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Artist who recorded faith in the Chinese countryside

09 April 2020

Work by an artist in China documents its rural Christianity

Courtesy of “Matter + Spirit: A Chinese/American Exhibition”, Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity

Church Benches, Chinese Village Churches Series 2004-08, digital print on metal (76.2cm x 101.6cm x 2 cm) See gallery for more images

Church Benches, Chinese Village Churches Series 2004-08, digital print on metal (76.2cm x 101.6cm x 2 cm) See gallery for more images

ALTHOUGH attention is now being directed elsewhere, the coronavirus pandemic has created a new interest in the internal affairs of China, its healthcare system, its statistical honesty, and the means that it uses to control its population.

Religion in China, like every other aspect of life, remains under state control. It is currently expanding, and many can worship freely, but there remains a sense that even the new freedoms that it enjoys are conditional. The state officials who are nominally in charge of religion — in the case of Christianity, the China Christian Council and the China Catholic Patriotic Association — display the unpredictable combination of enlightenment, permissiveness, nervousness, and conservatism exercised by bureaucrats the world over.

Courtesy of “Matter + Spirit: A Chinese/American Exhibition”, Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity  Sacred Humility (2008), Chinese Village Churches Series 2004-08, old Bible, notes, pencil, sand, transparent resin (28 × 25 × 8 cm)

As ever, the least controllable Christians are the artists. The Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity in Michigan, in the United States, brought together a wide range of Chinese artworks for “Matter + Spirit: A Chinese/American Exhibition”, developed after a seminar and studio project in China in 2018 in partnership with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the Lilly Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities. Its artistic director is Professor Rachel Smith.

One of the artists featured is the painter and photographer Cao Yuanming. Cao was born in Suzhou, Anhui Province, west of Shanghai. He now teaches at Shanghai University. The works featured here date from when he was a philosophy student. Between 2004 and 2009, he undertook a field study of more than 600 rural churches in his home province, documenting their interiors and objects, such as the benches used by congregation members.

The works give an insight into a world in which the richness of faith is matched by material poverty. Many of the objects and interiors are similar: the colour red predominates, linked with the blood of sacrifice, but also symbolising joy in Chinese culture.

Cao has explained how he looked into unofficial forms of Christianity, not sanctioned by the state. “I spent four years researching in various provinces, such as Anhui. Henan, Shandong, etc.

Courtesy of “Matter + Spirit: A Chinese/American Exhibition”, Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity  Church Interiors Chinese Village Churches Series 2004-2008, digital print on metal (76.2 × 101.6 2 cm)    

“There are nearly a hundred million Christians in China now. Churches in the countryside present the primary space, where Christian culture and Chinese local culture meet and blend together.

“My artworks are mainly discussing Chinese peasants’ imagination towards foreign religion. They have never been to the West, nor have they seen the Western churches. They have built the churches based on their fantasy, and fully intake the religion as a part of their lives.”

The other artwork seen here is Sacred Humility (2008). Cao buried resin-coated Bibles in the sand during the wheat-planting season and harvested them with the crops one year later. The process, he said, invested the objects with the ancient associations of the biblical culture in which they evolved.


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