The full, online, digital edition of the UK’s best Catholic weekly, The Catholic Herald, has some excellent pieces this week. I found this one particularly engaging, giving my penchant for Chinese cinema.
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China awaits its Waugh
The next great Catholic novelist will come from Beijing, says Roy Peachey
Mo Yan, the 2012 Nobel Prize winner, rarely mentions Christianity in his books, but his 1996 novel, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, opens with a Swedish missionary looking at a stained painting of the Virgin and Child. We soon discover that it is not just the picture that it is stained: the pastor himself has been having an affair with one of the villagers and, when the Japanese invade, he commits suicide by throwing himself off the church tower, leaving his former lover to care for their two illegitimate children.
Such a portrayal of the foreign missionary as an alien and destructive presence is not unusual in Chinese Leftist literature. Both the missionary and, by extension, his Protestant or Catholic religion, offer nothing that cannot be better supplied by China and the Chinese.
But there is another story, not heard so often in the West, in which Christianity is a powerfully influential and positive force. Christianity, like Buddhism, may be a foreign religion, but it is one, as the Chinese scholar Chen Weihua recently argued, that has helped change Chinese literature out of all recognition in the 20th century.
This fascination with Christianity, and often specifically with Catholicism, has continued into the 21st century. In recent years several writers, including Liu Enming, Yiwen and Su Liqun, have written novels about Jesuit missionaries to China, while Hua Zi’s biography of Mother Teresa, Walking in Love, is not only a bestseller but is now required reading in schools from Shanghai to Guangdong.
One of the most unusual short stories with a Catholic theme to have appeared in recent years is Alex Kuo’s The Catholic All-Star Chess Team in which a group of Catholic schoolchildren take on the Governor of Hong Kong’s chess team. Despite being underdogs, they lose only after Billy Graham
is expelled from the venue for whistling “Onward, Christian Soldiers” too loudly and after one of their players, Teresa Avila, starts to levitate towards the end of her match.
More striking even than this story has been the return of the committed Christian novelist. One of the leading figures of the Chinese avant-garde, Bei Cun, converted in 1992 and has since written a number of novels in which his Protestant faith looms large. Another convert from atheism, this time to Catholicism, is Fan Wen, who has written a trilogy of novels about Tibet centred around the Tibetan Catholic village of Yanjing. Rejecting magic realism in favour of what he calls “divine realism”, Fan Wen has achieved both popular and critical success, with the People’s Daily choosing Dadi Yage (or “Canticle to the Land”) as one of its top five novels of 2010.
A Chinese turn to Christianity can also be seen in recent films by some of China’s big-name directors. The Flowers of War, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale, is set in and around a Catholic church during the Japanese destruction of Nanjing in 1937. Based on a novella by Yan Geling, the film portrays the plight of Chinese Catholic schoolgirls and a group of prostitutes, all of whom seek shelter in the church and some of whom, in a boldly Christian gesture, lay down their lives to save the others.
What is particularly striking about this film is the way in which Zhang Yimou sidesteps Yan Geling’s crude stereotyping of the priests in her novella and provides instead a much more sympathetic impression of Catholicism in China.
Zhang Yimou is not the only director to present Catholicism in a broadly positive light. Feng Xiaogang’s most recent film, Back to 1942, which has just been released in China following a premiere in Rome, features an American journalist and a Catholic priest (played by Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins respectively). The priest, based on Thomas Megan, the Bishop of Sinsiang, who witnessed the 1942 famine in Henan, during which three million people died, is a far cry from Mo Yan’s missionary pastor.
Feng is no hagiographer. In his 2008 romantic comedy If You Are the One the main character spends so long confessing his sins that the priest falls asleep in the confessional. This makes his positive portrayal of Bishop Megan all the more interesting.
What we see in contemporary Chinese literature and film, in other words, is not rampant anti-Catholicism but something much more complex and nuanced. The position taken by individual writers varies enormously, but overall there is a fascination with religion in general and Christianity in particular that might surprise many readers in
This is not to suggest that the Church in China has no problems, but what Chinese literature can show us is that the situation is neither as simple nor as bleak as an examination of Church politics might lead us to believe.
The good news is that there is still more to come. We only need
to look at South Korea to see what potential is unrealised in China.
If Claudia Lee Hae-in, a Korean Benedictine nun, can sell more than two million copies of her most recent poetry collection and if Kyung-Sook Shin, another Catholic author, can win the Man Asia Literary Prize and sell over two million copies of her novel, Please Look After Mother, what sort of impact might Chinese Catholic writers still be able to make on world literature?
Roy Peachey is a teacher at Woldingham School