I have been spending my spring sabbatical in China.  As I am a sinologist, specializing in traditional Chinese poetry, there is nothing surprising in that, except that I have not been here since 1981, when I led a tour group for less than three weeks.  Most of my work has been that of the classicist, poring over poems in literary Chinese from the late Ming to early Ch’ing Dynasties (17th century), and the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), my periods of concentration.

My trip here was for the purpose of exploring the famed Yellow Mountains (Huang shan) of Anhui Province, one of the Creator’s most extraordinary productions, with stark granite cliffs displaying fantastically shaped rock formations, adorned by virtually the only vegetation, twisting pine trees that appear to be rooted in stone, protruding horizontally, vertically, and at every conceivable angle—peaks, rocks and pines known throughout China by such names as Heavenly Gate, Lotus Blossom Peak, The Pine Which Broke Through Rock, The Reclining Dragon Pine, The Roiled Dragon Pine, Bridge of the Immortals, The Hundred-Step Ladder Through the Clouds, Flew-Here Rock.  This last is an enormous boulder that stands on the very tip of a stony peak, unconnected with it in any way, as if placed there on purpose.

And then there are the mists and clouds, arising as if from below suddenly, unexpectedly, to burgeon forth and form the “Ocean of Cloud.”

Painters and poets have been inspired by these scenes for centuries.  And I am now translating into English a book by one of them, the painter-poet Wang Hung-tu (1646-1721/2), “Huang-shan ling-yao lu” (“A Record of the Realized Wonders of the Yellow Mountains”).  I also came upon, hidden away in the archives of the Anhui Provincial Museum, the extremely rare collected poetry of Wang Hung-tu, which includes this quatrain:

At the Summit of Lotus Blossom Peak,

Hearing Someone Playing a Flute, Sent

to Wang, Master of the Tao


That flute of jade, penetrating the void—

  which peak is it coming from?

It ripples into autumn waves,

  roaring in ten thousand pines!

I wish to ride the White Phoenix,

  soaring to blue Heaven,

Seeking there Prince Wang Tzu-chin,

  treading his immortal footsteps!

This is what the Yellow Mountains, and other venerated mountains, have meant for the Chinese for millennia: places where the transcendent may be felt, experienced, even achieved as it was by Wang Tzu-chin, a prince of antiquity, who is said to have ascended in broad daylight to become an Immortal (hsien-jen) in Heaven.  Such a poem is an appropriate gift and compliment to a Taoist practitioner also named Wang, himself striving to achieve immortality.

Is the desire for transcendence culturally relative?  Universal?  When the preeminent Christian missionaries to China, the Jesuits, arrived, beginning in the 16th century, they developed an understanding of Chinese civilization of such depth that they are now recognized as the pioneer sinologists.  And it became apparent to them that a yearning for transcendence was there.  A religious culture that already dreamt of ascension to Heaven, that named rock formations “Ladder Through the Clouds,” was ready to hear that such a Ladder actually exists, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Among the greatest successes of the Jesuits—specifically, of the Belgian Fr. François de Rougemont, S.J. (1624-76)—was the baptism, acceptance into the Society of Jesus, and ordination as one of the first Chinese Catholic priests of Wu Li (1632-1718), today recognized as one of the greatest painters in the history of Chinese art.  His works hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Kyoto National Museum in Japan, and in the Shanghai Museum here in China.  This last institution owns a masterpiece carrying an inscription, dated to 1676, the year of De Rougemont’s death, that refers to a “Mr. Lu from the Far West”—that is, De Rougemont, whose catechist Wu Li was.  This is probably the first reference to a Westerner in an inscription on a Chinese work of art.

Invited as a visiting scholar by Shanghai University, in April I delivered two lectures there in Chinese, one on the problems of translating Chinese poetry into English, and a second on Wu Li, as Shanghai University now has a center for the study of the history of Christianity in China, a topic of growing interest here among intellectuals.  The religion has grown by leaps and bounds among the population.

While on campus at Shanghai University, sitting by myself and reading in a grove of superb magnolias in full bloom, I was approached by a young couple who happened to be enjoying the magnolias and who were delighted to see me reading a Christian book, Mother Raphaela’s Growing in Christ (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).  And then an older gentleman came by and joined us.  All three of them identified themselves as Protestant Christians.  They had no idea who I was until I told them.  The old man gave me his blessing and actually showed up to hear my lecture two days later.

Such random encounters aside, I made it my business to visit three very different practicing churches while in China, all Catholic.  The first was the cathedral in Shanghai, originally dedicated to Saint Ignatius by the Jesuit founders, and part of the “Zikawei” complex (Chinese Hsü-chia hui, “The Hsü Family Water Confluence”).  This also includes the great Zikawei Library, an extremely important collection of materials relating to Christianity in Chinese, Latin, Greek, English, French, Italian, German, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Russian.  (The Chinese-language materials have now been deposited in the Shanghai Municipal Library, leaving only the Western-language materials at Zikawei.)  The library and its collection is now open to scholars again, and one of the leading scholars in this field, Ad Dudink, is soon to publish a complete catalogue of the Chinese titles.

The second church I visited was at the other end of the spectrum of public visibility, hidden away in a remote town in southeastern Anhui Province by the name of Shui-tung, “East-of-the-Waters.”  I had heard vaguely of this church, dedicated to the Virgin, but had no clear idea of how to find it.  Persuading a taxi driver to take me from the city of Hsüan-ch’eng to Shui-tung, I found myself deposited in an old-style Chinese market town, with hawkers selling fruits, vegetables, live fish, cuts of meat, herbs, as well as cheap clothes, belts, bottom-of-the-line cell phones (which everybody has), in a near-chaotic hubbub.  With a bad case of culture shock, compounded by a migraine headache, beginning to set in, I took refuge in a reasonably modern-looking office, an insurance business of some kind, and asked the young lady behind the desk if she had ever heard of a Catholic church in the town.  She immediately dropped everything, turned the office over to a coworker, and told me that she would escort me there personally, as I would never find it by myself.  This led to a further tour of even more labyrinthine cobblestone alleyways edged by miniature canals bubbling with water, past shops selling hand-carved wooden combs and other craft items, until, looming above a tiled wall just ahead, I saw the domed top of a church tower, bearing a large but delicately ornamented metal cross.  We were soon proceeding through an archway bearing the Chinese characters T’ien-chu t’ang, “Catholic Church” (literally, “The Hall of the Lord of Heaven,” this being the translation of Deus that the Jesuits considered the most appropriate after experimenting with various other options).  The compound we entered, and the church itself, were immaculate.  My hostess introduced me to two women in their 30’s, wearing lay clothing, who informed me that they were nuns.  I had seen Chinese nuns in full religious garb at St. Ignatius, but this was my first opportunity to speak with two of them.  They had a ferocious little dog chained to a tree who was there to “protect them.”  Leaving me in their hands, my hostess informed me she had to “get back to her work.”  Well, of course!  And I now was given a complete tour of the premises, shown the deserted residences of the Jesuits who once lived here, shown the nuns’ sleeping quarters (it was just the two of them residing there, each with her own room), as well as a huge monument topped by a cross and inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer in four languages: Latin, Chinese, English, French.  The presence of the last was explained by the fact that the church had been founded in 1870 by the French Jesuit Fr. Joseph Seckinger (1829-90), one of the French contingent of Jesuits who played the major role in China after the 1814 restoration of the Society of Jesus, which had been suppressed officially in 1773.  The resurgence of Jesuit activity in 19th-century China gave rise to the foundation of St. Ignatius and the Zikawei Library, but also to projects such as this remote provincial—and yet imposing and noble—church.  Father Seckinger, like so many of his compeers, had vowed to die in the land he had evangelized, and indeed he lies buried in Anhui Province, at a different location.  A statue of him on the church premises shows him wearing Chinese garb, which was often adopted by the Jesuits in China.

Pictures of Pope Benedict XVI were, to my amazement, in evidence.  And I might as well confess at this point that I unfortunately do not fully grasp the whole question of the current official status of the Catholic Church in China.  Yes, there is the so-called patriotic church, which is not allowed to recognize the Vatican, and presumably the churches I had visited so far, and the one I would soon visit, fall under that rubric.  Yet it is my understanding that the Vatican and the Chinese government remain in negotiation about the issues involved, and that the Pope has actually recognized some of the hierarchs in this “patriotic” church.  I must leave discussion of this complex situation to others better informed on the matter.

As it happens, I myself am a member of the Orthodox Church, a convert from (nonobservant) Judaism.  The same concern for “dual loyalties” that has primarily driven the government’s opposition to the true Catholic Church here has also led to the banning of the Orthodox Church, with the exception of one special parish in Hong Kong, which is allowed to function.  While in Shanghai, which was once a haven for White Russian refugees from the Bolshevik disaster, I tracked down the one remaining Orthodox church structure in that city, on Xinle Road.  The building was at one point turned into a restaurant; now it is simply shuttered and completely stripped of any indicators of religious or historical identity.  I did find one simple cross molded into the fabric of the exterior wall, above one of the rear entrances.  There are rumors that the building may be returned to the Orthodox Church, but I know nothing further of the matter.

The third of the three churches I visited was in Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui Province, and an ancient location of historical prominence.  Major events of the Three Kingdoms wars of the second and third centuries a.d. took place here, and are described in the popular 14th-century storyteller’s novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, now making a comeback along with other classical Chinese novels; new editions fill the shelves in all the bookstores.  But the Catholic church here, also dedicated to the Virgin, is hidden away in a rundown neighborhood, a completely nondescript building that cannot be more than 40 years old, and on weekdays gated shut and unmarked except for the two crosses atop the church itself and the entrance, as well as the inscription in bronze, “Catholic Church.”  I literally stumbled upon it, and was told by neighbors, selling their dumplings at little street stands, that people came only on Sunday.

So on the next Sunday I came.  And I entered the sizable nave to discover a packed house, standing-room only, and plenty of that.  The parishioners, perhaps 150 or more in number, were men and women of all ages.  Little children, high-school and college-age men and women, middle-aged, elderly.  Besides myself, there was one other white man among the standees.  He was one of three non-Chinese I have seen in two weeks here in Hefei.  The priest was delivering a sermon, a good one, on the falsity of the great emphasis on money in today’s China.  After this sermon, to which the congregation’s attention was complete, two large flat-screen TV monitors displayed in yellow Chinese characters the text of the Credo, and the congregation rose to its feet and recited it loudly, clearly, and with unmistakable intensity of feeling.

How authentic was this?  Was it all for show?  Was it a Potemkin Village of religiosity?  As just one man, with no expertise in this area, and a Christian whose practice of his religion, God knows, leaves very much indeed to be desired, I would say this: It was utterly authentic.  I was surrounded by true Christian piety.  Had I been in church in, say, Sweden or England or—how sad, Father Seckinger!—France, would the feeling have been the same?

Just before leaving the United States, I visited the Orthodox Holy Myrrh­bearers Monastery for nuns in Otego, New York, a remote, rural village.  At that absolutely authentic institution, headed by Mother Raphaela (whose book I would be reading in Shanghai), my wife and I joined in the daily services and helped the sisters take care of the sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, and oxen they raise.  The piety and felicity of the nuns were inspiring.  And when I was in Shui-tung, speaking with the two Chinese sisters there, I can only say that they impressed me with the same feeling.

Jacques Gernet, a renowned French sinologist, famously argued in his book Chine et christianisme, action et réaction (1982) that Chinese converts to Christianity, such as Wu Li, never really understood what they were converting to.  That is, the linguistic disparities between Chinese and Western languages compelled them to misunderstand; thus, Gernet has been a linguistic determinist, in the manner, if not of Wittgenstein, then of Sapir or Whorf.  Against Gernet, I argued in my book, Singing of the Source: Nature and God in the Poetry of the Chinese Painter Wu Li (University of Hawaii Press, 1993), that Wu Li and his fellow converts thoroughly understood what they were “getting into.”  As evidence, I cited the astounding poetry Wu Li wrote after his conversion—poetry written in classical Chinese forms such as the shih (symmetrical poem, same number of words per line throughout), the tz’u (“lyric”), and the ch’ü (“aria,” modeled on the sung portions of plays, and including “padding words” added to the basic pattern)—stating that the theology they articulated was entirely orthodox.  Perhaps Wu Li deserves the final word on this matter, through the medium of one of his “aria” poems, “To the Tune, Hsi ch’ien ying” (“Delighted With the Oriole Messenger,” a title identifying the pattern of line-lengths but having nothing to do with the content).  Wu dates Christ’s Incarnation to the “late Han Dynasty,” this dynasty having extended from 206 b.c. to a.d. 220, with the original Han having experienced a brief usurpation of power just before the time of Christ:

Late in Han

God’s Son came down from Heaven

To save us people

And turn us towards the good.

His grace goes wide!

Taking flesh through the virginity

 of the Holy Mother,

 in a stable He was born.

Joseph too came to present Him in the temple:

There to offer praise was


(They say He can)

Save our souls from their destructiveness

And sweep away the devil’s wantonness.