Home » capucinecogne » My Blog » Blog » Leaps of Faith: The Story of a Tibetan Catholic family, and links between us

This article was originally written in April 2022, for the Sixth Tone writing contest – under the theme “generations”.

We reach Alulaka, a beautiful village a four-hour upward hike from the Nujiang Valley. Under a clear sky, snow mountains surround us. High on endorphins and gratitude, I sing out loud. Aluo suddenly turns to me: “I can sing too,” he says with a wide grin. Aluo breaks out into the French nursery rhyme “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon.” I have not heard the song in over a decade. Together, on top of a mountain in a remote corner of China, Aluo—a Tibetan man —and I – a French woman, sing a childhood song that both of our grandfathers taught us.

The path to Nujiang Valley

Locals will soon be celebrating Easter. Tibetan hymns echo from Alulaka’s small church as we walk up. Aluo points out the path towards the Lancang (Mekong) Valley on the opposite side. Two generations before, Aluo’s grandfather, Xiao Wenxiu, walked from the town of Cizhong in the Lancang Valley, to the Nujiang (Salween) Valley. Leaving his hometown behind, he searched for work in Nujiang, where he would soon meet his wife and build his family, before being led to labour camp for his religion.

Aluo grew up on a hilltop, at the end of the long path his grandfather had hiked. Having spent most of his life in nature, Aluo sees it as a fundamental part of him. Nestled between snow mountains, Nujiang Valley is an enclave of its own. Tucked in the northwest of Yunnan province, for most of its history the only way in or out was a risky trek. While his children dream of city life, Aluo struggles to envision leaving this mountainous home.

Many Nujiang people, from all of Nujiang’s four ethnic minorities, are Christian— a faith brought by missionaries who crossed these mountains over a century ago. The previous day, Aluo had registered me and my French passport to the police system, as required from hotels in China. After helping him type my two lengthy middle names on the computer, he noticed my birthday, the first of November: “How interesting, do you know what that date is?” he asked.

“I do not, but in my culture it is All Saints Day.”

With a cheeky smile, Aluo replies “In my culture too.” The connections between Aluo and me began there, beginning with the Catholic religion.

Missionaries of Cizhong

Aluo’s grandfather, Xiao Wenxiu, learnt some French from Franciscan missionaries in Cizhong. From them he also learned “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon,” which he would teach Aluo, who would sing it with me, decades later, on the mountains of Yunnan. Before crossing over to Nujiang, Wenxiu was educated in Catholic schools, and the family maintained deep ties with the Franciscans. This would become a dangerous trait after the founding of the New China. In the late 1950s, Wenxiu and his two brothers were sent to labour camp, only to be released in 1980, having all survived.

Wenxiu’s father and uncle—who were likely orphans— were adopted by Franciscan priests, in Dartsendoin (now Kangding, Sichuan). The Batang Uprising of 1905 deeply shook the Tibetan Christian community and missionaries settled in the region. The Qing government had permitted missionaries in Tibetan regions, attempting to reduce Buddhism’s influence. In a rejection of both the Han Chinese and Western missionaries, Tibetans rose in protest, executing missionaries and destroying Churches.[1] Although dates are unclear, it is likely that the Franciscans moved South to the Lancang Valley in the aftermath, taking little Wenxiu with them. In Cizhong, a beautiful stone church surrounded by vineyards became a new centre of Catholicism in China.

I first saw the Church at night, missing the outside’s intricate Tibetan, Bai and Naxi (Yunnanese minorities) details in the dark. The Gothic structure was strangely familiar. Remove the Han Chinese-style roof and red lanterns, and one could place it in any French town. I felt completely disoriented, having become used to Tibetan temples and Chinese “old towns” I saw every day. 

As I realised the Church was locked, a young man appeared in the rain. “Are you Catholic?” he asked. I hesitated. I had not attended mass in over three years, and when I do, it is mainly upon my grandmother’s request. “Yes, I am Catholic,” I replied, subconsciously feeling for the cross around my neck I have worn since childhood. 

The mass was cancelled: after a day of rainfall, rockfalls blocked the roads. I was lucky to have even made it to Cizhong. At the foot of the Himalayas, villagers’ lives pause during poor weather. All one can do is wait – and pray.

The inside of the church was beautiful in its simplicity: white, with Bai-Tibetan motif drawings on the ceiling and nave. I prayed and admired the church where Wenxiu grew up as an altar boy. A priest arrived: he surprised me by telling me they would hold mass especially for me. “While your skin is white and mine is yellow, you are French and I am Tibetan, it makes no difference: God is within us all.” Moved by the familiarity of the mass and the priest’s words, I cried for the first time in a church— so very far from those that I grew up going to.

Challenges to Faith

Wenxiu’s family links to the church of Cizhong meant they were “tainted” in the eyes of the new CCP regime. Aluo, who had never known his grandfather, was the only one in his class who did not receive a red neckerchief of the Young Pioneers. Constantly bullied, he hid behind the school each day, eventually being expelled for missing too many classes. Aluo told us the story with a mix of pride and resentment: pride that despite it all, he has gotten to where he is, unlike any of his classmates, but also a—much more subtle – resentment for the hurt he went through as a boy. Growing up in a family who had been part of the most educated in the region, he dreamt of studying. Instead, as the oldest of eight children, and as China’s de-collectivisation gained momentum, Aluo helped his parents manage the farm and care for his younger siblings.

Despite their grandfather not being around, the family continued practicing Catholicism. Back then, there was only one priest-less church in all of Dimaluo – the area Aluo grew up in and where he still lives. We hiked up to the old church, with its Nu and Tibetan features. It neighbours a Buddhist temple. “Everybody needs a faith,” Aluo told me frankly, “mine supported me through major struggles.” My mind flashed back to little Aluo, unable to attend school, and how far he had come since then.

A not so Lonely Planet

I found Aluo’s contact details through my thick and reliable China travel partner, the Lonely Planet guidebook. I was unable to directly hike there from Cizhong church, given the heavy snow fall. Instead, I went full circle: South, and around, driving in total about 16 hours on the new highways. Just three years ago, this journey would have taken three to four days. Ultimately, I ended up just 24 km as the crow flies from where I had been – despite the Nujiang Valley’s lush green feeling worlds away from the snowy brown Lancang Valley.

Aluo gave his first guided tour in 1999, to Mei Zhang, who later founded Wild China, a travel company taking tourists off the beaten path. By then, Aluo had married Joanna—a young woman from a family well-regarded by his grandmother, whose grandfather had avoided Wenxiu’s fate by escaping to Taiwan. At the time, there were no roads or electricity in Dimaluo, let alone tourists.  Mei arrived in Dimaluo and asked who could take her to Cizhong. Aluo stepped forward, with a toothy grin Mei’s instinct knew she could trust. The four-day journey, on the path Wenxiu had taken some fifty years before, was a spark. It inspired them to start their respective businesses, which still exist today, both with the shared purpose of making the wonders of China accessible.

Mei is “the person who changed my person,” Aluo told me sentimentally. She showed him that being a mountain guide could be a profession. As they climbed up the mountains, Aluo told Mei about the villages they passed through, the plants they saw, and animals that lived there—as he would with us, some twenty years later. Soon after, a group of ten paying customers, both foreign and Chinese – Mei’s wedding party – would hike the path again together. For both Aluo and Mei, this was the ultimate proof of concept: others loved exploring China’s wild side too.

From Yak Herder to Nujiang’s Best Known Mountain Guide

Aluo set up his guide company, opened a restaurant, and later built a guesthouse annex to his home. As we climbed, we brainstormed anything from building a zip-line, to marketing a local drink, through what to do with an empty room: Aluo’s mind is constantly buzzing. Mei experienced the progress from a distance. Aluo’s early calls to Mei – reaching out for advice and help, went from Dimaluo’s only telephone, to Aluo’s personal landline, to cellphone, and then social media. During Covid, Aluo begun a TikTok account, of which I am a proud feature, singing “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon”. 

Aluo learnt Mandarin and basic English during the company’s early years. He taught himself to read and write, diligently reading and copying the dictionary Mei gifted him. His father soon begun calling him a “nemzizilong,” a local bird who tweets all kinds of sounds. His son Aluo, who had been kicked out of school at eight years old, became the one to help him translate Mandarin, English, and other local dialects.

I asked Aluo why he thought he became so successful. In his usual easy-going style, he shrugged: “The most important is integrity. Many locals believe that Han Chinese tourists will only come to Nujiang once, and try to get as much money from them as possible that once. Turns out those people have friends, and word of mouth spreads fast!”

Around the world from the Nujiang Valley

Aluo was first featured in the Lonely Planet in 2003—certainly helping spread the word. He was the first to bring foreign tourists and mountain-lovers to the upper Nujiang Valley. Aluo told me stories of the different people he has met along the way, from all over the world, with anecdotes from each. Russians are not as resistant to cold as one may assume; Israelis notice every little penny; and some Americans can be biased, though others are very open-minded.

“French and Germans enjoy house chores, especially doing the dishes,” Aluo told me – to my amusement, as washing dishes is certainly not my preferred activity. Yet, that evening I found myself helping Joanna, Aluo’s wife, wash the dishes. It was the only way I could think of to thank them for adopting me into their family once my friends left. I guess it must have also been for the French people before me.

I ate every meal with the family (often wild plants picked from the mountains); worked by the stove with them on rainy days; and relaxed together in the evenings, playing music. Joanna only speaks a little Mandarin, so most conversations were in Tibetan—which I do not understand. But, the connection was made beyond words, through gestures like smiles over the kitchen sink.

From one generation to the next

After passing Alulaka’s little church, we sit for lunch, admiring the snow mountains with the Nujiang river below. This grass will become an airport in the coming years. Below, construction trucks move to and fro, building the new road connecting Dimaluo to Cizhong, removing the need for the path Aluo and his grandfather walked so many times. As government-built apartments replace slate-roofed log houses, bridges replace ziplines, supermarkets replace farming, and concrete roads replace dirt paths, the drive of China’s development is changing the Nujiang Valley.

Aluo tells us about his son, who is the first in Dimaluo to graduate from university. He joined the military in Beijing, fulfilling two dreams Aluo had as a young man: studying, and joining the army. Delan, Aluo’s daughter, dreams of receiving a masters from Tsinghua, China’s most prestigious university. As China changed dramatically, the paths each generation of the Xiao family led also did — from Cizhong to Dimaluo, and far beyond.

Just as I came to China with a multinational company, the French who sung “Sur Le Pont d’Avignon” from the Nujiang hilltop before me came with a different multinational organisation: the Church. Each of us bonded with Aluo’s family from the other side of the world, and thought to ourselves, that we really are not that different, after all.

[1]  Bautista, J. and Khek Gee Lim, F., 2009. Christianity and the State in Asia: Complicity and Conflict. London and New York: Routledge, pp.84-85.

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