Shimenkan: the Stone Gateway that Leads to the Former Center of Hmong Christian Culture


11-9-2006.  I was finally on my way to Shimenkan (literally the stone gateway) in the southwestern Guizhou, China 〞 a place that I had read and heard so much about while preparing my film project about a Hmong personality.

The name of this small town (once just a village) that could only be found in the military map certainly sounds strange to most of Chinese ears, let alone the westerners.  However, in the early part of last century, this place was once hailed as the center of the Hmong Christian culture, a region that had the highest civilization in the southwestern China.  

Many Christians overseas called Shimenkan the Paradise in the East.  The place is located at the high mountains, which had been and is still poverty-driven. 

So what had happened here starting some one hundred years ago?  What has happened since then?  How has the Christian belief among Hmong people survived the socialist China? I had some answers from my research by the time I embarked on this trip.  Still, I was excited as I was going to witness a legend, an old glory, and a part of history. 

I will share some of my discoveries with you through my camera as well as my brief notes.    


11-10-2006.  After several hours* drive from Zhaotong, a city close to the border of Guizhou and Yunnan, we finally found the street sign that shows the direction to our destination. 


The mountain region in southwestern Guizhou is famous for its foggy weather.  This photo was taken through our jeep*s windshield 〞 the local farmers were on their feet or sitting on the horse cart 〞 still considered a valid transportation means in the area these days.


Despite the foggy weather and slippery road, the pretty mountain view is certainly refreshing to someone from NYC!


Here we are!  The view of Shimenkan from a distance did not impress me that much as the sign of poverty and remoteness was certainly seen everywhere.


The cypress woods next to the town government had caught my eyes.  According to our guide, they were once planted by the foreign missionary some one hundred years ago.  Weathered but still going strong, these trees are now considered part of the tourist attractions.


This newly-painted building was constructed under the supervision of Western missionaries and now serves as the token of Shimenkan*s Christian culture.  It had been occupied by the town government for years and was recently emptied out to be preserved for the future tourist sightseeing.  


Have seen photos of this ruin on the web many times.  But now I was practically standing in front of it 〞 the remains of the old missionary dorm.  Had to catch the moment!


The remains of another house built by the missionaries.


The Hmong people living in Shimenkan have seen up and down of this remote village because of the Christianity brought in by foreign missionaries more than one hundred years ago.  They have seen more strangers lately as the place being rediscovered and transformed into a ※cultural§ tour site. 


11-11-2006.  After spending a night in the local motel, I started my day two by setting up the DV cam on location. 


Once upon a time there was no real road that led to this lonely village on the top of the mountains.  Samuel Pollard, a British pastor, bought the land here to start out the later well-known center for Hmong Christian culture.  It was him who had organized the local Hmong to break the mountains and construct the road 〞 ※Breaking the Stone Gate§, as the history book recorded.  I had a photo taken in front of the ※gate§ with Mr. Zhang, my Hmong guide.


Mr. Li, my the other Hmong guide, is an army retiree.  He likes to smoke in a traditional way.  I guess it is called the Water Smoke.


A casual shot of a house wall.  But, to me, it is also a style.


Mr. Zhang*s grand daughter insisted putting on her pretty holiday outfit for my camera 〞 the result was stunning. 


The arrival of the Christian culture was not always welcome and peaceful.  I was told that inside this window a Western priest was once killed by locat bandits.  His body was dragged out of the house and deserted on the river dam.



Saturday is the day for the trade market in town which opens twice a week.  People from nearby villages and counties all came here to do business.  Looking at the overcrowded main street in town, I finally realized that I was still living in the 21st century. 


The trade market is also a playground for local young people who don*t have much social life otherwise.  These boys on bikes were from a village nearby and more than happy to pose for my camera. 


There were something in their looks, from the grandpa to the youngest kid , that had really touched my mind.


Later in the afternoon, we came to visit Pastor Samuel Pollard*s tomb site.  The grand style of tomb stone is commonly seen in the area.  However, the tomb we see today is just a replica.  Mr. Pollard*s real tomb was torn down and crushed during China*s Cultural Revolution in 1960*s. 


Samuel Pollard, who came to China in 1887 at age 22, began his evangelical work in the city of Zhaotong.  He later moved to Shimenkan, from where he and other missionaries worked tirelessly to have found one of the biggest Christian bases in the southwestern China, fostering evangelism, education and social development.  With help from others, he created the first written language for Hmong 〞 the famous Pollard Script, and founded the first school as well as a hospital which had significantly improved the medical conditions for Hmong at the time.  In 1915, he died of saving a Hmong kid who had typhoid.  Today, 120 years after he stepped on Shimenkan*s land, Samuel Pollard is still being remembered by Hmong people as K*an Teh-Glao, the Savior of Hmong or the King of Hmong, among others. 


11-12-2006.  This Sunday was a big day for Shimenkan*s Christians 每 they were going to celebrate 100 years anniversary of the founding of Shimenkan church.  However, the grand-looking church on this photo had a life shorter than a year!  The old church was destroyed many years ago and the Christians here had lost home for a long time. 


The ceremony has started.  The decorations inside the church gave me a kind of semi-official feel.



The singing and dancing are the major components of the ceremony.


This 17-year-old Hmong high-schooler told me about his  goal to be a Christian pastor in the future.  Bravo!


The girls engaged in a chitchat during a break from the church service.


The majority of churchgoers is women and the elderly.


11-13-2006.  The light rain started from the night before, which could be dangerous for driving around the mountain path.  However, we still got on the trip to visit Su Ke Village, about 30 miles away from Shimenkan.  As the rain had gradully stopped, the wet and foggy mountain view was unfolded in fron of us like a beautiful water-color painting.


Su Ke Village is located in even more remote area and the living conditions there are worse.  This type of straw-roofed house used to be the typical Hmong home and is still used for living in many places today. 



The children of Su Ke Village.  Samuel Pollard once stated that playing with Hmong children was the most pleasant thing he could remember during his mission in the Hmong region.  I also enjoyed my quality time with them.


 Well, sometimes I admit that it was a bit hard to work with non-professionals! 



The Su Ke Village Christian church is well-known in the region and widely reported through the internet.  But pretty soon you would realize that it is a real grass-roots type of church that still utilizes the old-fashioned oil light (they do have the electricity supplies in the village).


I was setting up the camera inside the dark church.  The head of a curious boy appears in the background.


Mr. Wu Zhongqun, the catechist of the church and his wife posed for my picture.


In the afternoon, we rushed back to Shimenkan to take part in the ceremony to re-erect the Hmong History Monument that has recorded the inchoation of Christian movement in Shimenkan.  The original one was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and only part of the stone base left to this date. 


As part of strategies to promote Shimenkan as a cutural tour site, the town government had decided to re-erect a replica of the monument not far away from the old base.  The photo shows a Hmong dance expert reading the posy on the new monument.


11-14-2006.  The big event of the day was my visit and interview of Mr. Yang Huaming, the grand son of Mr. Yang Yage, one of the most praised Hmong assistants to Samuel Pollard.  He was forced to live in other places for many years and only returned to Shimenkan not too long ago.  Ironically, he claimed that he had no longer been a Christian for fear of future persecution.  Nowadays, besides running a small grocery in town, he dedicates his time and energy to collecting Hmong history-related books and art works, including a whole set of Flowery Hmong outfits that shows the evolvement of texture and style. 


The Flowery Hmong version of The New Testament.


An early edition of Flowery Hmong female costume.


Part of Mr. Yang*s collections that includes different editions of Bibles and other Christian-related books.


11-15-2006.  The day we had been waiting finally arrived 每 the 100 anniversary of establishing the Shimenkan Primary School.  The celebration was one of the biggest events in this small town*s history, which had been financed by the local government and attended by the provincial leaders and the guests from all over the world.  The education, rather than Christianity, has been emphasized by the authority in today*s rediscovery of Shimenkan*s heritage.

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Shimenkan Primary School, which was founded single-handedly by Samuel Pollard in 1905, has now been turned into the Shimenkan Ethical School.  The school*s thousands of students were the main attractions in the events.


Thousands of local people turned out for the celebration.  Covered by the thick fog of the day, they quietly sat there waiting for the event to start.


The event was attended by people from many different ethnic groups other than Hmong.  This lady talking on the cell is from Yi minority and co-owner of a well-known local restaurant.  According to our guide, she is also the member of the town government.  A local power house, so to speak.


The boys from the school band 每 a long tradition at Shimenkan school history.


The fog was finally dispersed to reveal the magnificent sea of clouds over the high plateau.  The unexpected fine weather made our returning trip much easier. 


11-16-2006.  We were back to Zhaotong, the mid-sized provincial city where Samuel Pollard started his evangelical works before he had settled down at Shimenkan in 1905.  After spending some time I finally found the Christian church in the downtown area, rebuilt from the old one where Rev. Pollard used to serve.  According to the female presbyter in the church, the building that Mr. Pollard used to live in is still there and now being occupied by others.  The photo shows that the lady led the way to where the building was. 



I also took a walk around the city.  The old buildings and small-town life style  are always parts of what fascinate me. 


Chinese culture has never been very religious and always had rooms for all thoughts and beliefs.   This shaman, who was performing some kind of fortune-telling service, probably never thought or cared about the Christian church not far from where he was. 


People from Guizhou, Yunnan and other parts of southwestern China like to eat spicy food.  The pimientos are among the most welcome food in the households here regardless they belong to Hmong, Chinese or other ethnic minorities.  Sometimes I even think that this kind of food resembles the characters of people here 〞 small, tough, hot and easy to harvest no matter where they grow.




12-6-2006.  Back on the journey again.  The Jinsha River was set as the destination of this trip because I had read about it many times in Pastor Samuel Pollard*s memoir.  Plus, the first hand experience had become necessary  as the river would also appear in the script I was writing at the time. 

It was quite difficult to decide on the route but we finally settled with one that had to go through Luquan County.  As soon as the car drove out the dusty and dirty suburb of Kunming City, we were embraced by the fresh air and blue sky - a long overdue break lay ahead of us!


The Land of Peach Blossom or the Shangri-La without snow?


12-7-2006.  The first stop of the day was Sayingpan after spending the night at Luquan County.  The town*s main street was filled with people and horse-drawn carriages.  The local livestock trade market was about to open, we had learnt.


The Yi minority takes high percentage of the local population.  Many of them were seen wearing this type of jeckets made of entire piece of sheepskin.


Corn is the staple food in the area.  As the winter sun was still warm and bright, the proud display of autumn harvest was a fixed part of the local scenery.


I made a special trip to the livestock trade market, which was not something you could often see in the cities.


A romantic moment caught through my lense.


Next to the livestock trade market, I found this chapel inside a big courtyard.  Many young men and women were scattered around, some of them wore Christian pastor*s outfit.  I had soon found out that this was a government-run Christian pastor training camp.  Interesting enough, I was gearing up and ready to interview some trainees and shoot some classes.  The result was unexpected 每 we were told that we would not be welcome here and no contacts between the trainees and us were allowed!  Even worse, we had to drive away from the premise right away under a female teacher*s watchful eyes, and she was the one who put up an all smile face to me moments ago!  I soon figured out what went wrong: I had told them that I was from US and doing a Christian-related research 每 that fact alone obviously touched someone*s nerve and the rest of it was history.  You know why, don*t you?


As soon as we drove out of Sayingpan, the beautiful scenery  cleared up my mind and lots of laughter were left along the way.


We came to another small township which serves as a mid-point of our journey.  We decided to take a break for the rest of day and settled into this motel.  The  house was built along the mountain cliff and newly renovated, providing economical yet comfortable accommodations.


We took a walk around the area.  One of the farmer*s house reminded me of the first movement of Beethoven*s ※Pastoral§.

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The harvest of beautiful mountain flowers.


The boy who came back from a nearby trade market was shy away from my camera.


Break on the mountain top.


These boys on the town street were happy to pose for my camera.


A puppy that belongs to the motel*s owner.  His innocent eyes were killing me.


12-8-2006.  After an early breakfast, we were driving down along the mountain path, heading to our destination located on a canyon.  The road condition was getting worse as the mountains grew more rugged and steepy in the region.


A farmer*s houshold in one of the mountain villages we were passing through.


Jinjiang, a big multi-ethnic village that was the last stop before we hit the river.


We had to travel on foot for about 5 miles before finally arriving at Jinsha River.  My imagination flied high as I was busy at shooting the footage of the grand view 〞 Had Pastor Samuel Pollard or other Western missionaries ever walked upon this narrow meandering foot path?


I had to have a photo taken here as I felt great standing on one of the newly-built float bridges or rather, at a joint section of history and modern time!


Another look of the old and new, past and present.


The fabulous color of the mountainous details looked like an enlarged traditional Chinese miniascape.


After many failed attempts, we eventually located a couple of boat trackers by the river shore.  Understanding them and their job was part of the plan, since they were mentioned frequently in the works of early missionaries and I was playing with the idea to write them into my film script.


Little Liu, our local-hired travel guide, was a high school graduate and stayed in the village for the time being.  He served a big help as my conversation with the boat trackers went on.


To get the first hand experience, I jumped on the boat with Liu for a trip crossing the river from Yunnan to Sichuan Province, which took about 10 minutes at this season of ebb-tide.


Another beautiful river view from the boat.


Taking the boat was still the most convenient way of local transportation if you don*t want to walk 2 extra hours to cross the bridge.  Many people living on both sides would go back and forth many times a day to do business.  The photo shows the boat trackers* phone numbers written on the wall, and the big Chinese characters read POLITENESS.


The final look of Jinsha River from the distance before we drove back into the mountains.


The sunset time inside the mountains.


12-9-2006.  We unexpectedly drove into a crime scene soon after we had embarked on our trip back to Kunming.  Always considering myself a born detective, I couldn*t help but stopping the car and shooting some evidence 〞 the victim was laid on a table and ready to be skinned and cut open.


Turning a blind eye to the bloody scene, the local people enjoyed their leisure time by sitting in the warm sunshine and playing with the kids.


Back to Sayingpan, I took sometime to visit to the Christian church on the main street, which serves as a home for mostly Yi minority church-goers from nearby counties and villages.


The well-furbished church with a grand style was rebuilt from the foundation of an old movie theater.  The attending rate is now much higher than the old days since most Chinese had stopped going to the movies in this provincial town.  The sentence on the banner reads: ※God is spirit so we must worship him with whole spirit and faithfulness.§


The presbyter of Yi descendence introduced the church history, pointing out that this very church was also founded by a Western missonary.  He also showed me around the building.  Inside the office upstairs, I saw this blackboard with a hymn lyrics written in Yi characters.


Back to the mundane life, I ran into a group of after-school boys poising on a horse-drawn carriage.


I had to stop the car and took a few shots here #


One more!


Well, reality sets in here.  The slogan painted on the rock reads: §If the mountain region wants to get rid of poverty, the first choice would be cutting down the birth rate and planting more trees!§ 


 We had a little traffic jam here 〞 a gigantic bull blocked our way and refused to move forward.



A scene that would definitely make metropolitan traffic police cough blood!


A surreal moment!

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A car wash at Luquan county 〞 the child labor scene touched me though it was a common thing in the region.


This boy*s life was quite different 〞 the photo of a restaurant owner*s son.

Part III


12-23-2006.  Back to the Hmong village at Sapushan, roughly 200 miles north of Kunming City.  It was my second trip to this small village located on the top of mountains (the first one took place in the summer of 2005).  The very first thing into our sight, when we drove up close to it, was the village church literally built on the tip of a mountain, lonely yet proud.  How many people still remember now, I wondered, that this simple-looking building was once erected on the ruin of old Sapushan church 每 the one founded by Pastor Samuel Pollard and his associates to serve as a milestone of Christian movement in southwestern China?  


Once planted by the Western missionaries, this tree has survived more than 100 years* wind and storm.  The lone and tough branch of the tree has almost turned into a symbol of the place today.


The supply of life materials is limited inside the village.  People have to walk a long distance of moutain path to buy daily necessities from the nearby Wuding County.


The spiritual life here, however, is rather rich as the majority of the villagers are Christians.  This was a Saturday so the evening service would begin in a few hours.  The photo is my favorite as it reflects the mood and feel of the place.


The use of electricity had brought the modern touch to the villagers* lives except sometimes it didn*t go smoothly.  The power went out during the evening service so the speaker lit the candles to continue his message.  For me, an outsider, this whole candle-lit Bible on the table thing really added a bit of mysterious, almost medieval feel of the event.


The bonfire is the only source of heat and warmth in the chilly December night, even though this was in Yunnan which is famous for it*s spring like weather throughout the year.


Presbyter Long, one of the village church leaders, is a soft-spoken gentleman and faithful Christian.  We stayed in his house for room and board the first couple of days.  He showed me a great concern when he learnt that I had fever the first night I was there.


12-24-2006.  The front view of Presbyter Long*s house, where he lives with his wife and grandchildren.   The doorsteps  leads to their living room.  The family of his younger brother lives in the  house adjacent to it.


The sign of harvest was seen from his house yard.


The grandson of Presbyter Long grew an instant bond with me and loved to strike a cute posture for my camera.


It was a Sunday so another church service was on the way.  Ready to welcome the believers, these wooden benches, I was told, had lasted almost a hundred years and witnessed the up and down of the local Christian movement.


Because of the season, many villagers were out visiting relatives or attending Christmas services at other locations.  Today*s church looked less crowded than before.  Still, the formality and sincerity shown by all devotees were very touching. 


A pretty girl at the service.


The children at Sunday school.


The teacher at Sunday school 〞 he is Presbyter Long*s nephew, a soft-spoken, almost shy young man.  But you can just feel that he pours his whole heart into this job.


12-25-2006.  We walked through the village in the morning.  I took a photo of these houses which I thought reflected the general living standard in the area.


We were invited to visit this home of another church activist, who is relatively younger and more business-oriented.  His house is considered one of the best in the village.


After the breakfast I conducted a couple of on-camera interviews.  Then the host invited us to take a walk along the mountain path.  The wild flowers by the road had a splendid look.


Making money is the top priority now in this remote village, just like everywhere else on the earth.  The last stop of our casual walk was a stone pit contracted by Presbyter Long*s children and relatives.  Stone mining is a common practice now throughout Yunnan and usually run by families or individuals.


12/26/2006.  For the scheduled script reading we had to walk over to another brother*s house in the morning.  The destination was not too far but belonged to another village as well as another county.  They had all-day long supply of electricity so we had to go there to plug in my laptop for the reading.  But the trip turned out to be a memorable one as the scenery on our way was just magnificent!


With thick fog and piercing morning sunshine, the little forest we went through looked just like the labyrinth in one of those fairy tale moives.

(The site is under construction.)

shimenkan----English----Searching the Footprints of God in Southwestern China