The extraordinary life of China’s Jesuit Mr. Rogers

“Once I heard a Jesuit in the China Province speaking poetically about how Jesuits, following in the footsteps of a generation of giants, have a deep and mystical bond with China,” George “Jerry” Martinson, S.J., told a gathering of California Jesuits and colleagues in 2011. “True, I thought, but it is also true that most of us may bear a closer resemblance to a generation of hobbits—small, clumsy and limited but well-intentioned, hardworking and persistent in carrying out a mission that we are convinced is extremely important.”

Father Martinson himself was slight in stature, soft-spoken and gentle of character. But when it came to Taiwan and China, where he worked as a missionary, educator and filmmaker for nearly 50 years before his death this week at the age of 74, Father Martinson was indeed a giant, one of the most significant Jesuits to work in China since World War II and almost certainly the most well known.

Father Martinson was one of the most significant Jesuits to work in China since World War II and almost certainly the most well known.

Raised in San Diego, Jerry Martinson entered the California Province of the Society of Jesus in 1960 with dreams of being a missionary like Albert Schweitzer. “I really admired people like Schweitzer, who gave up and everything and went to Africa to work with the very poorest of people,” he told a reporter in 2014. “I thought if I could be a doctor and go to Africa, that would make me feel like I was doing something that was worthwhile for the world.”

But instead of sending him to Africa, in 1967 the California Jesuits sent him to their mission in Taiwan. And instead of an aptitude for medicine, what Father Martinson found within himself was a passion for Taiwanese pop and folk songs. “They were kind of sad,” he recalled, “but not really depressed.” His favorite was a song about selling dumplings: “It seemed to represent the Taiwanese spirit: Nothing can beat them down; they won’t be defeated by anything. If they can’t get a job or a degree from school they’ll always find something to survive. I think of that even now as I go out for a walk in the morning and see the people in the park.”

Father Martinson used Bible stories as the basis for English lessons, turning classes into an opportunity to also quietly offer thoughts about values and character.

On the weeks-long boat trip from California to Taiwan, Father Martinson began to teach himself to play guitar. While studying Mandarin and later theology, he learned Taiwanese songs and became so known for his performances that restaurants and television programs started inviting him to sing and play. In the classroom, too, at Fu Jen University, he used songs and sketches to help his students understand philosophy and psychology. (Years later while walking down a street in Taipei, a woman came up to him and out of the blue started to dance while singing “Everything is beautiful, in its own way.” It turned out, she had been one of his students.)

In 1958, another California Jesuit, Philip Bourret, S.J., started Kuangchi Program Service, a radio station that eventually offered the first television production center in Taiwan, where the very first Chinese TV dramas would be produced. Seeing Father Martinson’s many talents, Father Bourret invited him to join the work. As vice president, Father Martinson steered the company toward programs about people on the margins—immigrants, the disabled, disaster victims, Aboriginals. He traveled throughout Asia producing television shows and films, including “Beyond the Killing Fields,” a 1986 documentary on refugees at the Thai-Cambodian border that won prizes in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia.

Where children in the United States had Mr. Rogers, millions of Chinese children grew up with their friend “Uncle Jerry.”

Father Martinson’s real prominence, though, began in the 1990s, when the Giraffe English School in Taipei hired him to teach English on television. By this point fluent in Mandarin, Father Martinson’s classes moved seamlessly between languages and idioms. He used Bible stories and parables as the basis for the English lessons, turning the classes into an opportunity to also quietly offer thoughts about values and character.

His show became enormously popular first in Taiwan and then, astonishingly, in mainland China as well. Careful to avoid explicit reference to Jesus (even as he quotes Christ’s parables) Father Martinson’s show resonated. Where children in the United States had Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo, millions of Chinese children grew up with their friend “Uncle Jerry.”

In the last decade, K.P.S. and Father Martinson had more success, producing a series of films about Chinese Catholics and Jesuit missionaries to China that the government has allowed to be aired repeatedly on China’s CCTV, the largest television network in the world. And they have been received with great public acclaim.

“There are all kinds of bridges,” Father Martinson told the Jesuits of California in 2011. “Huge bridges like the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridges, graceful stone bridges over rivers and canals in China; and the practical wooden and bamboo bridges that connect people and communities throughout the developing world.”

No one could have predicted that the girders and beams by which Father Martinson would help build bridges between the Chinese peoples and Christianity would include pop music and children’s television, documentaries about Catholic saints and even appearances on Chinese soap operas. “Bridges,” as he noted, “are meant to be practical and functional.”

“But,” he added, both in his talk and through his extraordinary life, they “can be creative and beautiful as well.”

More: Jesuits / China / TV

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