Yushu, Qinghai, China 玉树
My visit to Greater Tibet was extended to twice as much as I had originally planned for, in anticipation of the Tibetan horse racing festival in Yushu. It’s hilarious (and a little disappointing, but mostly just hilarious) then that I went for five days and missed all of the horse racing, due to the lack of a written schedule and multiple venues. No regrets though! That Garzê detour would not have happened otherwise.
I was received in Yushu (trad. 玉樹, Tibetan: Jyekundo) and Xining by pastors and members of a loose affiliation of churches whose ministry my dad supports through Partners International. (For my previous entry on ministry in Xi’an, click here.) This group of unsanctioned, “underground” churches, based primarily in Qinghai province 青海, supports mostly ethnic minorities of China, although their reach has now widened to virtually all corners of China along with parts of Nepal and northern India. Given that most of Qinghai is considered the Amdo region of Greater Tibet, it’s no surprise that Tibetans are by far the largest group they support, although they also have outreach to Hui people and the majority Han. Their mission is simply to bring the church to areas it hasn’t been, pointedly picking empty-looking places on a map where no churches exist.
But this brings to question: given Tibet’s history of forced cultural change and repression at the hands of the Chinese government, having suffered irreparable harm, where does Christianity fit in? And given that Tibetans (Buddhist) and Hui (Muslim) are both ethnoreligious groups (like Jewish people, you could sort of say), how could you possible spread a different faith to them? Despite what you often see in the United States, Christianity considers itself counter-cultural. I’d say never more so than in this case.
So what are we dealing with here?
Despite missing the horse racing (which I saw a bit of in Garze anyway), I saw the opening ceremony, which was a grand (government-approved) cultural display of Tibetan war rituals, monks, spectacular dances, elaborate costumes, and music. Horses also made an appearance, with riders performing tricks on horseback, even backflips. Fangirls screamed “男神~~~!” (sorta like “male idol”, and I guess there’s no equivalent phrase in Tibetan!) as their favourite horse-riders zipped by, and even more so when the most popular local singer came out to serenade the crowd, leaving them pretty much one step from mass hysteria and fainting. There were even signs of Tibetan disapproval of the government: when the Chinese national anthem played, everyone in my very large section refused to stand until the police started barking at them.
Out in the fields on opening day, there was more cultural dancing, with crowds of Tibetan spectators joining into some pretty specific dance routines they all just know, right from the first few notes of a song.
And nearby, the Mani Rock Carvings are the largest such collection in the world, with over 2.5 billion rocks inscribed with Tibetan prayers piled way up. Faithful Tibetans spin their prayer wheels as they walk around clockwise in a kora, passing the nearby temple and stupas. Temples, seas of prayer flags, and more mani carvings outside of town celebrate the Han Chinese princess Wencheng for bringing Buddhism into Tibetan culture, all built in locations simply where the princess decided to stop for a night on her way from .
These people are proud of their culture and religion, and they hold onto it tightly.
So imagine my surprise to meet ethnic Tibetan members of the Christian church in Yushu, or to hear about one of them out studying Christian theology out in Harbin (northeastern China). When I asked, they acknowledged that their parents were still Tibetan Buddhists, with varying degrees of understanding about their children’s Christian faith.
The church pastor invited along to several “field visits”, bringing along Jampa and Samdrup (again, guessing based on inadequate Mandarin transliteration), two Tibetan children who were living with his family in Yushu. From the remote area of Xianglaxiu (who knows if I’m spelling it right, I can’t find it on a map) with no schools around for hundreds of kilometres, the church had approached their families, and with their approval, house and take care of them while taking them to school in Yushu for a few years. They visit home as often as possible — school holidays and long weekends in particular, but it’s pretty hard when the drive took us three hours outside Yushu, way out via a highway, on an unmarked, paved turnoff in the middle of nowhere, a dirt road off of that, and then no road at all. Their families were overjoyed when the car pulled up in front of their homes: one currently living in an earthquake rescue tent-turned nomadic summer home (Yushu and the vast surrounds were virtually destroyed in a 7.1 earthquake in 2010), another in a government-built housing “village” which was largely left abandoned when the locals found it too inconvenient to live there and raise their yaks. Both welcomed us in with grand smiles and immediate offerings of butter tea, tsampa (barley mixed with sugar and yak butter, rolled into a ball, quite a delicious snack), yak yogurt, and dried yak meat.
Being a nice day, we sat outside, where one of the older sons pulled out an unplugged electric guitar as a church member tried to teach him how to play a song, a younger daughter started fawning over a new series of Christian-oriented comics we brought over (after having devoured the last few books in a few days), a younger son tried exchanging music on his cell phone with us, and Jampa ran off with my camera to photograph his home landscape. His mother and prayer wheel-twirling grandmother sat with the rest of us, as the pastor decided to share a few Bible stories as a Tibetan member translated from Mandarin — how Jesus always answers prayers no matter the language and location, and the story of David and Goliath — to their very receptive ears. Buddhist imagery still hangs in their home.
We passed by Samdrup’s home as well in the virtually-empty government housing village, where only a few of his 11 siblings were present — the others were out in the fields tending to the herds. Both of his parents suffer disabilities rendering them unable to work. His mother was so happy to see us that she basically shoved a large bag full of indigenous yellow mushrooms (not cheap!) before she saw us off, while his father gave us a bit of change to buy a treat for Samdrup, who gave them both a quick kiss before we left. With them having infrequent access to any shops with clothes (or anything at all!), we passed some new clothes from Yushu to their family as well as Jampa’s.
On the long ride back, the pastor explained to me the ministry in Yushu — which also started literally by looking at empty-seeming areas on a map and door-knocking. (They’ve since built up a large network that people will often recommend the church to others in need, reducing the need for door-knocking.) Families are each helped on a by-need basis — whether it be clothing, rock-clearing or digging, chores, groceries, schooling — using whatever means available to the church. (Those deemed insincere and prone to buying alcohol or gambling with whatever money the church is able to provide them are instead given food and helped at an arms-length.) Currently, the church has members housing roughly 30 students from the vast surrounds (a 300 km radius!) as they attend school in Yushu, having provided for around 150 over the last eight years they’ve existed. The primary goal is just to treat each family with love and care, and to form relationships with them.
Aided families will often ask the motivation of all the help they receive, and the church is open in telling them that they’re Christian. Should the family be receptive, the church members will simply share what they believe. According to the pastor, about 1/5 of the families they help lend a receptive ear. A smaller percentage of that convert. At no point are they ever pressured: it’s always a matter of being friends in conversation that faith is ever brought up. Those that choose to hold onto their beliefs are more than free to do so, and the church will still visit and care for their needs — of course, with the hope that someday they may lend a more receptive ear, but it’s never the expectation.
In the city of Yushu itself, we randomly dropped into a few other families as well. Despite having no occasion and bringing nothing, they all welcomed us in a with the full array of food, and were just happy to have us check in on them, with some (still Buddhist) grateful to have the pastor pray over them for any current problems they may be going through — whether pain, health, provision, or relation. At some houses, we picked up their children, bringing them back to the church where they worked on their homework with other students, had dinner made for them, and had the choice whether to stay in the bedrooms upstairs or to return home after. Many of these families became known to the church in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, with thousands killed and thousands more injured; others have deadbeat fathers or disabilities reducing their ability to generate family income.
We visited a remote school roughly 50 km outside of Yushu (sounds close, but it’s surrounded by nothing and accessible only by a series of mountain switchbacks), publicly operated but supported by the church. The village has a particularly acute problem of orphaned children, often abandoned (or left with grandparents) after being born out of wedlock or into a family too poor to raise them. Due to the location in the middle of nowhere, there’s a problem sourcing teachers, and so the church brings university graduates to teach there. The public school teacher salary is also incredibly low (700 yuan, US$100 per month), being not enough to live in such an area with few to no amenities, and so the church supplements it, while also taking care of 15 orphans in the area who can attend the school and providing extracirricular activities non-religious in nature but aimed at instilling general upstanding-person morals.
Back at the church in Yushu, I had fun with the children — barbecuing yellow mushrooms, playing around, watching Pan-kun the chimpanzee on my phone (since it’s literally the only Mandarin-translated thing I know of on YouTube, which I use a VPN to access) — before the pastor settled us down for a Bible story: the prodigal son. And as he explained the allegory of the father in the parable to God, I couldn’t help noticing the children’s reaction — seeing the depth of wrongs the son in the story can commit and the human capability of doing the same, marvelling at the open, unconditional, and everlasting love of God. No prompting. No reciting. Open questions, open reactions — the gratefulness of knowing they’re loved.
I come from a country which has greatly wronged its indigenous population, forcing First Nations children into Christian church-run residential schools, where they were banned from speaking their own language or returning home, made to renounce their traditional culture and beliefs. The Canadian government, only after decades, realised its crime, and now finds itself trying hard (or not really trying much, depending on the government) to undo the lasting damage, which has torn apart families, rendered languages lost with few to no speakers, destroyed cultures, and left scores into a system of poverty. The Christian faith among those communities, meanwhile, is justifiably treated with suspicion or rejection, or at best struggled to be reconciled with culture.
I don’t know how this generation of young Tibetan Christians is going to live out their culture and their adopted beliefs. But that’s the exciting part — they get to determine it for themselves. It’ll be hard for sure, but they’ll be the ones breaking ground. The love of Christ was introduced to them, with faith entirely an option — one which they chose.