Monday, June 29, 2009

Indian Elephants And Jesuit Missionaries

China has five thousand years of history...That we all can agree upon.

But what about the roles, for good or for bad, that foreign influences have played in China's march through the centuries?

As we have moved around the country, much of the emphasis at historical sites has been on the humiliation China suffered at the hands of the British, French, Japanese, and others in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent period of civil war.

While not denying these painful episodes in China's history, it has always struck us that the contributions of foreigners to China's evolution often go under reported, at least in mainstream outlets like textbooks and tour guides. But, then, just when you think such stories are not being told at all, you stumble upon a place like Wuta Si (Five Pagoda Temple).

This Tibetan-style temple, dating to the 1400s, is full of some excellent relief carvings, some of the best (I think) we have seen, certainly in Beijing. Many of these carvings depict elephants and other subjects that serve as vivid reminders that Buddhism itself is an import, courtesy of China's Indian neighbors.

Moving away from the towers, you quickly cannot help but notice that the grounds are covered with dozens of huge stones. Some of these stones, not surprisingly, are steles documenting administrative matters, such as the building of roads and bridges. Others, though, are graced with crosses and writing in, of all languages, Latin. These stones are grave markers of Jesuits who died while doing missionary work in China. No, there are no Jesuits buried on the grounds of this particular Buddhist temple! These tombstones, along with many other relics, have been relocated to what doubles as the home of the Beijing Stone Carving Museum.

And just how are the Jesuits remembered at this particular location? As you can see, lurking below the mainstream resentment of foreign entanglements is the kind of appreciation you can find, if you get lucky or look hard enough...

Tombstones of the Jesuits displayed in this place were originally erected in the graveyard of Zhengfu Temple in Beijing. The society of the Jesus was a sect of the Religious Orders and Congregation of the Catholicism. Visiting China during Ming and Qing dynasty, the Jesuits not only did missionary work, but also brought China the modern scientific knowledge and took the ancient Chinese civilizations and sciences to Europe.

~Steve

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