My Trip to China I: Matteo Ricci and Religious Exchange Today

Beijing, China. I am here for a brief visit at the Minzu University (the central university for ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities) here in the capital – in the section of the city where a number of universities are clustered, as well as the National Library, the zoo, and some lovely parks. I was invited to Beijing (on my first visit) to make or renew contact with some professors here, talk a bit about my work in a series of lectures, and meet students interested in the study of religion and comparative studies.

Yesterday, June 13, was a tiring but most interesting day. Tiring, because of lingering jet lag (12 hour time difference from Boston), because it is hot summer weather, and because I had managed to get lost twice before 10am. Interesting, for a number of reasons. In the morning, I was invited to participate in a conversation on the possibilities and foundations of religious harmony, with some local professors of religion, and a delegation of scholars from Iran. It was a complicated event, primiarly because while the bulk of the conversation took place in Chinese, as might be expected, we visitors needed translators for the Iranians’ Farsi and my English. (Several spoke two of the languages in the room, and one young scholar spoke all three.)

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As might be expected, the consensus in the room was in favor of interreligious understanding and cooperation: pluralism is here to stay, religion can and should be an instrument of peace and human well-being, and the duty of scholars is to foster deeper mutual understanding. We also touched on, though without having time to go deep, the unavoidable problems: deep concerns within traditions to honor and preserve their uniqueness; truth claims that cannot be put aside for the sake of peace; and the more difficult conversations to be had, not across religious boundaries, but within religions: Muslims talking to Muslims, Christians to Christians, etc. Our Chinese hosts were very deferential, and it was not clear to me (in what was said in English), what they – in their own varied religious and philosophical commitments — thought of the history and problems of religion in the West.

In the early afternoon I was for a time an honored guest at the end-of-academic year presentation of student research papers. The titles (printed up in English, followed by the papers in Chinese) manifest an impressive array of topics in the study of religion, comparative religion, Buddhist studies, Biblical studies, and other fields. One paper that I heard was about child-birth imagery in the Bible as a metaphor for Israel itself; another dealt with the visual complexities of the Stabat Mater. Some dealt very specifically with Buddhist or Confucian thought, or philosophical currents East and West. Again, I was hampered by my 100% lack of Chinese, but a visiting professor from Hong Kong helped me to get at least the idea of what the papers were about. It is impressive to see how the study of religion is a growing, substantive field here. I was able to offer a few comments on several of the papers, however, and encourage the students to continue their research.

The final event of the day was a quick taxi ride, with a student guide, to the tomb of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the famed pioneering Jesuit missionary to China, and over of the other Jesuits and religious who also worked in China in the 17th and 18th centuries; included in this number are by my count 14 native Chinese priests, many of them Jesuits. As the helpful brochure of the site indicates, the cemetery has had an eventful history since the plot of land was awarded to the Jesuits by the emperor in 1610, as it was destroyed a number of times (in the Boxer Rebellion, in the 1960s) and then restored, now under the protection of the government. Ricci’s tomb is a large and impressive momument, but throughout the graveyard it was impressive to see how carefully the history of each deceased was inscribed, in Latin and Chinese, on the tombstone; it is a history book in itself, containing in microcosm the hopes and ambitions, efforts and connections, successes and failures of those early Catholic priests and missionaries in China.

Much has been written about Ricci and his companions and successors, and I have no special insights to add. Many today carry on the work of Ricci in the full commitment of their lives, and I am but a casual visitor for a few days. But the juxtaposition of events yesterday did give me food for thought, and raised the question of continuity and discontinuity. How would Ricci act were he here today? What would he think of the great city of Beijing, the current government, and universities such as Minzu, with its religion program? Perhaps he would have enjoy the moments I enjoyed, the conversation with local and visiting scholars, and perhaps he would have been consoled by the prospect of young, promising students taking up seriously the work of religious and interreligious studies that weave East and West together as a matter of course.

There is no direct connection between the work of the Jesuits buried in the cemetery and what I have been seeing this week but surely, beyond our grasp and limited expectations, the work we do in our own generation, for Christ and for the Church, bears fruit in unexpected ways, in new faces and new words, even centuries later.

Addendum: Today (June 16) I visited the nearby Zhenjue (Five Pagoda, Wuta) Temple, a very old complex not far from Minzu University (and right near the Zoo, where there are some very popular pandas.) The old Indian-Style temple, housing some Buddhas brought from India, was largely closed and under repair, but the surrounding grounds were a museum comprised of a 1000+ years of temple memorial columns and tablets, with inscriptions identifying long-deceased citizens. One section, it turns out, contains about 20 more Jesuit (and other) missionary tombstones, with the same informative descriptive writing in Latin and in Chinese. They fit in very nicely in the museum of the dead. The sign in English explains who the Jesuits were, indicating (in my summary) that they were not only missionaries, but learned individuals who brought Western science and technology to China, and made known Chinese civilization and learning in the West. One could write a long essay on the "not only," since it would be hard to separate out the cultural and religious elements of the Jesuit mission to China and then also to the West.

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John Wotherspoon
4 years 11 months ago
Thank you Francis for most interesting article. It is a shame, as in shameful, that so few people are aware of what Ricci and companions did 400 years ago. Very few priests have ever read his journal. Very few have read an essential text like "A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742" by Andrew Ross. DV Ricci's coming beatification will stir the embers. For info re Ricci's journal and the book by Ross ...and lots of other info re Ricci, see www.riccicenter.com p.s. If you are passing through HK please look me up: jdwomi@gmail.com
Craig McKee
4 years 11 months ago
"As the helpful brochure of the site indicates, the cemetery has had an eventful history since the plot of land was awarded to the Jesuits by the emperor in 1610, as it was destroyed a number of times (in the Boxer Rebellion, in the 1960s) and then restored, now under the protection of the government." The "official" version of the history of Zhalan Cemetery is available here: http://www.bac.gov.cn/webnew/swdx/2en/about/listdetail.aspx?NodeID=25&ID=4567 http://www.bac.gov.cn/webnew/swdx/2en/about/index.aspx?NodeID=27 Address: No. 6 Chegongzhuang Road, Xicheng District Directions: Take Subway Line 2 to Chegongzhuang Stop

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