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Is the show over for the Church in China’s countryside?

When Bosco Wang took a job at a garment factory in the city of Cixi on mainland China in 2000, he noticed that during Sunday Mass many parishioners recited the rosary instead of following the protocols of worship and listening to the homily.

He later discovered that the parishioners were migrant workers like himself, from a wide range of provinces, who did not understand the local Ningbo dialect the priest was speaking.

Wang himself had a similar experience during the 1990s when he worked in Guangdong province and opted to worship at a Protestant Church, whose pastor spoke Mandarin, rather than at a local Catholic Church where the priest spoke Cantonese.

Migrant workers must adapt to a host of challenges when they relocate from their familiar homelands. Everything from food, climate, local customs and language reinforce their feelings of being an outsider—even in their Church.

“It was a bitter feeling to rejoin my mother Church only on important feasts,” Wang said.

Language is just one of the many barriers facing the estimated 260 million migrant workers who relocate from rural provinces to seek employment in urban areas across China.

Mandarin is the official language, but there are more than 80 dialects in common use.

Growing urbanisation of China’s once predominantly rural population has become a pressing issue for the country in its transformation into a modern and open economy, a shift initiated in the late 1970s.

In 2011, city populations overtook rural areas for the first time in the country’s history, with 51.3 per cent of the Chinese people now residing in densely packed urban areas.

This shift has created a host of social problems, including safe housing, employment and residential permits, which government officials have been trying to resolve.

On August 30 this year, the premier, Li Keqiang, met with a team of specialists from the China Academy of Sciences and Academy of Engineering to evaluate an investigation conducted by more than 100 researchers over the course of a year.

According to a report by the official Xinhua news agency, Li told the specialists that in light of increased urbanisation, greater attention needed to be paid to increasing respect for the law, to better coordination of the development of small cities and towns and enhancing the quality of life.

But urbanisation and mass migration also takes its toll on religious life, as priests struggle to provide adequate pastoral care for their parishioners.

In Wang’s case, a critical problem was language. He urged his parish priest to celebrate the evening Mass in Mandarin to accommodate the growing migrant community within the parish.

It took several years, as well as the arrival of a new parish priest, who skillfully resolved resistance from elderly parishioners who preferred the liturgy in the local dialect.

Today, there are 500 Catholic migrant workers in the manufacturing hub of Cixi, with around 100 of them attending Sunday Mass regularly.

They also have weekly gatherings, offer charitable services and conduct pilgrimages, as well as organise celebrations at festivals.

The migrant workers have gained access to a more textured spiritual life, simply because of a change of language.

“This experience tells me that it is very important for priests to accept migrants and show concern for the challenges they face,” Wang said.

In Cixi, the parish embraced the migrant workers, but in many parts of China, both urban and rural, Church communities have shown far less willingness to change.

Moreover, urbanisation has taken a toll on rural parishes. China has more than 31 million Christians, but most now live in cities.

In rural areas, most able-bodied men have left to find jobs in provincial cities. Their absence puts a strain on their families, with children and elderly people both requiring care.

The predominantly Catholic town of Erquanjin in Hebei province used to have about 2,200 residents, but only about 100 from the Catholic population remain.

Father Joseph Wang, from Yuci diocese in Shanxi province, says that by contrast, city parishes are thriving, because they are receiving new faces every week from the countryside.

“Even the parish priest cannot be sure how many parishioners he has,” he added.

The Haidan Christian Church in Beijing had 850 regulars in 2003, but the congregation had swelled to 11,000 by 2011, with 90 per cent of its members born in the 1990s.

As city congregations grow, rural ones diminish. Even the villages in which they were based have begun to vanish.

According to Huang Jianbo, professor of anthropology at Renmin University in Beijing, about 80 to 100 villages have ceased to exist each day over the past decade, as more people move to cities.

Church workers say the Church in rural China struggles to provide for those left behind, while city congregations struggle with social rifts between the privileged elite and poor, rural migrants.


The less educated rural Christians find themselves estranged, in what Huang calls, “A new Church setting and an unfamiliar expression of the same faith in terms of different ways of understanding, approach and experiencing God” (UCAN).

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