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The Lancang River, known as the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, flows through the Meili Canyon in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, next to which is Cizhong Village in Deqin County, Yunnan Province. With an average altitude of 1,800 meters, this village, hidden in the mountains, is home to an abundance of ethnic groups. Some 100 years ago, many European missionaries and foreign explorers were already making the tough trip to reach the village. Today, many still deem it a peaceful utopia tucked away from the outside world.
My impression of Cizhong started with a glass of wine. In the home of a Tibetan local I called “Uncle Adro,” I was served delicious homemade wine. Uncle Adro has a 0.27-hectare vineyard where he grows “rose honey,” an ancient French grape variety suitable for both winemaking and eating. The grape was introduced to Yunnan Province by French missionaries in the early 19th Century.
Both Uncle Adro and his son are Catholic. He named his son Zhang Awei, a transliteration of the baptismal name “David.” Uncle Adro’s daughter-in-law, however, is a believer of Tibetan Buddhism. “Such an arrangement is quite common in Cizhong,” laughs Adro. “Many families have members with different religious beliefs living together under the same roof.” Local villagers consider religious beliefs a personal choice and never interfere with the practices of others. When the village’s Catholics host weddings and funerals featuring Catholic rituals, Tibetan Buddhists join them and offer help, and vice versa. The philosophy of Cizhong is that all things are interrelated and should develop and prosper together.
Wine is a necessity for standard Catholic rituals. Its history in Cizhong is closely tied to the popularization and development of Catholicism in the region. Statistics show that at present, about two thirds of Cizhong locals consider themselves Catholic, and the remaining one third is mostly Tibetan Buddhist.
The century-old Cizhong Catholic Church is an important window to local history. Locals say that the vineyard next to the church produces a time-honored species of grape from France’s Bordeaux region. Today, the grape variety is extinct in its home country, but continues to grow and flourish in remote southwestern China.
At the highest point of the church’s main structure is a massive cross. However, it combines Western architectural elements such as a bell tower, cross, and arched chapel with Chinese elements including a pavilion, gate tower with upturned eaves and flying rafters. Considering such tasteful fusion in its architecture, it is no wonder that Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism have peacefully coexisted for so long in the area.