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Jesus in China

A California priest is helping replace stained-glass windows at a Shanghai cathedral smashed during the Cultural Revolution. They abound with Chinese imagery.

July 16, 2006|Adam Minter | Adam Minter is a writer based in Shanghai. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, ARTnews, the Rake and West.

The windows below will be filled with slightly darker glass depicting saints as well as historical figures important to both the Jesuits and the Chinese Church--St. Ignatius, for example, and Matteo Ricci, a revered Jesuit missionary from Italy--and will use painted stained glass in a manner that suggests traditional Chinese ink painting and washes, not the European figurative designs usually invoked by painted glass. "Nobody has ever done that before in China," Lucas says.

At ground level, the cathedral is defined by 11 small chapels that surround the nave. Each chapel contains four three-panel, lance-shaped windows that depict the life of Christ in a distinctly Chinese way. Inspired by the Chinese folk art tradition of paper cutouts, the images include figures that, in both clothing and facial features, are neither Western nor Chinese. The paper-cut styling represents a fundamental departure: Elsewhere in the cathedral, and throughout China's Catholic churches, liturgical art is clearly Western in style, and Jesus is a blond.

"We wanted Christ's life to be in dialogue with aspects of Chinese culture," Lucas says. And so the bottom panels are engraved with Chinese calligraphy, explaining the gospel scenes in the middle panels. The real action is in the upper panels and the quatrefoil windows that are set between them, where Chinese icons complement, and comment upon, the life of Christ.

A delicate blooming lotus, for example, supplants the lily that traditionally signifies Mary in the West, and a Chinese abacus accompanies a scene of Jesus and the money changers. An extraordinary curled phoenix, meanwhile, represents the resurrected Christ. These first windows, built over two years, cast shadows that grow lighter in color as they progress toward the altar, even on cloudy days.

By contemporary standards, Wo and Lucas are pursuing a radical program, but measured against Catholic history in China, their work picks up a conversation begun in 1582, when Ricci, the missionary, arrived in southern China. Instead of using coercive, Eurocentric methods to create converts, he undertook a careful, decades-long study of Chinese language and culture in the hope of convincing the highly educated members of the imperial court that his religion complemented Chinese culture and tradition, that Catholicism's message truly was universal.

Ricci won few converts but earned the friendship of leading Chinese scholars, including a Shanghai aristocrat named Xu Guanxi. After Ricci's death, Xu advanced Ricci's idea of Chinese Catholicism by, among other actions, advocating the use of Chinese names for God and allowing Chinese ancestor veneration alongside Catholic rites. But then, in the early 1720s, Emperor Yongzheng banned Catholicism.

It wasn't until the mid-19th century that Jesuit missionaries began to return to Xu family land near Shanghai. Over the years, the area, known as Xujiahui (literally, "property of Xu family at the junction of two rivers"), developed into an enormous, mostly Jesuit, Catholic campus encompassing universities, high schools, convents, seminaries, churches and--beginning in 1905--a red brick cathedral called St. Ignatius.

"In my youth my cathedral was beautiful," recalls Shanghai's bishop, 90-year-old Aloysius Jin Luxian, whose fourth-story office overlooks the cathedral and a chaotic shopping district. "Filled with color."

When Jin was young, China's Catholic Church was very much a European Catholic Church in its religious--though not political--practices, and it remained so until the mid-'80s. The first Mandarin Chinese Mass wasn't celebrated until 1989.

So nobody should have been surprised when, two years ago, just after the installation of the first nave chapel at St. Ignatius, one of the most senior of Shanghai's priests wrote a multi-point attack decrying aspects of the new windows as pagan.

"The great irony and cosmic joke of this whole thing is being the running dog of Western imperialism, a Vatican-affiliated Jesuit," Lucas says. "Telling the Chinese that they need to be more Chinese while the Chinese are saying no, no, we want to be more European."

The rise of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 ultimately ended Catholic Xujiahui. In the anti-imperialist purge, foreign priests and nuns, including the Californians, were detained, occasionally beaten and eventually deported. Worse fates, including torture, imprisonment and death, awaited China's native clergy and leaders. As a young priest, Bishop Jin was sent to prison for 27 years. Churches were closed, vandalized and turned into commercial enterprises. In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, St. Ignatius' towers were toppled and its stained glass was shattered by Red Guards.

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