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Statistics don’t tell the story but are part of it

Liu Yunxiao may have visited more churches in China than anyone and there’s little doubt no one has seen more of them in his home province of Shaanxi.

A stocky man with silvery hair, 65-year-old Liu has spent the past 30 years documenting Catholicism in this central province, often in mind-numbing detail.

In his self-published book on his home diocese of Zhouzhi, Liu notes the priest’s house in Fujiazhuang village has a modest kitchen of 5.4 square metres.

While many of the documents piled in Liu’s study are for diehard historians only, some contain perhaps the most detailed and accurate data we have on the Church in central China since the opening up of the country in the 1980s.

Liu’s work provides a recent snapshot of the number of Catholics three decades after Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up.

His life reflects changing fortunes of religion in China. A seminarian between 1955 and 1960, he became a farmer when religion was all but abolished.

In 1974, when the Cultural Revolution was drawing to a close, Liu worked in a village clinic until he became an amateur historian in 1984.

“The history of the Church before liberation (1949) is already written,” he says. “But after liberation, few people wrote about it. I wanted to give something back by keeping the real history of that period.”

Much of the data we have is so skewed by politics it is meaningless.

In the mid-17th century, the beginning of the Qing period, the last of China’s dynasties, there were about 300,000 documented Catholics, about half of them in Shaanxi.

With the population increasing roughly tenfold since that time, the government today claims six million Catholics countrywide which, if correct, would mean Catholics make up roughly double the percentage of the population it did 370 years ago, although still less than 0.5 per cent across the board.

Researchers outside the mainland have produced higher figures.

However, none have been as rigorous as Liu, visiting every village in two of Shaanxi’s eight dioceses over more than a decade.

His controversial findings highlight just how little we know about the Church in China.

For years, bishops have claimed that there were at least 50,000 Catholics in Sanyuan, Liu says 29,000. However, inflated figures bring government help.

Far from a decline in the number of Catholics, he says Sanyuan has been the most successful diocese in Shaanxi.

“In reality, the numbers are increasing a lot,” says Liu. They were just inaccurate.

“Even though they are lacking money, they are spending a lot on training catechists,” Liu points out, but in his home of Zhouzhi, he says the growth has been more organic.

Traditionally, faithful sons and daughters are born into Catholic families, go to Mass, grow up and marry likeminded churchgoers.

Pockets of Shaanxi province are heavily populated with villages made up almost entirely of Catholics. But with China’s rapid urban migration, many villages are emptying, adding another complication to the task of tracing Catholics.

Xi’an Cathedral regularly overflows, because of the number of migrants coming to the city.

“There are two types of migrants: Some feel lonely when they get to the city and so they are active in seeking out the Church and they become more devout,” Bishop Anthony Mingyan Dang says. “Some lose their faith.”

Bai Yunchuan, goes to the cathedral every Sunday, but says she attends Mass far less than she used to. Since leaving home six years ago, Bai has worked in restaurants and has opened her own noodle shop.

“In the village you just stop your work and go to church in the evening,” says Bai. “Here you cannot stop because people are still eating.”

Her 14-year-old son lives with her grandparents in her village, but the population is dwindling, so congregations are becoming smaller. Like many Chinese women, Bai left her home to marry. Her parents made marrying a Catholic a must.

Father Stephen Chen Ruixie, from Xi’an, says this attitude must be abandoned by the Church if it is to thrive in modern society.

“It is a way of thinking which has been slow to change in rapidly developing China,” he says.

Father Chen’s nephew married a non-Catholic. “But I said ‘no,’ it is okay,” he says.

Although this attitude is starting to die, a few priests still preach it.

“Some try to stop the sacraments (for those that marry non-Catholics),” he says.

While many of the challenges facing the Church are cultural and some symptoms of the rising economy, perhaps the biggest obstacle is the government.

In September 2006, government officials detained Wu Qinjing, a secretly ordained bishop in Xi’an, reportedly hitting him as they forced him into a vehicle. Six days later he was diagnosed him with concussion. The following March, he is believed to have been sent to reform through education for three days.

Bishop Wu has still not been approved by the Patriotic Association, which has three staff inside the compound of Xi’an Cathedral. The bishop cannot travel outside Xi’an without permission.

Liu’s research showed just over 55,000 Catholics in Zhouzhi in 2008, while the State Administration for Religious Affairs claimed the number was much lower.

A social scientist in Xi’an says that government estimates are not only inaccurate, but also encourage prejudiced behaviour against all religions.

Local cadres are asked how many Catholics live in their area and these numbers are sent back to Beijing, passing through the various stages of county-level and provincial authority.

“Usually the numbers are too low, sometimes they are actually higher, but mostly they are lower,” the social scientist says.

With religion still viewed as an alien threat, local cadres have an automatic predisposition to play down the numbers with higher-ups and, in turn, justify and maintain their validity.

Government claims 230,000 Catholics in Shaanxi, but Liu’s figure would perhaps be more accurate. He has documenting 84,000 Catholics in Zhouzhi and Sanyuan.

The social scientist says that despite the lack of clear data, Shaanxi’s total Catholic population is definitely going up, both in numbers and as a percentage of the total population. Liu agrees.

By the end of the Qing Dynasty, a century ago, there were about 300,000 documented Catholics in the province. “The number now is about the same as it was then,” says the social scientist.


The population in 1912 was about a third of what it is now so the percentage of Catholics in this province today is down considerably. But the fact Shaanxi has recovered and numbers are growing, represents progress in a province once home to more Catholics than any other in the country (AsiaNews).