Saturday, May 25, 2024

Praying for China and the Chinese People

May 24th—the feast of Our Lady of Sheshan—was a very important day for the Chinese people, and this year in particular it was associated with the 100th anniversary of the first (and thus far the only) full Synod of Chinese Catholic Bishops in Shanghai, May-June 1924. Many initiatives were taken up at that Synod that helped Chinese Catholics to endure the waves of persecution that were soon to come after the Communist takeover and—especially—during the fanaticism and mayhem of the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976).

I have been studying the history and culture of China and East Asia every day for the past eight years. Other than a substantial collection of Asian "conversion stories" in my Magnificat column, I have published very little on the East Asian "world" even though I am convinced that it is particularly important for Westerners to learn more and appreciate more the values and experiences of the East. Media, transportation, and technology have brought us all suddenly, and in some ways uncomfortably, into the same global village during my own lifetime. We are all neighbors now, and we ought to know one another better.

In the overall research of my East Asian Studies Project, I continue to discover magnificent cultural heritages and profound and ancient achievements in literature and philosophy, poetry and pictorial art. I do not understand the miasma of the often-violent politics and the gigantic and jarring leaps of technological development in the Asia of my own time. This is especially true of China, controlled by a One-Party-State that has driven over a billion people through a blizzard of changes in living conditions, environment, and means of measuring wealth and human success.

The decade of the "Cultural Revolution" is the primary focus of my study. This is the "Red China" that was unknown and inaccessible during my time growing up in the '60s and '70s (except for the vague sense, which was never discussed, that my best friend and his family had somehow escaped from this dystopia and were living what appeared to me to be an "ordinary" American family life—more on this topic soon). But the historical landscape of the Cultural Revolution era is emerging through a flood of "memoir style" accounts that now-elderly Chinese are writing (or their children and grandchildren are writing from the accounts of their elders).

One overall impression strikes me: the period of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” and its after-effects up to Tiananmen Square and the wild ride of economic transformation that followed it have—I don’t know how else to put it—traumatized several generations of one-fifth of the world's population. Modern Chinese people, however much they might excel in particular areas of expertise—are ultimately “dazed and confused” and don't know what they really want in life. Needless to say, this is also true of the multitudes who still struggle to survive or find ways to “get ahead.” Yet they all live under a control-obsessed regime that prevents them at every turn from asking the questions they need to ask.

The Chinese are enduring an epoch of suffocation. Yet in the past 30 years, many are finding the opportunity and courage to tell their stories. They are stories of immense suffering and dissatisfaction. Women are among the most articulate and brutally honest of the memorialists (Jung Chang's Wild Swans from 1993 still grabs you by the throat). Most of these memoirs are not written by Christian believers, and they carry an apparently irresolvable pain.

I'll list some of the more striking memoirs that I have read soon. There are a few of these works that are almost unbearably hard to read. They are not always "edifying" or representative of a morally healthy response to suffering. But they are reflective, and they struggle with the path they have been forced to travel. They are not only the primary "archives" of a historical period in which a vast people were subjected to unparalleled chaos. They are also "appeals" to Westerners (consciously or unconsciously); they are "bridges" between East and West that we must also help to build. We must accompany them in their suffering and "co-suffer" with them in the compassion that the Lord makes possible in our hearts.

Maybe we are stuck in bed with our own pains and will never be able to teach, write, or make more widely known the suffering and need of these brothers and sisters. Maybe all we can do is grow within our own souls in compassion and solidarity with them. We can pray for them and co-suffer with them. Who knows what God might fashion out of our own weakness and incapacity, if we attend to the experience of others, hear their miseries, trust God, and struggle, long for, ask for ways to love?

So during this time, when I pray for the Church in China, I want also to move forth to pray for the whole of the Chinese people. I don't want to forget them.