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Dr Anthony E. Clark Talks On Catholicism And The Church In China

Anthony Clark is a professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University in Washington affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. His research revolves around China, the West, and individual and religious exchanges. He has published eleven books, most of them focusing on the history of Catholicism in China.

In 2020, he published China’s Catholics in an Era of Transformation, which features a collection of short essays on China’s modern Catholic Church, combined with reports on his encounters with contemporary Chinese Catholics. The essays were mostly written in China while he was travelling by train or staying in villages and large cities near the Catholic communities.

What brought you to study the history of Catholicism in China?

The field of study on Christianity in China, particularly Catholicism in China, has been very small and in recent decades it’s just expanded exponentially. So, there is a great deal of rising interest in this topic.

I began as a student of the Han Dynasty and the Zhou Dynasty. I started studying the analogues of celebrated Chinese thinkers like Confucius and Mencius and reading Chinese classic texts like Tao Te Ching. While studying Confucianism, I developed a strong interest in Buddhism.

It came to me to study the history of Catholicism in China largely because of two primary reasons. Firstly, I am a Catholic. So, there is a natural interest in the history of that religious practice in China, and having this personal history in the study of the Zhou Dynasty and the Han Dynasty. I wrote my first book on Ban Gu, a Han Dynasty historian and during my research in China, I encountered his books.

Another thing that made me study Catholicism in China was the texts I saw in the Jesuit archives in Taipei and private archives in China. While reading accounts of martyrdom, I was deeply moved by this Chinese history that had not been explored by scholars.

I finished my first book on the historiography of the Han Dynasty and then began to explore more deeply the history of Catholicism in China. This began, for me, an era of encounter with what I would call China’s first engagement with the West, which was Christianity.

From the seventh century onwards Christians are present in China, having links with the Church of the East, or the “Nestorians.” With this early history, we see an evolution into the history of Catholicism in China in the medieval period with Franciscans. My interest shifted from Christianity in China to early Chinese historiography, to the West’s encounter with China. So thus began the interest.

The other thing is, of course, my doctoral mentor, Stephen Durrant. His doctoral mentor was a priest from Belgium named Paul Surreys, a scholar of the Han Dynasty and the Zhou Dynasty. He was mentored by Jesuit scientist and theologian Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I realized that part of my intellectual history and legacy was informed by Catholic priests, who, from the very beginning of our Western knowledge of China, are missionaries of Franciscan, Jesuit and other religious orders. Anyway, my intellectual legacy bears an inheritance from these priests.

What brought you to publish the collection of essays titled ‘China’s Catholics in an Era of Transformation’?

The first time I went to China was in the early nineties when Deng Xiaoping was in charge and I didn’t think much about Christianity. Then I just studied Chinese, and Han Dynasty literature, and at that point, churches were closed. But when I went back later in 1996, 1998, and throughout the following decades, I began to meet Catholics and that inspired me to tell their stories. It was this encounter with Catholics there that nourished my interest in the history of the Church in China and its present realities.

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I began writing essays or at least started keeping notes about the realities of Catholics in China in the late 1990s. But in the early 2000s, I was having more opportunities to meet with Chinese Catholics, and I began to conduct serious research on the history of the Church in China in 2001, 2004, and 2005.

I visited archives in the Vatican, France, Poland, and all over the world that deal with the history of Catholicism in China. Most scholars live in libraries and archives, but we read about places that we often don’t visit. Rather than just do the typical academic work, which is to read archival documents about places like Tianjin or Beijing with important historical events related to Christianity in China, I decided to go to those places and interview people who live there.

I learned that the lived memory of Chinese Catholics in places such as Liulicun, Guiyang, or Kunming, was a living memory. The documents that were written by local Catholics to preserve their history were not included in the archives.

And we all agree there is something more in the one-on-one encounters with someone who is speaking of their own family’s experience, for example, during the Boxer Uprising. I learned early on that being in these places — and smelling the air, seeing the trees, earth, and farmlands that these Catholics had tilled and planted seeds there for centuries — are different from reading text in archives.

Visiting vineyards in Tibet that were planted by French missionaries (of MEP or Paris Foreign Missions Society) in the 19th century — seeing the vineyards still growing grapes and still making wine planted by Catholic missionaries for more than 100 years — changes how you think about history.

So I began to keep very careful records of every interview, of every experience, of every place. I kept maps of every place that I visited, marking the exact locations where martyrs had died and speaking with the priests and the bishops in that area.

That began in the early 2000s, and by the time I had collected all these research notes and essays, publishers from various academic presses asked if I would be willing to publish these essays. Not so much as a scholarly argument, but as a scholarly record. So that other scholars can read about Bishop Andrew Wang Chongyi, Bishop Hu Daguo, and Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, who I knew in Shanghai. All these bishops have died. So having met with these bishops and interviewing them, remain rare records at this point.

What’s the general message of the book?

I think the general message of the book is that the history of the Church in China is far more nuanced than people think. There are books published about how China is a bully. In my mind what I think is problematic about books is that they describe China as a bully. What they neglect to mention is that there is a long history of the West being a bully in China.

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Without a larger historical narrative, we can just kind of be sensational and say that China is a bully and that it persecutes Muslims and Catholics. But there have been great periods of history where the West has become a great drug dealer in China. For example, the West has addicted China to opium. They have taken lands and have mistreated local officials and Chinese Catholics, making these Catholics a part of the historical narrative of the China-West conflict.

I think the message of this book, for me, should hopefully convey that history is far more complicated than some sensationalist newspapers or media sites like to convey. And really, there is far more hope and beauty in Catholicism in China than persecution.

Finally, there are things I don’t say in this book. I know Communist officials who think that Catholicism is one of the very good aspects of China’s history and should be encouraged. I know Communist officials who have organized the local government, the local party, to give money to the Catholics to restore and rebuild their churches.

Media outlets like to tell you how crosses are torn down. But I know of far more examples where crosses were paid for by the party and built. This is a story I thought needed to be told, which the media so often neglects. I know that I’ve published online pieces on examples of the government helping the Catholics and have received angry messages that I should only tell the story of the Church in China, of its persecution, and never of these other more positive aspects.

The central message of my book is to emphasize the history of Christianity in China. That the present realities of Catholics in China are not a one-sided story of persecution, and that it’s more nuanced and more complicated. In the end, it’s hopeful and I think it is a beautiful picture.

You highlight what you perceive as positive signs of strength and scores. So, what do you think about the evolution of Chinese Catholicism today?

This is a very good question. Certainly one of the encounters that I had in China, which was the most meaningful to me, was a meeting I had with an underground Bishop Joseph Jiang Mingyuan of Zhaoxian (1931-2008), who had suffered a lot. He was arrested during the Cultural Revolution, had been imprisoned, and had been tortured.

Interviewing him helped me to understand the terrible suffering of Catholics in China. It is indisputable that there have been eras of terrible suffering. When I met Bishop Mingyuan, I also met Bishop Raymond Wang Chongyi (1921-2010), who was the state-sanctioned bishop. He lived in the same building as the underground bishop, something that few Catholics outside of China understand.

People outside China sort of only think of the so-called above-ground and the below-ground churches and, think these are completely compartmentalized. For them, one is a schismatic church, and the other is a legitimate church. The reality, most often, is that the so-called underground and above-ground bishops or clergy know one another. Sometimes they collaborate at their clergy retreats. Every year they all gather, and the so-called underground bishop will be in the same photograph with the state-approved bishop.

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What I learned about these complexities is that there are tensions between these two communities at times, but that sometimes the tensions are not there. They’re more collaborators than enemies.

When I met Bishop Wang, the cathedral the above-ground bishop, he told me of the extraordinary growth of Catholicism, in Guiyang. So, they’ve both passed away now and the new Bishop Paul Xiao Zhejiang, who was consecrated bishop at the age of 41, is quite young for a bishop.

He handed me a video of his episcopal consecration and the key point he was trying to make me watch was the richness in the video of the Catholic community. There were thousands of people at this consecration. The streets of Guiyang were filled with the Catholic faithful. It was not only filled with the faithful but their manifestation. Tpractiseice of their Catholic faith was distinctly Chinese with drums, outfits, dances, fan dances, and other things.

You would never see the consecration of a bishop elsewhere in the world that was very distinctly Chinese. But you still see this richness of faith. He reported how much the church had grown in Guiyang. Later that evening I had dinner with a few of the priests of the diocese who were telling me of some of the challenges. They were speaking mostly of how rich and how much of an increase in the faithful has happened, and how many baptisms they were performing every year.

The numbers had just risen. The official number of faithful in Beijing was 30,000. But some priests told me there were more than 100,000Catholics in Beijing, who were attending Sunday Masses. The underground Catholics in Beijing were attending North Church, which was a state-sanctioned church. That is another example of how complicated the situation is when we talk of distinctive lines in the church in China.

I guess in terms of this question, I think it is important, for scholars of Catholicism in China to visit the church there. Because one cannot see in an archive the reality of how 19th-century Catholicism has grown into what it is today.

We still see continuity, but we also see a great evolution. John Henry Newman said that “Doctrine never changes. Doctrine is like a tree, but when you watch a tree grow, it evolves, it’s the same tree, but it looks different as the tree grows.”And this was, I think, a very powerful statement. That’s how I think of the Church in China. When I study 19th-century Catholicism or the Catholicism of Giulio Aleni and Mateo Ricci, it looked different but it’s the same tree today.

For me anyway, meeting people like Bishops Wang Chongyi and Jin Luxian helped me to see the Church as an organic entity that grows, evolves and changes in many ways. But it is still flourishing very much despite what the media tells you.

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