The ancient walled town of Dali (大理) is rural China’s most cosmopolitan little town. For those who want to experience China without stepping too far out of their comfort zone, Dali is the best base to explore the Erhai Lake (洱海), plan hikes to the Cangshan Mountain (苍山) and visit historical villages on the ancient Tea and Horse Road on one-day trips.
So far, on Travel Cathay, I have written about villages around Dali – easy one-day trip destinations – but never about the walled town of Dali itself so far. And I probably won’t. Except today.
There is this fantastic building, hidden in a courtyard less than 100 meters off Renmin Street (人民路) that is not to be missed. And you can visit it for free, a rare thing in China.
Local Architecture meets Foreign History
In medieval Europe, some Catholic scholars were convinced that lost Christian tribes existed somewhere between Central Asia and this part of the world they knew as Cathay. Missions were sent from Europe to find them, but also to try and make an alliance with the Mongol Khan against Islam.
The first missionaries sent to China were Portuguese and Italian Jesuits who arrived first in Guangdong province in the second half of the 16th century. After that, the Vatican sent more Catholic missionaries with a strong sense of adventure and exploration with the goal to set up churches in Asia and evangelise the locals.
A new strength
In East Asia, the few Catholic missionaries who had ventured in the unknown had succeeded to build a few missions. However, their hopes of converting large amount of people vanished quickly. Although there were some successes, early missionaries were expelled quickly. In spite of these misfortunes, they were real adventurers. They had no map, did not speak the languages of the places they were going through and did not know where they were heading to. Antonio de Andrade, Estevão Cacella and João Cabral who set out from the Portuguese strongholds in India, were the first Westerner to ever enter the ‘Roof of the World’.
In mid-19th century China, two factors contributed to the expansion of Catholic missions. First, the outcome of the Opium Wars which opened the Middle Kingdom’s major seaport to foreign trade – missionaries started to pour in. Second, the Vatican decided to put the ‘Society of Foreign Missions of Paris’ (Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris) in charge of evangelizing China.
It is during the late years of the Qing dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Tongzhi 同治 (1861-1874) that Catholicism was introduced in Dali.
The church is a masterpiece and architectural wonder that combine the Western features of the church layout and the exceptional Bai construction style with its colors and magnificent dougong (斗拱).
Much like the adventurer-missionaries of earlier times, the priests of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris barely had time to settle and convert locals. Indeed, in the early 1950s, after the Communist liberated the country from the Republican forces and took over the control of China, they expelled all foreign missionaries. Since the Catholic faith was not deeply anchored into the local society, many reverted back to their traditional religion. However, many kept the Christian faith alive, like here in Dali.
Today, the Dali Diocese consists of 8 prefectures (Dali, Lijiang, Diqing, Baoshan, Dehong, Nujiang, Lincang, and Simao). The 100 churches before the Chinese Revolution of 1949 have shrunk to 32 still active today. And they do add to the colourful ethnic diversity and rich history of Yunnan.