Chinese Autumn

This afternoon I was walking in the golden-brown harvested fields of Kildare when I remember that it was Mid-Autumn Festival in China, Korea , Japan and much of the rest of Asia. As a celebration, it is rivaled only by the (Chinese) New Year.

The harvest is almost over in Ireland, and there are free ripe blackcurrants in the hedges, but we no longer celebrate one of the most important occasion in the ecological year.

At the recent China-European meeting near Cologne, this topic came up, indirectly.  Drawing on the wake-up message of Pope Francis , Laudato Si, we were reminded that people, technology and nature are all bound up together. When one is emphasised over the other two, the outcome is not good. When technology makes us forget that bread comes for the earth, not machines, and people become objects which technology steers into consumption and politically approved patterns, it is time to wake up.

In Cologne, behind the magnificent cathedral, we were reminded of this.

There was a monument to Adam Schall von Bell, born in Cologne in 1591, who became astronomical advisor to the Shunzhi Emperor in Beijing where he died aged 75. He introduced new technology into China, not as a way of controlling people but of opening their eyes to a wider world.

There is also the grave of  Vitus Chang, first Chinese bishop of Xinyang but forced to leave his country in 1949. He spent the rest of his life in Hong Kong, the Philippines and, finally, Cologne where he died in 1982.  The modern technology he encountered along the way did little to improve his life, it was the kindness of the people he engaged with.   

Must walk in the fields more often!

Troubles in Hong Kong

Aitece teachers leaving HK in previous years

Scenes of the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong when the protestors took over the airport for two days, reminded me of the many hours I spent there (and its predecessor, Kai Tak). I was either waiting there to welcome new teachers on their way to China with Aitece, seeing them off to their placements on the mainland or going there myself to visit their various universities.

I got to know the advantages of the various coffee shops and the quiet places where one could spend time reading in peace.

Actually this is the time of the year when new teachers should be arriving in Hong Kong on their way to China. As it turns out, fortunately or unfortunately, this September we are not sending any new teachers from Ireland. 

The recent downturn in numbers is due to the many new opportunities for young Westerners to go to China to teach on a financial rather than volunteer basis. Also, the Chinese authorities are now making greater demands in issuing work visas.

It is understandable that they want to be sure that the teachers they invite are properly qualified and experienced. However the cost of certifying and double-certifying various documents can involve several hundred Euro. It can also take hours, if not days, to go to offices around Dublin and having to return days later to collect the documents.

Hopefully the disturbance in Hong Kong will die out soon. It is unlikely that the authorities will concede any ground and the protesters will not have the stamina to continue indefinitely. In the meantime life in Hong Kong (and China) will continue much as usual with little inconvenience to visitors or teachers passing through.  

By the time next March or September comes around we hope to have some new volunteer teachers for China and their time there will be as enriching for the students and themselves as ever.

A mysterious Chinese teacher

As probably the one most involved with the teaching of Chinese in Ireland, Dr Liming Wang of the Confucian Institute in UCD visited Dalgan recently in search of news about a Chinese gentleman said to have taught Chinese to Irish China-bound missionaries back in the 1930s.

Was he the first Chinese teacher in Ireland and what happened to him?

Further research is necessary to get the answers but one result of his visit was an invitation to a group from Dalgan to visit the Confucian Institute.

It is an imposing building, more Chinese inside than outside. It cost nine million Euro, with a third each coming from the Chinese government, UCD and the Irish government.

The number of Chinese leaders who have visited it shows their keen interest in Ireland. It is said that Deng Xiaoping, who re-opened China to the world economy and culture by establishing duty-free economic zones in three ports in China, was inspired by the Shannon Duty Free Zone.   

Whether Ireland has fully availed of its opportunities to be actively involved in China’s growing economy is questioned in a book entitled ‘Doing Business with China: The Irish Advantage and Challenge’ co-authored by Dr Wang and his wife Dr Lan Li.

I look forward to reading it as it discusses cultural and historical similarities between China and Ireland.  Dr Lan Li is a cultural anthropologist and obviously contributed much of the culture-related material.

That book is now on my summer reading list and I hope to share her insights and reflections soon.

Heroes I Knew

A book was launched last week at Dubray’s, Grafton Street. It was about two men I knew well and titled, Murder in the Missions.

Des Harford from Lusk, Co Dublin, reluctantly volunteered to work in the Muslim area of the southern Philippines. He was only too well aware of the danger but was convinced a missionary should be in conflict areas, helping to bring people together and encouraging mutual respect.  In 1997 he was kidnapped by extremists and held for 12 days.  

Rufus Halley from Waterford, also recognised those dangers but took them less seriously. During his 20 years in the Muslim area he once took a job with a Muslim stall holder in the market so he could interact with ordinary people.

When I saw him in the summer of 2000 he was on his way back to the Philippines. I told him, ‘Take care, Rufus. It’s still dangerous there’. He laughed in reply, ‘Who would be bothered with me? I’m not an important person.’ Almost exactly a year later he was shot by gunmen while visiting villagers.

Both were members of the Columban Missionary Society which was originally founded for another country caught up in upheaval, China. When there no longer were openings for Columbans there some were sent to the Philippines and took up the challenge of working with the economically and social deprived, including the Muslims.

Today Columbans are again involved with China, promoting social and educational links and supporting the local Church which is still recovering from years of persecution. Life is not as physically dangerous there as in the southern Philippines but it still calls for a dedication to be where one is most needed, challenges and all.

The Riots in Hong Kong

How will Beijing deal with the indignity of continuing weekly protests in Hong Kong?

So far the central government has taken a ‘wait and see’ stance, not wanting any bloodshed and taking time to gather information on the people and issues behind the unrest.

In the meantime they depend on the Hong Kong police to keep an acceptable level of order.  

However there will be repercussions when order is completely restored. 

Questions will be asked about the breakdown of information. The Beijing leadership was caught unprepared for the seriousness of the situation. Steps will be taken to better monitor and guide public opinion. People will be quickly reminded that Beijing is still very much in charge.

Ultimately the prosperity of Hong Kong depends on the goodwill of Beijing. Thanks to its support, Hong Kong remains a key gateway for business into and out of China. However Shanghai and Singapore are beginning to take over the shipping business and stock markets on the mainland are attracting the money that used to go to Hong Kong. Without Beijing support Hong Kong will wither until it becomes just another city in China.

Despite international coverage of the riots, on the Chinese mainland there is little information on what is happening in Hong Kong.

What a story!

‘I’m an Overseas Brit and a Sichuan country girl,’ says Audrey Donnithorne, now 97, in her autobiography, ‘In Life’s Foreground’.

I got to know Audrey in Hong Kong but hundreds of other people have met her in England, Australia, China and other parts of the globe. The index of her book references 525 of them and I was not even mentioned!

Audrey was lecturing on Chinese economics in Hong Kong when China re-opened in the 1980s and, having been born there, she was immediately interested in availing of opportunities to reengage. Her parents had been Anglican missionaries in Sichuan province but when she was studying in Oxford Audrey became a Catholic and a proud one at that.

She developed her own contacts on the mainland but also encouraged a group in Hong Kong, including Columban Fr Ned Kelly, to unite in founding an organisation to send Catholic teachers and other experts to China. Thus AITECE, the Association for International Teaching and Educational Exchange, was born.

Audrey’s autobiography details her adventures in numerous countries over 93 years. They begin at the age of four when she and her family were kidnapped by Chinese bandits. The final chapter is a forthright reflection on the state of the modern world from the decline of the British Empire to Brexit, war, divorce, contraception and same-sex marriage.

She was expelled from China in 1997 but continues her efforts for China in Hong Kong.

She promises another volume of her memoirs. What a lady!

It rains in China too!

Last week south China had serious floods effecting 11 million people. The scenes in Wuhan reminded me of 1931 and 1938 when the Yangtze overflowed.  I wrote about those disasters recently in the China book —  how the Columbans played their part in relief efforts though their own compound was flooded.

When the giant Three Gorges Dam was completed on the Yangtze in 2012 it was expected to stop the annual floods but nature has proved stronger.

The continuing floods may or may not be related to climate change, no one is talking about that yet.

China uses half of the world’s coal supplies and produces a quarter of climate pollution.

The government takes the situation seriously and plans to phase out coal by 2040. China is already the largest solar technology manufacturer.

However, despite the wide ranging climate policy, emissions will increase till 2030 and by then the world will be in an even worse state, from which it will be harder to recover.

People joke about ’blue skies and cold homes’ but in Wuhan, despite the Three Gorges Dams, they  still worry more about the annual floods.  

Photo 1 is of the flooded Columban compound in 1931 and No 2 is the recent floods in the same city.

AITECE Innovator

Yesterday the Dalgan chapel was full for the funeral of Fr John McGrath.

After 30 years of educational and administrative work within the Columban Society he was appointed, at the age of 59, to Hong Kong in 1989 and began his long wished-for ‘hands–on’  involvement in mission.

For nine years he was general manager of the then newly formed AITECE organisation which sent volunteer teachers and experts to Chinese universities. He saw this as a continuation of the Columban commitment to China.

Soon AITECE was sending English-speaking teacher from Ireland , the UK, Australia, the U.S., the Philippines and a number of other countries to China to develop person-to-person relationships and show that the West was supportive of China in its efforts to modernise. In return, those who went to China with AITECE learnt from bright and friendly university students that the West too had much to learn from a tradition which had kept respectful human relations at the heart of society.

In 1998, due to health concerns he moved from AITECE to pastoral work in Hong Kong and became the chaplain of the Catholic Center in Hong Kong Central, working with both locals and ex-patriates.  He finally had to return to Ireland in 2016.

News of his death will bring back happy memories for many AITECE teachers who passed through Hong Kong during his time there and the good relationships he build up with universities in China.

The Irish and China

To celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations with China, a new edition  of ‘The Irish and China’ has been published.

In his introduction, President Higgins points out the growing presence of Irish products in China: infant milk formula, Kerrygold, Dubliner cheese, Baileys and Jameson. 

Beyond that, a surprising number of people know about literary figures such as Joyce, performances like Riverdance and singers like Enya.

In return, how much do Irish people know about China?  

President Higgins hopes that the book will help us learn from each other about how to cope better with common problems we face.  The book is an effort in that direction.

I contributed the chapter on what Irish Missionaries did and learned. In the process I discovered more about the Irish Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican missionaries whose efforts began earlier than those of the Maynooth Mission to China (Columban Fathers, one hundred years ago) to involve Irish Catholics in what was happening in China.    

Does anything happening in China have relevance for today’s Ireland?

A society likes Ireland’s that is getting narrower and more self-complacent needs to keep in touch with wider realities and China with its size, distance and differences can supply that.

The future is in China

We are used to look to China for worthwhile ideas from its long cultural experience but now we can turn to it for a glimpse of the future.

One impressive phenomena in China is the society-wide use of WeChat —  a form of Facebook Plus.

You can use it to phone or message, to pay bills, to get credit, to transfer money and to buy almost anything. It is fast leading to a world where credit cards and cash are outdated. Face recognition is beginning to replace pin numbers and passwords.

However all the information and images provided voluntary are available to the government and assist it in knowing where everyone is and what they are doing.

Of course, this has social benefits beyond convenience and seemingly low cost. It helps to prevent crime and trace criminals. 13,930 jay-walkers were identified in Fuzhou City within ten months by using the face-recognition system. Whether jay-walking is seriously criminal can be debated but the same method will be used to discover who are attending meetings not sanctioned by the government.  For example, any group of more than three people praying in a place not registered for that purpose is illegal.  The same applies to political gatherings.

In countries like Ireland, so far it is mainly big business who benefit from the voluntary offering of personal information and images but China provides an example of what the future has to offer.

Another reason for taking an interest in what is happening there!