The first Vincentian arrived in China in 1699, sent by Propaganda Fide, the Roman Congregation with responsibility for Missions worldwide. He was asked to start a seminar for Chinese priests; the initiative was derailed by unrelated controversies about missionary methodology raging among the missionaries at the time. For the next 30 years or so there were a few individual Vincentians in China, some of whom were very colourful characters, but there was no collective presence.
In 1785, the Congregation took over all former French Jesuit Missions in China. The mission was greatly hampered by the effects of the French Revolution but by the latter half of the 19th centuries, the work was well established. The involvement of Irish Vincentians to dates from the arrival of Fr X Moloney in 1871. The Irish Vincentians were among the promoters of a new missionary awareness which became important in Ireland in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1919, at a request from the vicar Apostolic in Peking, they took over an historical Beijing parish. The Japanese invasion of China, the World War and the Chinese Civil War unrest made the development of the mission difficult. In 1949, the communist regime, made it clear that foreign missionaries were unwelcome and took active steps to frustrate their pastoral work. In 1953, the last Irish Vincentian left China.
In 1994, aware of a new mood in China, the then Superior General Fr. Robert Maloney CM, appealed for volunteers for a new outreach to the Chinese people. The original group of volunteers included one Irish Vincentian, Fr. Joseph Loftus CM. For three years, Fr. Loftus taught English in Beijing. Later, he worked with local charities to advise them on fundraising and organisational management. Most recently in 2007, he set up an NGO specifically to help small rural charities have access to the fundraising opportunities if the internet.
To learn more about the Irish Province’s work in China click here
A WORD FROM CHINA
Mr. Wang Hong Feng does not look like a dancer. His less than lithe form suggested a sedentary occupation, but he was presented, rather incongruously, as the lead of a trio who would perform a traditional dance. Mr. Wang clearly did not share my reservations and he stood waiting for his cue with the high seriousness of a Nureyev. On cue, he began to move in recognizable but “free” interpretation of the traditional gestures associated with Beijing Opera. A purist might object, but he was actually graceful even if the links to the opera were tenuous at best. His companions, clearly used to his style, gave him as much room to maneuver as the restricted space allowed and he made maximum use of the opportunity. It wasn’t exactly art, but he was obviously enjoying himself and his mood was infectious. Later Mr. Wang returned to the stage in a moving interpretation of an Aesop’s Fable relocated, I kid you not, to a Spanish bull ring. Dressed as bull, Mr. Wang, with extraordinary pathos, portrayed the pain of the cruel sport, and, after a miraculously recovery from bullfighter’s presumably fatal sword thrust, expressed his forgiveness in an embrace that almost caused injury to his former assailant. By the end of the performance there was not a dry eye in the house.
Mr. Wang would not belong at the tightly choreographed Opening Ceremonies, but fits in rather more easily on a makeshift stage hardly a stone’s throw from the Emperor’s Palace. That he has a place like this at all is a small success, since community based services are not the norm in China. The default provision mode is highly institutional and services which allow special people to lead ordinary lives are still cutting edge here. Mr. Wang is one of troupe of special people who come to a day care center, Huiling, in central Beijing. The rather confined courtyard home behind the Forbidden City, does not, from the outside suggest a ground breaking day-care for adult women and men with learning disability. In fact, this home provided the kind of environment where Mr. Wang and his 14 companions can thrive as performance artists, when society would rather they did not exist at all. Here, Mr. Wang, who looks to be in his mid-thirties, can draw pictures which he sells, make traditional Chinese bead work, learn to make visits to shops and above all to be a performer. He carries himself as one aware that he is an actor and Huiling, if not the Bird’s Nest, is his stage.
Mr. Wang’s performer’s heart did not, I imagine unlock easily. I expect it took some time for him to learn the dance steps that he later abandoned again like the creative professional he is. His moving evocation of a bull’s torment, suggested someone had coached and directed him with infinite patience and inventiveness. The self-effacing women and men who work at Huiling did not say, but it is obviously not easy and the there are no Gold Medals for the performance they have coaxed from their reluctant “clients”.
Liming is inspired by one woman’s Catholic Faith, tried in an ongoing furnace, (keeping Liming going in contemporary China is not easy). Something of that Faith caught my attention while there. Perhaps it was the Madonna and Child picture in a discrete corner of the room that nudged me in new direction but, as I came away, instead of feeling, about the plight of these “those people”, only a predictable, fluffy paternalism; I felt rather a simple and unexpected pride in the achievements of my brother, the dancer, Mr. Wang.