Sacred Sites

Tai Shan Sacred Mountain

For several months I have been visiting an area in Chongqing where a Catholic church is presently built. It is the suburb of Yanku. It has an interesting history. It was given to the church sometime during the Cultural Revolution by a Buddhist nun. She was the last surviving member of a convent and she had no surviving relatives so she choose to give it to a Catholic community. The building sits on a small promitory point. There are many small caves in the area. At its base is a small lake. A forested park surrounds the lake and borders the church property. Next to the church is a cemetary of 400 students who ost their lives in the bloody clashes among rival students during the Cultural Revolution.

I interviewed a lady who remembers the Buddhist nun visiting her school when she was a child. She confirmed the story about the donation to the church. Also I read an article about a man who has written a book after interviewing 1000 people who are related to the victims in the cemetary. He too mentions the donation of the Buddhist nun of the nunnery to the church.

Throughout the world religious sites often sit on top of previous religious sites of competing religions. The monastery of Mor Gabriel where I lived for many years sits on the ruins of a former Zoroastrian site. I believe this happens because the site feels sacred and is coveted often for reasons that are unconscious and sometimes for reasons that are practical. I have come to the conclusion that sacred sites have four important factors.

1. There is a source of water (a spring, a well, a lake, or hot springs).

2. There is a stone area of protection (either a cave or a high point)

3, There is a sources of wood (for moving stone or making instruments)

4. It is hidden from common view (it takes effort to find it).

Simply put it has elements of wood, water, stone, and mystery.  There are practical reasons for all these elements. Water is critical to life. Human beings need water no matter how remote the site or how ascetic the religious occupants.  30 years ago I  stood on Mount Sinai visiting Saint Catherines monastery. It is in one of the most desolate and rugged areas on earth. It has to be one of the few places where water exists.

Stone provides protection. Caves bring us back to our primitive origins. I have explored caves in the area. A few miles away on the rim of a nearby mountain is a Buddhist monastery still active and it dates back to the Tang Dynasty. The oldest portion is embedded in a sandstone cliff. Under the overhang are stone benches and worship area. It is called the Hua Yan Cave and Temple. There is a lake at its base. A thick forest surrounds it. and it is hidden in a crevace and what looks like to me a geographic fault zone.

Path to the Tang era caves in Hua Yan

Wood is critical to move stones whether at stone henge or inmaking buildings of stone. Wood is used in sacred sites to form sounding boards to call people to prayer. My favorite wood instrument is the wooden fish. It is a hoolow piece of wood in the form of a fish with a slightly open mouth when you strike it with a mallet it makes a beautiful percussive sound. The fish does not have eye lids and thus is always awake which is a perfect spiritual metaphor.

The reason this church has interested me is that when I interviewed the priest of this church is that I learned that this might be a possible site o one of thef Jing Jiao churches ofg the Tang Dynasty. According to the Stone monument of Xian (781 C.E.) there were a hundred churches in China. If so, where were they? There was one near the western gate of Xian. There was one in Da Qin far outside the city and then we know of one in Beijing at the monastery of the Cross where  Rabban Sauma and his companion Mark set off on there journey in the 13th century. But where were the other churches? I believe there was at least one in the Chongqing area (it was called Yuzhou during the Tang Dynasty). I believe the site may be the area where the present Catholic church sits in Yanku near the Shapingba district. The reason I hypothesize this suspicion is that it meets all the conditions for a sacred site. Also the priest of the church told me that the church was once named Nehemiah because a church of this name sat on the site before there was a Buddhist monastery. He could offer no other proof but it is a reasonable hypothesis. He also said that it was populated by Christians who had ancient traditions from long before Matteo Ricci came with his Catholic traditions to China in the 16th century.

The name of Nehemia  may point to a Jing Jiao tradition and presence. Many Syriac speaking Churches used the names of the Old Testament prophets to name their churches. This was not a practice of the Catholics.

Further, evidence is in the songs that are chanted by the Chinese community in this area are remarkably similar to the ones I learned in Syriac in Tur Abdin at Mor Gabriel Monastery in modern day southeast Turkey. It has been a stunning and surreal experience for me. I have attended the service many times. I wonder if this is a function of the Chinese language and the Syriac language. Or is it  function of the music both of which are Asian in concept and structure? Both Syriac and Chinese music are strange to the western ear but why would these chants of the psalms and prayers be so similar? This has to be investigated by someone who knows better Chinese and understands theories of Asian music.

Yanku church

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About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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