From China to Maynooth

On Saturday last I was at Maynooth College for the graduations. This year 228 students received degrees ranging from Doctorate in Theology to Diploma in Philosophy and Arts.

Among them were four mainland Chinese priests but the vast majority were lay people, men and women of all ages. So the interest in religion and philosophy continues in the new secular Ireland.

Archbishop Eamon Martin, Chancellor of the University, remarked on this. He said it was exactly 100 years since a missionary movement from Maynooth to China took shape and today that tradition continues, in another form, as so many graduates go back to their families and occupations to talk about the questions to which they themselves had being seeking answers and what they had discovered.

He took the occasion to congratulate the Columban Fathers whose original name had been the ‘Maynooth Mission to China’  and who were still active there. Fortunately there were a number of them present.

Their reason for coming was to congratulate one of the four Chinese graduates who was sponsored by the Columbans and lives in our residence.

The celebrations continued afterwards with photo-taking and festal meals both at home and at a local Chinese restaurant.

A Chinese Book of Kells?

Duns Scotus could have played for Ireland, Scotland or England.

It probably does not matter now as he lived from 1266 to 1308 and his specialty was philosophy and theology, not football. However, he was acknowledged as one of the three top Western scholars in the High Middle Ages.

But it does matter if you are trying to discover links between Ireland and China.

In the Middle Ages Ireland was known as ‘Greater Scotia’ and its inhabitants as ‘Scotti’.  When they overflowed into Scotland and north England the name followed them and Scotland eventually became ‘Scotland’. Today Ireland, Scotland and England all claim Duns as one of theirs.

The China connection is that the Chinese Catholic Bible (of which one million copies have been printed) is popularly known as the ‘Duns Scotus Bible‘ because it emerged from the Duns Scotus Bible Centre in Hong Kong. This year its 50 Anniversary is being celebrated.

Beijing put on a celebration on 18 October and took the opportunity to hail the recent ‘provisional agreement’ between the Vatican and the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops. This agreement is regarded with misgivings by many ordinary Catholics in China and it was noted that the Hong Kong Bible Centre was not represented.

This possible indication of a combative attitude may help proved that Duns Scotus was Irish, though the Biblical Centre in Hong Kong announced it was taking a low key and not attending any celebration, in Beijing or elsewhere.

Anyhow, the name of an Irishman (or ‘Scotti’) is still on the most popular bible in China.

Behind the mask in China

Prepare to be scared.

Halloween is coming up and masks are popular again. The custom is said to have originated in the Celtic harvest festival, Samhain, but was absorbed into the Christian memorial for the dead on All Souls Day.  Hence the connection with ghosts.

In China they have a similar ‘Hungry Ghosts Festival’ in late summer.  To pacify the hungry spirits they leaving offerings of food outside their door or on hillsides. In Ireland the ‘trick or treaters’ are pro-active and collect on behalf of the ghosts.  There must be connection somewhere with the Mummers who dress up with masks and go around houses to beg or threaten people to give them a reward.

They are called ‘mummers’ even though the middle-English word ‘mum’ (as in, ‘mum’s the word’) means ‘silence’. Probably the performances originally were mimed.

Not so the mask-users in Beijing opera.

While (especially older) Chinese love their opera, most Westerners find it difficult. While colourful and loud, it can go on for hours. Locals don’t mind as the plot is based on legends they know by heart and they can drop in or out as they please.  There is a fair bit of miming and for the real fans the masks and costumes are as meaningful as numbered football jerseys. But the constant high-pitched singing is not likely to catch on here.

However, this Halloween try a Chinese Opera mask instead of the locally produced and give the people a real scare.  We belong to a wider world than we sometimes admit.

Two celebrations, two airlines

What is the difference between Air China and China Airlines?

A big difference if you are traveling in that part of the world because Air China belongs to China mainland and China Airlines to Taiwan.

On October 10th (10/10, the ‘Double Ten’) we celebrated Taiwan’s National Day, commemorating the Wuchang Uprising in 1911 that ended the Qing Dynasty and launched an independent Chinese Republic. Taiwan reclaims that heritage every ‘Double Ten’.

The mainland’s big day is October 1, the date in 1949 when Mao Zedong took over the country from Chang’s Kai Shek’s government which fled to Taiwan.  Since then the two Chinas have been in competition. For example, the mainland has a full embassy in Dublin while Taiwan only has a ‘Taipei Representative Office,’ reflecting their relative importance to Ireland.

Taiwan has full religious freedom but Christians make up only 3.9% of the population and growth is  slow. On the mainland religion is constrained but Christians form 5% and are increasing by 10% each year.

It would seem that while the Western form of Christianity has little appeal in the ‘old China’ of Taiwan, the younger generation in the ‘New China’ can identify with its spiritual and compassionate message despite the Western trappings.

However, that may not be the reason the Irish Government favours the bigger China.

Unhappy Pandas

What is the difference between the happy panda of Chinese tourism and the three pandas in the V&A Museum in London?

The three panda in the V&A (created by a Chinese artist) are named Angry, Smiley and Bruised.

They represent the generation born in China after 1960. (One is ‘smiley’ but in the local culture ‘smiley’ indicates ‘contempt.)

A Chinese lady in Bray explained all this to me in detail. She asks young Chinese coming to Ireland, ‘What do you find different here?’ If they don’t come up with the right answer, she supplies it,  ‘ The people here are more open and friendly. They may say they no longer go to church but the values and attitude they have inherited are Catholic. And they do go back to church occasionally.’

She herself became Catholic four years ago, after long consideration.

Now she asks young people, ‘Do you think you are well educated?’ If they say ‘Yes’, she enquires,  ‘Do you know the most popular and widely published book in the world is the Bible? If you haven’t read it you can’t say you are educated.’

With the Chinese in London

I was in London for the Chinese Autumn Festival and got a look at the preparations in China Town. In the centre of the area is the ‘French Church’ where the Chinese Catholic Community meet.

Many of the members work in the nearby restaurants and businesses.

The Chaplain, a priest from mainland China, is kept busy visiting small communities around the country such as in Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, and also in Scotland.

While I was there news came out of the Beijing-Vatican agreement on the appointment of bishops. It is causing much confusion and unhappiness in Chinese Catholic circles around the world.

In London I used the Underground a lot. At one of the stations there was an announcement, ‘Alight here for Buckingham Palace’. I looked out but could not see the Queen alighting. However, it was good to know she has her own stop.

Down in China

A man from county Down kept a diary during his years in China from 1854 to 1910.

They detail his efforts to find his feet while ‘roughing it in Hong Kong’ and searching for the relevance of his Wesleyan faith in the ‘anything goes’ Western attitude to China.

That in itself might make it worth reading the 77 volumes of his diary now stored in Queens University. However he went on to set up the Chinese Customs Service, post office and light house system. He also establish a brass band for Chinese musicians. In the process he became the most influential and respected Westerner in China at a crucial period of its modernisation.

The individual, of course, was Robert Hart, even today the most famous Irishman in China.

Born in 1835 in Portadown, he studied at Wesley College Dublin and Queens University Belfast. On graduating he was nominated for the British Consular Service in China and the rest is history.

Hart never forgot his roots and promoted a number of Irishmen to important positions and tried to help establish diplomatic relations between Imperial China and the Vatican.

He claimed he ‘did well for Western powers while doing good for China.’

You can follow his progress in China by viewing his diaries online thanks to Queens University.

My Chinese Picture

It’s not often I get my picture painted.

Actually, I did not pose for the painting or even know it was planned.

One of the students staying in our house was returning to China after a year’s study here and he asked his artist friend, another Chinese student here, to draw a picture of the house with me (in typical pose?) out pruning the bushes.

I thought that if it showed me watering the flowers it might portray a nice image.

However, he told me it deliberately pictured me using shears.

‘It symbolises you role in the house here,’  he said. ‘While we are here you trim off our rough edges.’

I took it as a compliment.

Anyhow, I recommend the thought to those going to China to teach. It expressed the Chinese idea of what a teacher is: not one who just imparts knowledge but helps the student improve their character and be a better person. Or at least that is how I see it!

China at the WMOF

Among the thousands of people who came to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families were a number of groups from China.  They came ‘unofficially’ because their State does not encourage such religious events, national or international.

When the Communist Party came to power it believed that, under a socialist economy and prosperity, religions would die out but that did not happen.

When the country opened again to the wider world in the 1980s, there were many thriving Christian churches and the government thought it wise to relax some of the restrictions. They even allowed individuals to do religious studies abroad.

But recently it has felt threatened by the continuing popularity of religion and re-introduced Mao-era rules prohibiting under-18s from attending church. Now religious buildings are required to display the Communist flag indoors.

Yet Christianity thrives and small groups of Catholics, despite the crack-down, took the brave step of coming to Dublin.

On arrival, they were surprised to see the negativity towards religion in the media here.

One of the visitors, a priest from the Chinese mainland currently studying in the USA, stayed with us and I tried to explain the situation. The institutional Church was unable to respond to reports of abusive behavior towards people in its care in the not-so-distant past. That opened up a credibility gap between ordinary people and the institution.

In China, the tension is between the government and believers but I hope he saw how the church too, as an institution, can alienate people.

In the meantime, maybe we in Ireland can better understand that religion is not the problem but the way it can become institutionalized.

At the RDS

Yesterday I was at the RDS, at the exhibition area for the World Meeting of Families.

I was supposed to be at the Columban stall but spent a lot of time going around the other exhibitions (the people next door were for Myshall,  promoting their home area as a centre for pilgrimage.)

I met a lot of interesting people, many belonging  to groups trying to do their bit to be of service for others but feeling a bit frustrated because of the lack of support they got.

Back at the Columban stall, my greeting was, ‘Do you have any teachers in the family?’  and if they had I told them about the Aitece program, sending volunteer teachers to China.

There was also a car with stained-glass windows. I am not sure what use that was unless you wanted to go straight to heaven when you took to the road!