Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Visit to Luduke

What is the appropriate response when you encounter an error on radio or TV? Some weeks back listening to an interview with historian Michael Burleigh about the Vietnam war on BBC radio's Night Waves, I heard him say that the Chinese built a railway to Hanoi. This is incorrect. It was the French who built the railway, from Haiphong to Kunming, at the height of their empire in Southeast Asia a little more than a hundred years ago. It's a wonderful narrow gauge line that runs through some of my favourite parts of the world. I've travelled on it and through a good deal of the surrounding countryside.

So what is the most appropriate response? My reaction was to send an email to Michael Burleigh with information about the railway and the surrounding area that I'd learned during my travels. He may have read it, but I received nothing in return. While writing this email, I searched the internet for 'Luduke,' a tiny village in Yunnan that I have twice visited. The French had visited earlier, around the time they were building the railway, and had left behind a Catholic church, and memories in the villagers that remain today. I wrote about my first visit to Luduke and posted it years ago on the internet. My search revealed very little and it seems that my little travelogue has disappeared. My visit was only possible because of my curiousity and persistence. It seems a shame that historians or anyone else is not able to benefit from my efforts. I think the most appropriate response may be to revive this piece and post it again to give anyone interested in this part of China a chance to read my hard won account of a visit to Luduke.

I knew there was a church in the village. What I didn't know was whether or not it still had any meaning to the people who lived there. Decades of suppression may well have destroyed its influence. Once over the pass, we continued along the roughly cobbled trail into the valley and soon the village came into sight. As we approached, the tinkling of cow bells that had accompanied us faded and I had my answer. Clearer and clearer came the sound of singing from inside the church.

I first heard about the village, Luduke, from the curator of the Wenshan prefectural museum in Yunnan, China. A display of local hill tribe costumes had caught my eye. There were about thirty on show, and the curator told me that the display was just a small sample; the costume of each tribe varied slightly from village to village. As an example, he told me of Luduke, where several families of the Yi tribe live. Like the Yi in other parts of Yunnan, they wear a coat embroidered with many colours, and studded with silver buttons and coins. The clothing of the hill tribes reminds one of the days when they were the family's most valuable possession.

The interesting feature of the Luduke Yi clothing was the cross sewn onto the back of the coat. It reflected the influence of French Catholic missionaries who had once lived in the village. Luduke was not too far away, but getting there would involve a three-hour bus ride west from Wenshan followed by a three-hour walk along mountain paths. Most of the inhabitants of Luduke were not Yi, but Hmong, a people who live in some of the most remote valleys of Southeast Asia. I was told that the church still stood and in 1986 the prefectural government had designated it as a historical site. Catholic churches are not common in China, and churches in obscure villages are even rarer. I decided to pay them a visit.

The journey was tiring but uneventful. From Wenshan, a bus took me to Pingjiu. There I met local officials who introduced me to a farmer who could guide me to Luduke. His field of hot peppers waiting to be picked meant that his services wouldn't come cheaply. After some haggling we arrived at the amount of Y100 (US$12), a price four or five times higher than guides would demand at less busy times. We set off together and made our way over the hills. In the distance I heard the sound of blasting. The minerals that had brought the French to the area during the last century still lay under the mountains in quantities large enough to interest modern miners. These days though, the minerals are sent north to fuel China's industrial development. The French built rail link between Kunming, the provincial capital, and Hanoi today provides the French (and other tourists) only the chance to take in the beautiful scenery.

When I arrived in Luduke, I headed straight for the church and my guide returned to his peppers. The singing I'd heard was part of the schooling that the church provided during the day. Only forty families lived in the village and a government run primary school behind the church competed for students. Children could attend either or both of these schools and there can't be many Chinese villages so well endowed with educational institutions. Roman letters on the blackboard at the back of the room made me think that some sort of crazy English lesson was being taught until I realized that the language was Hmong. Interestingly, the teacher used the International Hmong script rather than the one promulgated by the Chinese government. This is undoubtably due to the fact that the bible and other religious works are published in Thailand in International Hmong and almost nothing is available in Chinese Hmong. Children were taught religion and the Hmong language. Selections of their homework, essays on Christian morals in Hmong and Chinese, were posted on the compound walls.

Villagers speak of a temporary church that stood until 1906 when it was replaced by the one that stands today. Many of the windows are broken and small plants sprouted from between the cracks in the blocks, but the structure still seemed sound. Inside was clean and the floor was smooth concrete. A dozen or so low benches and tables faced the altar, a high table decorated with a vase of plastic flowers and a candle stick. On the walls were Chinese posters of Jesus and Mary, and on the wall beyond the altar was a large red cross made of paper. A small booth served as the confessional. It was comfortable considering that in another church I had visited, the confessional was outside in a storage room and the faithful had to confess amongst piles of pumpkins. The steeple was eight metres high and was the tallest structure in the village. Of course in a place where the average income is Y200, there are no banks or commercial institutions to compete. The top of the steeple was empty, as the bell it once housed was confiscated by the government in 1963. Its whereabouts today is still a mystery. The church forms one side of the compound. At the back there is an office, private rooms, and a kitchen/dining room. Opposite the church is a storage room and the front of the compound is walled off with an ornate gate admitting entry. The courtyard in the centre is paved with stones and swept clean. Women drape their laundry to dry over the flowering bushes.

The teacher took me to the office where I met the village headman who was also responsible for the church. I signed a guest book and had my photograph taken. The only name that I recognized as foreign was that of a priest from Malaysia who had visited during the previous year. When I asked about documents left behind by the priests, I was shown a photograph of a young bearded French priest, Father Ma as he was known to the villagers, who had served the village for thirty years. His long black robe made him look like a wealthy Chinese merchant of the time as much as anything else. He died in 1940 and is one of two priests buried in Luduke. The first priest had come in the 1880s and a succession of six priests served the village until 1951 when the last was sent packing by the government. The village is still without a priest, but since 1980 when the ban on religious activity was lifted, a priest from Kunming comes once or twice a year to give communion, hear confessions, perform marriages and so on.

We had to go out and do some walking to see further evidence of the priests' work in the village. From the room where we talked, I could see a large gathering of children in the courtyard surreptitiously watching me. The population of Luduke and other villages in the area was either very young or very old. Everyone else had left the village to work for wages. Whenever I established eye contact with the children they'd quickly look away or move out of sight. But once they saw us get up to take a walk, they lead the way to tour the sights.

We walked along part of the five kilometres of path cobbled under the priests' supervision, past the wells that they had dug to a remote part of the valley where the two priests are buried. A tall stone cross stands over the mountain side gravesite overlooking the cornfields. A close examination reveals the repairs made after the cross was damaged by a Red Guard raiding party that visited the village. During the cultural revolution, anything deviating from the teachings of Chairman Mao was strictly banned and religious activity in the village had to be conducted at home in secret.

By the time we got back to the church, supper was ready. I was invited to join the headman and his family in the compound dining room. A prayer was said, I could recognize the Hmong words for "Maria" and "Amen", and we sat down to eat. Supper was a modest feast consisting of pork fat, pumpkins, some greens, and rice laced with corn kernels. Our meal reflected yet another aspect of the priests' efforts. Almost all the crops of Yunnan, corn, potatoes, pumpkins, and tobacco, were introduced from the West. The rice was a treat in honour of my visit. Poor soil and an altitude of two thousand metres meant that all rice had to be bought at the Pingjiu market and brought back to Luduke. Incidentally, on Fridays the villagers abstain from eating meat, following a custom now abandoned in the West.

After supper, we chatted in the courtyard and I quickly ran out of cigarettes. In China it is considered rude to smoke without offering to the other men present and I was the only one in the village rich enough to buy cigarettes. Just as the sun set, a bell was struck signalling that the evening service was about to begin. About thirty people showed up and as they entered the church they crossed themselves and genuflected before they sat, women on the left and men on the right. The teacher I had met when I arrived sat in front and lead the congregation in prayer, reading by the light of a coal oil lamp. Everyone seemed to be wearing crucifixes around their necks and many carried flashlights in preparation for the walk home. Morning and evening prayer services had been held in the church every day since the lifting of the ban on religious activity.

One of the men I had been speaking to before the service beckoned me to go outside. He'd arranged one of the women of the Yi nationality to dress in her finest clothing for me to see. Her back did indeed have the cross on it, even though the ten Yi families of the village no longer followed the Christian faith. I was told that they had worn this design since the priests came and continued to wear it right through the turmoil of the cultural revolution. The Hmong also wore a cross on their backs, but it was not so striking as that of the Yi. While I was in Wenshan I met a manganese dealer from Beijing and I told him about my plans to visit the church in Luduke and what little I knew of the place. He said it was inconceivable that the villagers would have been allowed to wear the cross during the cultural revolution. I can only assume that the Red Guards must have been blind to such subtle expressions of faith.

In a village without electricity, there is not much to do at night except sleep. With a feeling of trepidation, I went to the rat infested storage room that was to serve as my bedroom for the night. It wasn't the rats that worried me however. I brought along a Hmong phrasebook and leafing through it, noticed that the word for "lice" has two definitions in Hmong, one for head lice, and the other for body lice. I feared that the Hmong must be on very intimate terms with these parasites to honour them with their own distinct names. But the bedding was spotlessly new and I had a comfortable night's sleep.

In the morning, after a breakfast of noodle soup, I accompanied the headman back to Wenshan where he had some errands to take care of. On the way back I thought about the remarkable survival of the church. The building continues to stand, and in every sense is still the centre of the village. Isolated from the Catholic community, oppressed by the government and terrible poverty, the villagers had every excuse to abandon their religion. But they kept their faith and the church flourishes.

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