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Chinese Gothic Architecture, Beitang, North Church, Beijing, Catholic, Chinese Catholics, Alphonse Favier


In 1887 the French ecclesiastic-cum-architect, Bishop Alphonse Favier, negotiated the construction of Beijing’s most extravagant church, the North Church cathedral, located near the Forbidden City. China was then under a semi-colonial occupation of missionaries and diplomats, and Favier was an icon of France’s mission civilisatrice. For missionaries such as Favier, Gothic church design represented the inherent caractère Français expected to “civilize” the Chinese empire. Having secured funds from the imperial court to build his ambitious Gothic cathedral, the French bishop enlisted local builders to realize his architectural vision, which consisted of Gothic arches, exaggerated finials, and a rose widow with delicate tracery above the front portal. Favier’s episcopal coat of arms featured the dominant figure of Michael the Archangel surmounting his vanquished adversary, represented by the serpent; the implication of this imagery was not overlooked by local Chinese whose national symbol was the auspicious dragon. Beijing’s new North Church was an architectural sign of the French Catholic ideal of the “Church Militant.” Favier’s “civilizing” vision was difficult for his native builders to visualize, however, and what resulted was an admixture of Chinese temple design and a towering Gothic structure that unsettled native literati who understood the church to be an emblem of foreign imperialism. The Beijing historian, Yang Jingjun, has described Favier’s church as a “gothic construction that could not escape being prejudiced by Chinese design.” This paper examines how the “local expertise” of indigenous “untrained” builders resulted in China’s most compelling example of an “indigenous Gothic,” a monument to French nationalism that appears almost defeated by the native sensibilities of those who erected the edifice. One scarcely finds today a Chinese description of the cathedral that does not emphasize the Chinese characteristics of the church’s design that underscore the native tropes of its built heritage.


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