overflowing state-approved places of worship, to young women wearing jade Buddhas, to the Big Flowery Miao of Shimenkan— even the members of Falungong who are now under pressure.
The heart of the matter is that the people’s quest will play an essential, albeit subtle, role in determining the nation’s evolving future.
Excerpted with permission from “Matters of the Heart…and the Nation” by Daniel Wright in ICWA Letters (Institute of Current World Affairs: Hanover, NH) June, 1999.