Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Pokfulam Christian Chinese Cemetery

I am not sure how many of you know, but I have been doing a brief radio segment once a week for RTHK 3, on Wednesdays or Thursdays for the excellent Sarah Passmore on her show, the Naked Lunch. Normally the content of the show, done on location and about the unique and peculiar history of a location or an idea it represents, is different from the material on the blog, but I thought I'd mention the show to all of you and to let you know about it. As a sample, I shall enclose the script I write before recording the segment (sometimes I don't use it, but did this week). Hope you find it interesting!
This week is Ching Ming, a traditional time when Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors and pay their respects, clean the graves, and make offerings for them in the afterlife. Ancestor worship, as many of us know, is a fundamental tenet of Confucian tradition and of Chinese cultural life. Today brings me to a rather interesting place – the Christian Cemetery in Pokfulam. Roughly 10% of Hong Kong’s population regard themselves as Christians. Much like non-Christian Chinese, cemetery visitors are much more in evidence during Ching Ming, and the flower vendors on Victoria Road appear to be doing a roaring trade. But here burnt offerings are not so much in evidence, due to differing visions Christian Chinese hold of the afterlife. It does bring up an interesting point though – at what point do rituals of ancestor respect end and ancestor worship begin?

It has been a question that has plagued Christian doctrine in China since the earliest days of contact with the West. It may even have engaged the minds of Nestorian Christians on the Silk Road during the Tang dynasty, although much less evidence exists for that. But for the Jesuits of Macau in the 16th century, it was a real problem, because the Christian idea that there was only one God had to be squared with the fundamental Chinese custom of praying not only for, but also to, one’s ancestors.

Their solution was simple – seeking first and foremost a large volume of converts, they leniently tolerated the practice of what they called ‘ancestor veneration’ as simply a cultural idiosyncrasy. In fact, Jesuits like Matteo Ricci embraced the Confucian classics wholeheartedly, and wowed the Chinese literati with his ability to recite those texts both forwards and backwards. Overall, the vision of the Jesuit mission in China was to impress upon the Chinese how compatible Christianity was with their own culture. Certainly many Chinese agreed, and became converts in the late Ming and early Qing dynasty. Even the Kangxi Emperor initially saw the Christians as a force for good and it is said even became a convert himself.

But trouble was brewing back in Rome. By the 17th century, the more orthodox Dominican Order became infuriated with the Jesuit success in converting Chinese on the back of this cultural tolerance. They were particularly aggrieved by the allowance of Chinese ancestor worship, which they felt was totally incompatible with the belief in one God. You have to remember, that this was the time of the Counter-Reformation, and was not a time of great tolerance for the Catholic Church in Europe.

The battles between the Jesuits and the Dominicans became so fierce that they once erupted into a pitched battle between the sects in Macau, with the Dominicans under siege in their own church at the far end of the Senado Square. The Jesuit commander, on ordering the attack on the Church of St. Dominic, reportedly said: “Genuflect, and fire!” But while the Jesuits were dominant in China, the Dominicans grew strong at home, and eventually got the Pope to condemn ancestor worship as incompatible with Christianity. The Pope also insisted that Chinese coverts use the Latin word for God – even though ‘Deo’ did not sound like a Supreme Deity to Cantonese ears. Emperor Kangxi was outraged and threw out all Christian missionaries for being so stubborn. If the Jesuits had their way, perhaps Ching Ming as we know it might have been entirely different…


Anonymous said...

I found your blog while speaking to my mother about the location of my grandparents graves. They are buried in the Christian Chinese Cemetery, Dr and Mrs HJ Shu. He was a medical doctor, trained in Scotland, and practiced in Wuhan and Hong Kong. She was trained in piano at Stauton, Virginia. Their fathers were both educated in the USA. I never met my grandparents nor visited Hong Kong.

Anonymous said...

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