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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Foreign Desk
China's Underground Church
by Tom Bradley

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"Touch not my Christs."
--Psalm cv. 15

I mustn't tell you what city this particular parish is in, for obvious reasons. But I can describe the grotesque neighborhood, "Little Moscow," in which I used to associate illicitly with this lovable bunch of interdicted religious oddballs.
The neighborhood is all square and huge and stony-seeming. They've slopped stucco everywhere and mashed it into beveled shapes to resemble Georgian granite, lending the area a hollow Leninist monumentality. The Parthians did something similar with Euphrates mud to tart up their public buildings in imitation Ionic style. However, since "the opening of the doors," the effect in Little Moscow has been spoiled by coats of turquoise and orange paint, intended to brighten things up for the hordes of moneyed Californians, fellow Pacific Rimmers, expected to arrive any day now.
But the street committee which decreed the paint job is an entity separate from the Maoist-rife chamber of commerce. The xenophobes ensconced in the latter august body deliberately neglected to return the questionnaire that would have caused Eugene Fodor to feel comfortable pretending that his fetch-it boy had dropped by. So the place receives small mention in the Caucasoid traveler's bible, and the candy-colored, mock-Bolshevik monuments go gray with soot and dog-eared with non-maintenance.
The centerpiece of this whole quadrant of town is the giant Mao in Red Flag Square, a chubby man-mountain seemingly composed of some magical alloy, rust-proof even here in the land of barely diluted sulfuric-acid rain. Warts, dimples, wattles and all, this piece of appallingly vigorous social realism was produced by a committee of nationally recognized sculptors during the climactic years of the Great Proletarian Cultural revolution, after the rustications had already swallowed up everybody of my generation.
If you steel yourself and focus on Mao's bloated face, way up there in the brownish-gray sky, and if you don't trip over something and fall on your own face in the meantime, you might feel as though you're striding across a truly revolutionary city square, in the shadow of the mammoth, outstretched arm of the People's Republic's mighty author. Then again, you might not.
The townsfolk tell tales to rubes who've just stumbled in from the suburban cash-crop strawberry plantations. With straight faces, the city slickers claim that, while bronze statues in capitalist countries eventually turn green with pigeon shit, corrosion and age, no scientist has ever been able to explain why this one has maintained the golden-brown of its first days on Red Flag Square. The rubes, who've never heard of epoxy resin, widen their eyes in patriotic astonishment.
Actually, regardless of its composition, it's pretty astounding that such a thing should still exist in the middle of an otherwise bourgeois roost, that the city fathers or some other such hooligans haven't had their way with Big Boy. (Should he stay, or should he go?) Most of the other Mao's of its scale were erected in cities since Deng Xiaopingized to the extent that their centerpieces have long ago been pulled down and replaced with molded-concrete representations of something innocuous, like orange and turquoise-crested mynahs or stacked female athletes caressing volleyballs. The local progressives have not been powerful enough to revise this square of city space.
I once met a model peasant who assured me that he was no expert, but he knew the explanation for the fabulous absence of patina on the colossus: the revolution this brassy Mao represented positively did not age, but kept its youthful vigor, even in the worst of times. The sun-reddened sheen maintained itself by perpetually renewing its appeal to each successive generation of China-boys. I asked him to sell me a load of that for my strawberry patch. Then I climbed up on the concrete pedestal, removed one of my shoes, and used it to pound Khrushchev-wise on the toe of Mao's yacht-sized boot. This produced no ringing peals, not even a clank, but a dull thud that the faithful farmer chose not to hear.
What better place to tuck a catacomb full of counterrevolutionary papists than right within spitting distance of the fat bastard's rubbery feet?
In the courtyard of the storefront "ecclesia," (as the tiny removable placard quietly labels this fish shop on Sunday mornings), the ancient sacristan of the underground church can often be found squatting in the shade of a banana tree, clipping wicks. Though the presence of a foreigner is potentially lethal, he doesn't look scared at all, and he's too polite to gawk at you.
The ersatz priest, though not thrilled, takes your presence in stride. "Father" acquired the gift of composure during his thirty-seven years as a prisoner at the Qinghai death camp, way out west. He used his own scant saliva to wash away the original sin of mad, starving political prisoners in the Gobi Desert. But he is not allowed the sacred privilege of serving communion. Only the "Patriotic" priests can do that around here.
Our pseudo-padre may lack the body and blood, but he's got some guts. He and his coreligionists are China's heroic non-schismatics, and they're up against not only Beijing, but Rome itself. Their rivals in the so-called Patriotic Church made a number of doctrinal concessions to gain the imprimatur of the central authorities. Despite his commie-busting reputation, and in blatant disregard of the heretical nature of those concessions, His Holiness the Pope jumped on the bandwagon and upheld the legitimacy of their apostolic succession. The legendary lure of the Chinese market has corrupted far better men than John Paul-John Paul.
Meanwhile, the gallant priests of the underground church all died out. Rather than unspelunk themselves and go begging to the "Patriotics" for fresh consecration, my friends in this fish shop proceeded quietly to starve their spiritual selves. Deprived of the musculature and hemoglobin of Jesus Christ all these decades, they've somehow managed to keep their chins up.
All this can be dismissed as a slightly gaseous form of politics. Physical survival occupies a much more prominent place in the parishioners' minds. Not infrequently, they pause in their undertakings and cock their ears in the direction of the fish-emblazoned storefront. In this police state, sirens can often be heard. It's a sound that never frightens these people to the point of stopping their singing and praying altogether, but it does give them brief pause whenever it echoes into their secret place of worship.
Nobody is especially nervous: not the silent acolyte who floats among the plastic flowers and Christmas tree lights, his face more like a medieval saint's than any you're likely to see on a living body; not the ancient lady with translucent skin, four-inch feet, and the golden eyes that still condescend even forty-eight years after her social-climbing warlord husband was smashed by the Reds, and she was liberated and pensioned as a crippled victim of feudalism; and not even the blackened peasant women who pedal incredible distances every week to be here.
Unfazed by the distant shrieks of storm troopers in full charge, they all nevertheless jumped out of their skins the first few times I made an entrance. I have to admit that I bear an uncanny resemblance to the large red-bearded Savior scrawled on the rectangle of shelf paper that is unrolled and tacked on the wall above the card-table altar each week, the icon of the Redeemer due back any day now for true Liberation, once and for all.
To prevent the older mackerel-snappers from suffering heart attacks, I usually tried to soft-pedal as much as possible my relatively awesome barbarian physique. I lurked in the back among the week's unsold fish, as far away as possible from that card table. But there was another reason for my chariness: my whole hefty metabolism has always recoiled like an albino vampire from anything that smacks of the Real Presence.
Dad might have been a god-scoffing atheistic Jack Mormon infidel, but my mom was low-church Episcopalian, and at her liberal knee I learned the very definition of the word "symbolism" by coolly contemplating the poetical nicety of the wine and bread. My otherwise rational wife, on the other hand, is of the Romish persuasion, and kowtows once a week before a wafer-thin slice of the sole material that puts her in divergence with post-seventeenth-century thought. It would be not only disrespectful, but also vaguely terrifying, to approach something that substantial with a head full of attitudes flip as mine. I'm sure I'll see wads of gristle and scab.
So, there I was, my father's son, with my history of bravely brushing past the skirts of Jehovah and staring unflinchingly into the chaotic abyss. Having always felt so much more enlightened and sophisticated than my superstitious seagull-worshipping Utahn neighbors, I was now cowering up against a carp tank that doubled as a baptismal font. Even though this was the underground church, famous for its pitiful lack of a goblet full of transubstantial gore, I never did manage to approach the card table, just because of the macabre associations in my mind.
I skulked at the periphery of a foodless and drinkless love feast, attended by, arguably, some of the clearest thinkers in the People's Republic of China: men and women, mostly women, who had the sense to recognize their own history as a perfect illustration of the futility of throwing oneself into the arms of a secular, therefore fallible, savior.
Mao was the creator of the first and only paradise in the history of the oldest, biggest civilization, which is the closest thing to the miraculous ever accomplished by a mortal. (This, at least, is what they tell foreigners like me if the question ever comes up within earshot of a Public Security Bureau man.) After Liberation, Mao gave one out of every four people on earth a sojourn in Eden, the Seven Good Years. The city parks were admission-free, nobody ever shoved on queues, and the party's materialistic idealism served as a fresh moral force among the youth. Millions of flesh-and-blood Lei Fengs strode around in their cloth shoes doing good things as, for the first time in history, a commie economy was on the rise. Western observers were wetting their pants.
But even Nero had his quinquennium. The Great Helmsman slouched duly into his dotage and frightened off poor Khrushchev with his enthusiasm to nuke America. This left the economy on its own to deal with his senile megalomaniacal dream of overnight industrialization. Mao destroyed that problematical paradise just as surely as he'd created it: serpent and God the Father rolled into one chubby little carcass.
The frequenters of this fish shop, most of them peasants and lumpen-types, showed the intuitive sense to put their faith in someone who actually claimed to be God, no pussy-footing, no false modesty about it, who offered them literal perfection, manifest to their eyes at least eventually, who promised that he wouldn't die and go away and leave them in the slimy, bloody hands of a Lu Shaoqi or a Lin Biao.
They believed in someone who didn't require a mausoleum to contain the tissues he left behind, his head lit up bright yellow from within like a latex jack-o-lantern, but who, on the contrary, even made special, more or less unprecedented arrangements for his body to vanish and go someplace far, far away, so that no matter how bad his executors and successors and administrators fucked up, no matter how many millions of people got burned, tortured, maimed and killed in factional power struggles and other forms of holy and just warfare, you always had the sneaking suspicion that he might return, fresh and fully animated, to fix things up and kick you in the ass.
The Helmsman/Savior whom they bought into cleverly harnesses the power of your own imagination with his claims to perfection, and you do most of the work for him. He's as nearly perfect as your dreamy, faithful brain can make him out to be. And the sky's the limit, because there's no visible competition. You can do the In-Tourist shtick and schlep yourself over to Moscow on the train and see the embalming job they did on Lenin; you can go down to the People's Republic of Vietnam and check out the seams around Ho Chih Minh's hairline: but where can you go to find a rival for somebody who was shrewd enough to outflank the taxidermist altogether and fix things so he can't be seen except in your head?
The guy had class. He never said a single overtly political thing, but just sniffed off the whole question with his "render unto Caesar" line. Yet he carried out a profound coup on the imagination, as indicated by the presence of my pals and the "priest" and the acolyte, all bearing the lumps, bumps and extra holes of past purges.
And, like those doomed Meso-Americans mistaking the whiskered conquistador for Quetzalcoatl, these parishioners thought, at first glance, that I might be Him, with an upper-case aitch, the real Big Boy. Their gasps brought me back to church a few Sundays, at least. I squeezed in and out, every time splintering a couple of the child-sized makeshift pews that were disguised during the week as trestle-supports for fish baskets. Weekly replacements were somehow scrounged in this lumber-poor nation, until the heart-breaking novelty of being mistaken for the Parousia wore thin.
That's a megalomaniacal pleasure unavailable in the Patriotic Church, which, with the pope's cynical and meretricious blessing, canceled the Second Coming in a display of political canniness. Even market reformed Marxists can't allow anyone but themselves to end history. So I quit attending mass altogether, and sank comfortably back into my habitual state of irreligion.
But sometimes I walked by the fish store on Sunday, anyway, just to listen to my pals in the tiny congregation wail their caterwauling version of the Kyrie Eleison, set to a microtonal erhu melody from deepest dynastic times. They belted it out with more sheer decibels than you'll ever hear from a first-world parish ten times superior in number and bulk, with ten thousand times the reason to praise God. I wish Rome's own Big Boy could have been there to hear them sing.

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