FAKE CHRISTMAS IN THE LAND OF SHAOLIN TEMPLE
CHINA, DECEMBER 29, 2006 (STAR) By Wilson Lee Flores (Oh, look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food and beer. Ė Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes)
(I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. Ė Charles Dickens)
KAIFENG CITY, Henan province, China (December 24, 2006) No, Iím not disparaging the consumerism of Christmas here in modern China; todayís title was suggested by New Jersey-born college student Stephanie Wan and refers to celebrating this Christian holiday in a non-Christian nation populated mainly by Buddhists, Taoists and ruled by an efficient but still officially atheist Communist government. The Chinese-American student told me of reading about "Fake Christmas in Japan" and of how a business in Japan once put up a Santa Claus figure crucified on a cross as their ludicrous promo stunt.
Yes, Iím in Henan province, visiting the ancient Shaolin Temple where world-famous kung fu or wushu was invented by disciplined, vegetarian Buddhist monks who fought fearlessly to uphold social justice and righteousness. Yes, this non-religious guy misses Christmas in the Catholic Philippines, and I wonder if I can find any Christians here in a real church so I wonít feel guilty about spending this religious holiday on a leisurely vacation.
Unexpectedly, due to my journey from east China and passing by Kaifeng, I rediscovered the inspiring saga of a great and widely respected Christian scholar who introduced to this country the study of trigonometry Ė Italian Jesuit mathematician and scientist Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J. I remember hearing his name from Ateneo de Manila University President Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, SJ, himself a Jesuit mathematician. Fr. Nebres recounted his visit to the tomb of Ricci in Beijing during an international math conference there. Wow, I didnít think Christians had been in China as early as the 1600s, or that Matteo Ricciís tomb would still be intact, after what China suffered through the Western Opium Wars, Japanese invasions and the horrific leftist Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.
I heard a very interesting story here in Kaifeng, recounting Matteo Ricciís own search for Christians in China four centuries ago. Ricci was astounded to have met a Kaifeng City Jew named Ai Tiíen in the year 1605. The Kaifeng Jew Ai Tiíen was then in Beijing hoping for an imperial appointment as official after having passed the imperial civil service exams for Mandarins. The Jew learned of a small band of Europeans who believed in one God and were building a church. Many Chinese then believed in numerous gods, such as the Taoist faith and other religions, so a one-God faith was unique.
Though most educated Chinese thought the European Jesuits who believed in one God were Muslims, Ai thought and hoped that they might be Jews like himself. When he visited the Jesuit church, he thought it was a Jewish synagogue and he mistakenly thought Ricci was its rabbi. When Ai introduced himself, Matteo Ricci was overjoyed to finally find a Chinese Christian in this empire and he greeted the Kaifeng Jew with open arms.
Coincidentally, Ai Tiíen visited Ricci at the church during the feast day of St. John the Baptist, with Ricci kneeling in front of a painting of Mary and the infant Jesus near the altar together with another painting of a young St. John. The Jewish visitor mistakenly thought the paintings were of Rebecca and her sons Jacob and Esau, so he also knelt, although this was not part of the Jewish tradition. When he saw a mural of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, he asked Ricci if they were four of the 12 sons of Jacob and if so, where were the other eight sons? When the misunderstanding was cleared up, the Jesuit realized that instead of finding a Chinese Christian, his guest was actually a Chinese Jew from the former imperial capital city of Kaifeng. Have We Forgotten True Essence Of Christmas? Not only did Matteo Ricci discover a small community of Kaifeng Jews dating back to the eighth century due to Jewish traders plying the fabled Silk Road through Persia and India, he received an invitation from the aging and sickly chief rabbi of Kaifeng to come to this city to serve as his successor and new chief rabbi. The isolated Jewish community of Kaifeng had never heard of Christians before, or of Jesus Christ, so the old rabbi had actually believed that Matteo Ricciís tale about the arrival of the Old Testamentís promised Messiah on Christmas 1,600 years ago through a certain person Jesus Christ was just his forgivable personal idiosyncrasy. The bemused chief rabbi wrote Matteo Ricci, expressing surprise at how a scholar of Ricciís high education could believe the Messiah had already arrived here on earth when it was universally known that he would come after 10,000 years. In short, the chief rabbi in Kaifeng never believed there was such a thing as Christmas.
Of course, the chief rabbi and Ricci couldnít come to an agreement on this new job offer, and the Jews of this city over the centuries lost their religious identity partly due to lack of contact with other Jewish communities. Tragically, the pioneering work of Matteo Ricci to bring Western science and other knowledge to Chinaís elite and his hopes of converting China to Christianity were sabotaged when politicking by other Western Catholic missionaries caused the Vatican to ban the Jesuitsí wise acceptance of Confucian ancestor worship rites as positive moral and social traditions. Emperor Kangxi retaliated by banning Catholic priests from his empire starting in 1706 Ė exactly 300 years ago Ė if they didnít follow Ricciís example of accepting Confucian rites.
Because of this tragic interruption of the European Jesuitsí work, China has since largely been untouched by Christian missionaries. Where are the few Christians in China today, and how do they fare in this still officially atheist state that is racing towards economic superpower status?
Yes, Iím now in Kaifeng, going to Luoyang, Xian, Hanzhong, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guiyang, Guilin, Changsha, Wuhan, Hefei, Hangzhou and Shanghai to visit historic sites of great poets, generals and emperors as well as to observe the vibrant modern-day businesses. Yes, Iím almost like the Italian Jesuit Ricci, looking for fellow Christians here. Yes, this non-religious person misses Christmas in the Philippines. However, when I see the commercialism of this holiday here in non-Christian societies like China, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan or even Dubai, I wonder whether we arenít ourselves complicit in forgetting the real Christian essence of this season.
What is the true meaning of this holiday? Isnít Christmas truly about the humble birth of Jesus Christ to a poor carpenter and his young wife inside a stinking stable on a cold night 2,006 years ago; of his voluntarily giving up supreme glory to sacrifice himself for us, and about the need for our true personal transformation in response to this magnificent but totally undeserved gift?
Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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