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A facelift for Mao's survivors

Beijing acknowledges historical importance of Catholic buildings

<p>The dilapidated Jiaxing Church in Zhejiang Province, eastern China</p>

The dilapidated Jiaxing Church in Zhejiang Province, eastern China

  • ucanews.com reporter, Jiaxing
  • China
  • June 17, 2013
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Dilapidated window frames punctuate bare walls in this vast cruciform church in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province. The roof on this elegant building that once sheltered worshippers disappeared years ago; much of the remaining structure has been left to ruin.

Little work has been done on the Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal since Chairman Mao’s henchmen went about sacking religious buildings during the 10-year period of the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976. During that period, even Catholic clergy who supported the independent Church movement were sent to labor camps and all religious activities were suspended.

Last month, however, the building was listed among the highest ranks of cultural relics in China. Several distinct features remain: two 57m. bell towers, once the landmark of Jiaxing, are still in good shape, while refined carvings on arches and column heads remain visible.

The pastor of the church, Father Peter Xu Guigen, hopes the government will now fund restoration of the iconic symbol of Catholicism in eastern China. He used to celebrate Sunday Mass for about 200 parishioners in a small chapel near the ruins. “The city government’s initial plan is to vacate the surrounding area and build a public square,” he said.

In 1980, four years after Mao’s death, the Communist leadership changed tack from a policy that sought to create a new society by wiping out cultural relics, to one that allowed churches and temples to reopen. Those that had been confiscated, to be used as factories and warehouses, were returned to local dioceses, who were otherwise compensated. Over the subsequent years, the branding of Catholicism as a “foreign religion” and a tool of Western encroachment gradually weakened.

Although relations between Beijing and the Vatican remain tense, 17 Catholic buildings were included in the latest batch of 1,943 structures to be listed as national monuments, signaling the government’s acknowledgment of their historical significance.

That batch, announced last month, is the largest number of historic Catholic buildings to be placed under the country’s protection since the first group of monuments was declared in 1961. The churches, mostly built in Gothic and Romanesque styles by foreign missionaries between 1890s and 1930s, now cannot be dismantled. Moreover, repair work and new constructions at these sites are subject to approval from the State Council.

Tang Guohua, a professor at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Guangzhou University, said the elevation in status “shows these Church architectures have significant historical, artistic, scientific or social values.”

From now on, he said, they will be guarded by the Protection of Cultural Relics law, which “is greatly conducive to extending their religious function and life span.”

Another abandoned seminary in Kaifeng, central Henan province, has recently been listed. Father Cai Yuliang, of Kaifeng diocese, said the 80-year-old seminary is one of the few Catholic buildings in China that blends ancient Chinese and Western architecture.

“We have begun a full scale renovation but find it hard to purchase suitable materials for the restoration,” he said.

That problem of resources isn’t limited to the Kaifeng seminary. Professor Tang told ucanews.com that many obstacles had arisen during renovations. “Historical blueprints and pictures of churches are usually difficult to obtain,” he said.

He took charge of the renovation of the 125-year-old Guangzhou Cathedral, a national monument declared in 1996. “In China, we lack professionals, traditional building materials and techniques to repair ancient churches. Thus, we need full cooperation among cultural heritage and religious affairs departments and clergy, as well as making exchanges with overseas experts.

“Some clergy have little knowledge of the relevant law and restore the buildings according to their ideas, which often change the original form to meet new demand of the community,” Tang added. 

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