Luo: I’m not a Christian, but I would open up China to as many missionaries as possible. China needs more Christians.
Carol: Why is it always a matter of “What can Jesus do for China?” instead of “What can the Chinese do for Christ’s Kingdom?”
Luo: I guess the nation is our idol.
Two weeks ago, when we were together, my friend again said something well worth pondering:
Carol: Why is Chinese history such a sensitive political matter?
Luo: It may be that History is our God. We don’t have a supernatural standard of right and wrong, good and bad, so we view History as the ultimate Judge.
The other side of the same coin is a Chinese assumption that the State has unlimited authority, including a monopoly over the interpretation of history. This mindset is very different from the Western Judeo-Christian assumption that all earthly authorities are limited by boundaries set by God’s ultimate sovereignty over all, and that history is His Story, not ours.
While I was in Beijing earlier in October, I decided to check out the current official approach to Chinese history, to see how much improvement there has been from the Mao era attempt to fit all history into the boxes of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy whereby the “slave society” is followed by “feudal society,” which is overturned by the “bourgeois” revolution under capitalism, and is finally succeeded by socialist utopia, ushered in “proletarian” revolution. You can see why I have avoided visiting national or local museums in China for many years. But I wanted to see now what has and hasn’t changed. Here is what I found:
New Themes: the Capital Museum
I enjoyed both the architecture and the layout of exhibits at this ultra-modern museum, no doubt intended to compete with the popular Shanghai Museum, the first world-class museum in China. The level devoted to the history of Beijing city was engaging … the inner wall showed the city’s development in the context of overall Chinese history, while the outer wall showed world historical events at equivalent time periods.
The good news is that I didn’t see a single reference to “slave society” or “feudal society.” What a relief! Moreover, there were references to religion that portrayed it as a normal part of any nation’s culture and history, Western or Chinese, rather than as the Marxist “opiate of the masses.”
I was especially happy with sections highlighting Chinese periods (especially in the Tang and Ming) of cosmopolitan tolerance and harmony among different ethnic groups, cultures and religions -- a good message for Chinese visitors to the museum. As always, Matteo Ricci and other Jesuit “priests” (note: not “missionaries”) received favorable mention for their scientific contributions (Ricci’s world atlas was displayed), which is standard. Unusually, however, there was also a beautifully embroidered antique cassock and a photo of a cathedral built in 1550. And these were all under the heading of “Ming Religions,” not science or culture. This straightforward treatment of religion, combined with the absence of overt Leninist anti-imperialist or Maoist anti-Missionary themes, is a sign of major progress.
The bad news is the relative discrimination against Christianity. The museum heralded the “arrival of Buddhism in China” in the first century and displayed many Buddhist relics and photos of sites. There was also a large separate section of the museum devoted to Buddhist culture. A large folk art section included Confucian and Buddhist, but not Christian, items.
The history section contained no announcement of the “arrival of Christianity in China” or even a single mention of (Nestorian) Jing Jiao in the Tang era, even though the Tang Emperor’s praise and approval was recorded on a mid-7th century stele that you may have seen in Xian. From the Yuan dynasty (13-14th c.), however, there was a large stone carving of a Nestorian cross, a photo of a Beijing church, and copies of letters exchanged between the Pope and a Chinese who became a Nestorian patriarch.
Most egregious was coverage of the modern period. The only religious figure depicted on the wall of Western history was Martin Luther, while Enlightenment philosophers, followed by 19th c. inventors and scientists, were given full coverage. Large sections covering the introduction in China of modern political reforms, industry, education, culture and social life were overwhelmingly secular, with not a single reference to the (major) contributions of Missionaries and Chinese Christians. In a section on architecture, one could find a scale model of the Beijing train station but no photos of Western-style churches or Christian schools. In this, unfortunately the Chinese are just following the standard practice of Western historians and museum designers.
Of course, in addition special features -- such as separate video theaters -- credited the Communist Party with nationalistic revolutionary activities such as student demonstrations in the May Fourth period and the anti-Japanese war. The climax of the historical section was films of the 1949 ceremonies founding the PRC.
Old Grudges: the Former Summer Palace
In the Capital Museum, I saw a painting showing the layout of the old summer palace, built and expanded over 150 years in the 17th and early 18th centuries. I had known of its history and location in n.w. Beijing, but had never visited, since I heard there was nothing to see but rubble, dirt and weeds. But this painting stunned me, for I never realized the Imperial Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) was five times the size of the later Summer Palace, which many of you have also visited. Imperial manuscripts, art works and treasures filled acres of office and residential complexes set in an intricate mosaic of gardens, lakes and canals. Most of the original construction was wood, in traditional Chinese style, but there also were ten Western-style palaces of marble, with statues and water works.
On my last morning in Beijing, I followed the current visitor’s path winding between reconstructed lakes lined with willows and filled with (now frost-bitten) lily pads, viewing the rubble and some remnants of the Western palaces, along with the reconstructed Western labyrinth. At each stop, signs repeated the mantra, “Burned in 1860 by French and British allied troops at the end of the 2nd Opium War.”
It struck me that here was a genuine grievance not worth forgetting, given the world cultural treasure this site had been. Checking later, I learned that troops that looted and burned the complex in 1860 had been under the command of the younger Lord Elgin, whose father had carted off the Elgin marbles from Greece to the British Museum where they remain. He ordered the desecration in revenge after the Qing Court had reneged on a promise not to harm a dozen Western envoys they had captured, but instead tortured and killed them. (Some historians suggest the fire was intended by Elgin to cover up the looting, out of shame over his father’s controversial legacy. Only a very few of the priceless artifacts stolen then have been returned.)
There is more to the cautionary tale, of course: In 1900, after the allied troops of the Eight Powers had lifted the Boxers’ siege of the foreign sections of Tianjin and Beijing, they ordered the demolition of the remnants of the fire-scarred Yuanming Yuan as revenge for the hundreds of deaths of Western missionaries and other civilians. They occupied the Capital before deciding to leave the Forbidden City untouched and allow the Empress Dowager to return to the capital and to power. Yet, photos from 1922 show some stone constructions still standing, only to fall victim to neglect under the Nationalists and Communists, and more destruction by Red Guards.
Nearly Forgotten and Newly Remembered: Chinese Christians
Tang Guo’an: On a lovely Fall day with rare clear air and blue skies, my friend and I searched all over the Tsinghua University campus for a statue or memorial to the founding president whose life I have been researching this year. Finding only memorials to famous professors or alums martyred by the Nationalists or the Japanese, we began asking staff and students for help, but none recognized his name! Finally, we found a display of photos of his successor in the 1920s, in the archives in the old library building of the 1910 Western-style section of campus built under Tang’s leadership. But the archivists had to dig out an old volume of history to find a single photo and a short paragraph about him.
Another friend confessed to me that he still carries in his mind a negative view of Tsinghua’s founding based on Mao’s 1950s condemnation, which is still “conventional wisdom” in China. Mao asserted that the U.S., by returning the Boxer indemnity funds to set up Tsinghua as a prep school for students to study in the U.S., sought to “brainwash” young people and create a cohort of elite followers loyal to the U.S. as part of a long-term “cultural invasion” of China. This distortion of American motives is no longer politically correct to express in public, but it also can’t be challenged directly, so the natural result is just to erase the early years of Tsinghua from history.
Lao She: I also visited the house museum of famous playwright Lao She. (Earlier this year, the Kennedy Center presented his “Teahouse.”) In a modest old-style courtyard home, in a winding alley (hutong) section of the city, his original writings are displayed along with his desk, writing utensils, favorite art work, and other furnishings. The tragedy of his suicide under persecution by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution explains why this site was opened only in recent years and is not on the preferred list for school field trips. Yet there was a brief mention that Lao converted to Christianity as a young adult and joined the local church. When asked about this, the caretaker lowered his voice to a whisper but with a big smile, affirmed those facts.
Wu Yifang: In my hotel room, the monthly English version of Chinese Women, put out by the official women’s federation, had a delightful article about China’s first woman college president, who is also the subject of a chapter in my book of Chinese Christian biographies. Both are written in a similar easy-to-read format and lively style. The magazine mentions her Christian faith in a matter-of-fact way, although the author clearly didn’t understand the meaning of her Christian college’s motto, “Abundant Life (hou sheng).” This was rendered in English and attributed to the book of John as “improving people’s livelihood,” or as we might put it today, “the good life”!
In all, these October experiences in Beijing suggest to me that there definitely is a need and desire to recover “real history,” as well as an expanding political space and a market of readers for such history told through the admirable life stories of Chinese Christians.