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A small wooden church nestled in the sidestreets of Dali’s Old City blends Chinese minority culture with classical Christian iconography.

Fast Facts

Name: Dali Trinity Catholic Church

Where: Dali, Yunnan, China

Location: 25.692995, 100.163941

What to do: See a unique church built by a French missionary in a remote area of China.

Getting there: The church is within the Dali Old City and can be walked to.

Cost: Free

The ideas surrounding foreign religions in China are a tricky topic to pin down throughout the region’s extensive history. While they proudly espouse their homegrown belief systems of Daoism and Confucianism, the country is most heavily associated as a steadfast bastion of Buddhism — a foreign religion that began in India. Meanwhile, the foreign Abrahamic religions of Islam and Christianity have ebbed and waned at various phases throughout the past two millennia. All of this is despite China’s infamous isolationism throughout most of its history.

The Story of Dali Trinity Catholic Church

Christianity in China

A modern church in Chongqing.
A modern church in Chongqing.

Even today, the story of Christianity in China is a complicated one, and all foreign religions are tightly controlled by the Communist Party of China. The Roman Catholic Church has effectively been booted out of the country and replaced with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association which must answer to the Chinese government. Such restrictions on religion fall under the blanket justification of controlling public gatherings.

Going back a few centuries, Christianity has made several incursions into the Chinese heartland, perhaps most notably during the Tang Dynasty, a relatively brief period in Chinese history when the country was open to foreign ideas and welcoming to the outside world. During this era, the main branch of Christianity to gain a foothold was Nestorian Christianity, which has mostly faded into history. There is little-to-no evidence of Catholicism being present in the region at this time, however, stories of these far-off Christians in exotic lands did eventually make their way back to the Catholic realm in the form of legends of the kingdom of Prester John.

A History of Catholicism in Yunnan

Dali's iconic Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, dating from the 800s CE.
Dali’s iconic Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, dating from the 800s CE.

Yunnan, however, existed more as a remote backwater during these times. Its local states, such as the Dali Kingdom, retained a high degree of autonomy as they paid tribute to the centralized dynastic Chinese state to their north, while bordering the burgeoning Tai and Burmese kingdoms to their south.

It was not until the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) that Catholicism is presumed to have reached Yunnan. However, it seems this was short-lived. A second wave of Catholicism gained a foothold in 1644 CE as refugees from Chengdu fled a rebellion. From this point, the religion had a continuous presence, however small, within the provincial region of Yunnan.

In the following centuries, Yunnan was split into its own pastoral area, and subsequently recombined with Sichuan, Guizhou, and other nearby provinces several times. Eventually, in 1753 CE, the Holy See in Rome put the French diplomatic channel in charge of missionary work. From this point on, missionary activities in Yunnan were handled almost exclusively by the French and their local counterparts.

During these centuries, the Catholic Church operated with a very loose organization, not being based in any real center of influence. This changed in 1870, when the Catholic Church was given a piece of land in Kunming, marking the beginning of the Yunnan Archdiocese in the regional capital. It is only at this point, in 1873 according to the Republic of China-era county records of Dali, that Catholicism officially arrived in the area.

Sinicization of Yunnan Catholicism

After the establishment of a solid foothold in the Archdiocese of Kunming, the Vatican attempted to revive local interest in the Catholic Church by implementing a number of local policies, including a higher level of local autonomy. Yunnan, in particular, is home to a large number of ethnic minorities which had historically been pushed to the country’s fringes by the expansionist efforts of successive Chinese empires.

Outside of Erhai Gate on Dali's eastern side.
Outside of Erhai Gate on Dali’s eastern side.

Playing on this, a large part of the Catholic agenda was to establish churches and missions in remote frontier areas instead of established Han Chinese towns and cities. In these more remote areas, they could work to recruit the minorities populating Yunnan, including the Lahu, Dong, Miao, Yi, and Bai peoples.

This continued until 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established and the Vatican was officially cut off from China. These churches, which had previously been under the direct control of the Pope were now under local administration. This led to a seminar in 1951, when the Yunnan priesthood decided they would be self-organized and become, as the official Catholic Church in China describes, a “religious cause with Chinese characteristics”.

Establishing the Dali Trinity Catholic Church

The main cathedral of Dali Trinity Catholic Church.
The main cathedral of Dali Trinity Catholic Church.

“The Dali Cathedral is a symbol of the integration of Chinese and Western cultures,
and it is a historical testimony of Catholicism’s adaptation to localization.”
– Catholic Church in China

Although not much success was seen in conversion, by the early 20th Century, there were around 12,000 practitioners of the religion in Yunnan. While Chinese resistance to foreign belief systems most certainly played a role, the Church largely attributed their slow spread to the extensive area, poor transportation, and clergy spread too thin.

One of these French missionaries to be stationed in this remote area of China was Father Pierre Erdozaincy Etchard, who served as the head of the Dali Diocese, which was established in 1929. From then until his death in 1931, he oversaw the construction of the Dali Trinity Catholic Church, which had begun in 1927.

The main building was meant to incorporate architectural aspects of the Bai people, an ethnic group from Yunnan and one of China’s official “55 ethnic minorities”. The church is hidden away in a gated courtyard within Dali’s Old City and includes the central cathedral in the eastern part of the complex, facing west. Its wooden pillars and beams are all characteristic of the traditional Bai style, complete with colorful artwork adorning the ceilings. Lining these wooden frames are intricate carvings of traditional Bai figures important within the local culture, namely the stylistic interpretations of the lion, elephant, dragon, and phoenix.

Intricate wood painting and carving on the church exterior.
Intricate wood painting and carving on the church exterior.

Accompanying the depictions of legendary Bai animals, the building’s exterior also portrays biblical tales and aspects of traditional Chinese legends and culture. Several panels and pillars surround the main door and are inscribed with a golden Chinese couplet, stating:

“One sex, one body contains both sexes,
which is a characteristic of Christ for granted;
the unity is divided into three persons, and the three persons are one,
which is the mystery of the Lord.”

The church’s western face reaches 16 meters tall and the top 2-stories house a hollow, square bell tower fixed atop a fluted roof. The entire structure is built of solid wood and spans 34 meters long by 14 meters wide. Meanwhile, the interior can house around 500 people and measures in at 600 square meters. According to an official document on the church’s architecture;

“From the side, the church’s entire building looks like a large ship in sail, symbolizing the church such as Noah’s Ark, bringing hope, justice, peace and love.”

While the most recognizable influence on the church is its Bai-style architecture, it also incorporates several aspects of Han Chinese architecture in combination with classical European features. It has been recognized by the Chinese government for its integration of minority styles and was granted a conservation status as an important heritage monument as of 1985.

Visiting Dali Trinity Catholic Church

Erhai Gate on the eastern side of Dali's Old City.
Erhai Gate on the eastern side of Dali’s Old City.

Entering the Old City of Dali won’t immediately fill you with the same impression or awe as entering other famous old cities in China. Although the history is certainly there, Dali has not preserved its original form as well as other old cities, such as Lijiang. As a result, it is far too oversaturated with tourist shops and foreign restaurants. A McDonald’s even occupies one of the main intersections, being housed in a brand new building in a style imitating historic Bai architecture.

For me, the most satisfying experience while in Dali was just walking randomly around the Old Town and occasionally stumbling upon some historical curiosity that could surprise me. And that is indeed what happened when I saw the signs that began pointing the way to a random Catholic Church.

Busy street within the Dali Old City.
Busy street within the Dali Old City.

The city where I grew up is overwhelmed with churches, and there are no fewer than 12 Christian churches of competing denominations along the 3 km main street of my hometown. Consequently, churches are not exactly a priority for me when I am seeking out cultural sites in other countries. However, one standing at the base of the Himalayas in the far southwestern reaches of China seemed like it could have some potential.

The marble entrance gate to Dali Trinity Catholic Church.
The marble entrance gate to Dali Trinity Catholic Church.

The signs led me into a small, quiet alleyway containing a metal gate bearing the image of a shining cross—a bit on the nose, but this was certainly the Catholic Church. The gate itself wouldn’t budge, but a smaller door within it opened enough for a single person to step through.

Once inside, a corridor formed by two whitewashed buildings on either side led into the church’s paved courtyard, where the main chapel stood. The left side of the corridor was lined with murals written in Chinese, but there were no informational signs or indications what they were about.

Entering the Dali Church courtyard.
Entering the Dali Church courtyard.

The inside courtyard is quite small, but provides a unique view, as the bold white-and-black wooden architecture masks highly impressive carvings painted with bright colors. There is little to explore, but anyone is welcome to enter the main cathedral.

Despite the subtle yet broad overlapping color pallet of the church’s exterior, I was immediately blown away with the bold blues and reds of the interior. The walls and ceiling shine brightly in an almost pastel shade of robins egg blue, reflecting an exaggerated sky. To further this image, the ceiling itself is dotted with blue, yellow, and white images of stars.

The interior of Dali Trinity Catholic Church.
The interior of Dali Trinity Catholic Church.

Decorations on the wall are lined with darker shades of blue and supported by wooden pillars painted a dark red. This red paint then extends down into the pews (church benches), which are divided into 11 rows and 4 aisles.

At the front of the church, in full view of the doors and pews is a small depiction of the crucified Jesus suspended from a central red pillar. On either side of this image are the Chinese characters 天主是爱, which I later found out translates to “God is Love”.

The incredible view leaving the church back into Dali's Old City.
The incredible view leaving the church back into Dali’s Old City.

The main cathedral is only a single room, and although there are doors leading out of the church’s courtyard to other areas, it did not seem as if the casual visitor is allowed in them. However, a quick walk back toward Dali’s scenic mountains brings you back through the church’s marble gate to explore more of Dali’s famous Old Town.

How to Get to Dali Trinity Catholic Church

GPS Coordinates: 25.692995, 100.163941

A little on the nose, but the shining cross gate is easy to find.
A little on the nose, but the shining cross gate is easy to find.

Because the Dali Old Town is almost a perfect square, you might be entering from one of several directions, or perhaps even staying in the Old Town itself. One of the main east-west roads is called Renmin Rd. (人民路). Along this road, you will see occasional signs point the way to different buildings and sights, including the city gates. Eventually, these signs will begin pointing out a “Catholic Church”.

These signs will lead you south into a narrow alley called Xinmin Road (新民路). About 30 meters down the road, you will come to a brick entryway in a characteristic Chinese style. Inside the entryway stands a red and gold metal gate dominated by a radiating cross motif which the characters 天主堂, which translates to “Church of the Lord”. This gate will lead you into the main courtyard of the Dali Trinity Catholic Church.

Fast Facts

Glossary

Bai
Ethnic minority group centered in Yunnan, China.

Benzhuism
Local religion of the Bai people in which deified ancestors are worshipped.

Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association
A branch of Christianity which replaced the Roman Catholic Church within the People’s Republic of China and is overseen by the national government.

Christianity
Monotheistic offshoot of Judaism founded in the 1st Century CE and based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Confucianism
Indigenous Chinese religion promoting ancestor worship, filial piety, and duty to the state.

Dali
Historic town in southwestern China which was historic capital of the Dali Kingdom.

Daoism
Indigenous Chinese religion promoting detachment and non-purposeful action.

Islam
Monotheistic offshoot of Judaism founded in the 7th Century CE and based on the teachings of Mohammad.

Kunming
The modern capital city of Yunnan Province.

Nestorian Christianity
Sect of Christianity believing in a dualistic nature of Jesus Christ and was prevalent in the former Eastern Roman Empire/Byzantine Empire.

pastoral region
An area under the oversight of a Catholic Archdiocese.

Roman Catholic Church
The largest branch of Christianity, established in the 3rd-4th Century CE and based in Vatican City.

Tang Dynasty
The ruling dynasty of China from 618-907 CE, which embraced trade with the outside world and was accepting of foreign ideologies.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

8 Comments

  • Josh says:

    Fascinating description, Ben. For the longest time, I felt the same way about mosques as I traveled throughout Xinjiang. They were everywhere and I got pretty bored with them. But then, there would be this random mosque in middle of nowhere, and that would turn out to be my favorite spot to visit in that particular place.

    • Ben says:

      Thank you for the analogy, Josh, I hadn’t actually thought about it in that kind of context in Xinjiang. Although, I’m sure you might be experiencing a similar sensation in Thailand in regards to Buddhist temples too. That said, I was blown away when I first saw some of the mosques I first saw in Xining — many of which still dwarf anything I’d seen in Indonesia. I’m sure Xinjiang has a great deal of similarly mpressive ones.

      Did Urumqi take the cake in Xinjiang, or were some smaller cities baosting some better ones?

  • Josh took the word out of my mouth – fascinating. Your posts are always so interesting, thorough and well written. You set a standard other bloggers only dream of. Well done!

  • Durga says:

    Thank you for the wonderful post! I loved your site and the range of topics!

  • Wow, they are such a religion-diverse place. It must be interesting to interact with different faiths and hopefully not too hostile. Ha. Great post, Ben!

  • Ben says:

    Religion in China as a whole is a kind of sensitive topic, and not one many talk about openly. Only a handful are legally recognized, and all must be sanctioned in order to establish a place of worship – likewise falling under the public gathering laws. This has led to an interesting phenomenon of many covert, underground worship groups springing up. Underground churches are the ones you hear about most often *usually as being broken up by authorities) but I’d assume it goes for other faiths as well.

What are your thoughts?