The state of religion and the religion of the State.
It is strange to be standing in front of it: the huge painting of Chairman Mao that dominates one end of the famous Tianemen Square in the center of Bejiing. I have seen that image so many times in the news, as China parades its military hardware and missiles in front of it, or when new leaders ascend to power and are seated in a place of honor right below it, or most famously when students mounted a rebellion against the government and a one brave young man refused to give way to a column of tanks as Mao looked on benignly from his portrait.
On the opposite side of the square is the mausoleum that houses Mao’s preserved body under glass. I wondered what made it seem so familiar, and then I realized that it reminded me of a modern-day version our own Lincoln Memorial in Washington. I also wondered if such preservation technology had been available in 1776, would George Washington be enjoying a similar place of honor, wooden teeth and all?
Mao of course is not the only one who has been preserved. Vladimir Lenin has his own mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, and so does Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang is the final resting place of North Korean leaders Eternal President Kim Il-Sung and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il, father of the present leader Kim Jong Un. (If his father’s preserved body wasn’t enough, the mausoleum also displays the train in which he died, his yacht, an armored car and his Apple Mac computer.) Mao apparently wanted to be cremated, but it was more important for the State to make him a secular saint and an icon of the revolution.
The obvious parallel to this Communist memorialization is the display of preserved bodies of saints in the Catholic Church. At one time, it was considered one of the necessary miracles toward sainthood, and there are churches all over the world (including in Washington Heights in Manhattan) where bodies rest for all to see under glass altars. But recently the body of Saint Pope John XXIII was given the honor of a glass casket after his body was exhumed, found to be in relatively good shape, and then subjected to special chemical baths to keep him going (maybe) forever.
I got to the mausoleum early—at 7am---and went through an incredibly rigorous and scary inspection of my temporary travel document, and my entire body. The young man who searched me with an electronic want patted me down in every possible area, and I felt as though I was being prepared for a prison stay. The guards were not at all friendly, and there were many different kinds: soldiers, police of many uniforms, plain clothed officials in black suits who were probably most threatening-looking of all. We had to check everything, including our phones (hence no pictures from my camera!). And it was a long wait…probably about an hour and a half. There were some people in line who were tourists like myself, but mostly they were Chinese, and many of them older. Many brought flowers or other remembrances, and left them at a spot designated by the authorities. Many were extremely emotional. I watched multiple people begin to cry as we were eventually ushered into the room with the glass casket.
Mao looked like one of those Madam Tussaud wax figures that don’t look exactly real, but vaguely like the pictures of the celebrities you’ve seen in various media. I suspect there may even be some wax coating as part of the preservative process. Or maybe it’s not him at all.
And maybe Mao won’t be glorified in such a way forever. Joseph Stalin’s body—on display next to Lenin-- was eventually buried in the Soviet Union after the political establishment acknowledged his brutality towards his own people. Mao certainly had his critics. His Great Leap Forward in 1958 is considered to have caused the Great Chinese Famine (everything is great here). In the latter part of his leadership (1966), he launched the Cultural Revolution, in an attempt to preserve communist ideology and purge remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. According to Wikipedia, millions of people were persecuted in the violent struggles that ensued across the country, and suffered a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, hard labor, sustained harassment, seizure of property and sometimes execution. A large segment of the population was forcibly displaced, most notably the transfer of young people from the cities to work in rural farming fields. In fact, given all that, it’s a little surprising that he was so honored in the mausoleum at the time of his death. In 1981, the Party declared that the Cultural Revolution was "responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People's Republic.”
Mao’s secular sanctification brings to mind the state of religion in China and the religion of the State that has dominated the lives of its people since 1949. In my wanderings around Bejiing—I walked 67 miles these last four days—I came across two churches, both Catholic. One was named St Michael’s and it was a few blocks from Tianemen Square, on a street that originally was home to many foreign embassies ( pre-Mao.) St Michael’s belonged to the French delegation to China, and was the last church built by missionaries in Bejiing.
The other church was a very exciting discovery for me. It is called South Church (there is apparently also a North Church) and it was the successor to the church where the Jesuit Matteo Ricci lived in the early 17th century. He is someone who has long fascinated me. Ricci was one of the early Jesuits who, like Francis Xavier, left behind his Italian roots to bring Christianity to China. He became the first European to enter the Forbidden City in Bejiing in 1601 when invited by the Wanli Emperor, who sought his selected services in matters such as court astronomy. He learned to read, write and speak Chinese, and he greatly appreciated the Confucian values he saw in the people of China. It is Ricci who I often cite when I try to explain the word “jesuitical”–it’s a real word, meaning deceptive or tricky. Ricci so respected the Chinese and their culture that he chose to live exactly like them, discarding his Roman clothing chose to dress like the Chinese to whom he ministered. Is that a sneaky way to infiltrate a culture? Maybe, but I have often had to explain why present-day Jesuits (including me) do not always wear clerical clothing and practice secular work alongside their religious duties.
With Mao’s ascent and banishment of religious practice, an underground Catholic Church survived at some peril to its practitioners. I am not sure how other religious institutions fared after the revolution—Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist—but in more recent times the government decided that it would allow the practice of faith under strict scrutiny. For Catholics, that meant that that government would choose the Chinese bishops. The Vatican, of course, was not willing to cede that kind of control to the secular authorities. But in recent years, there has been some compromise, and apparently the bishop who oversees the Ricci church is approved by both the government and the Vatican.
I went into that church, and it is clearly not prospering. The interior is pretty shabby: peeling paint, improvised decorations, worn floors. Many of the weekday and weekend Masses are in Latin, several in Chinese (not sure which language), and there is an English Mass on Sundays with the bible readings in French. I got the feeling that it is a church of very old people, and very traditional Catholics. It’s almost as if time stopped for this church in 1949, and that it is holding onto a pre-Vatican model. I’m not sure how attractive it would be for young people in China today.
Sundays are clearly not church days for most Bejiing-ers. I saw many people enjoying their day off in parks—dancing, playing board games, doing group exercises, playing ping-pong, and even mounting a climbing wall. Everything seemed to be open, and actually many things were closed on Monday (including Mao’s mausoleum).
What must it be like to grow up in such a secular world? What stories do younger Chinese invest in to explain the age-old questions about our identity and purpose, where we come from, and the end that we are all facing? How do they explain human suffering and the apparent evil that is in the world? What moral framework do they use to go about their days and nights?
I tried to engage my ‘chauffer’ and friend Bill with some of these questions, but I couldn’t get very far. When he asked me if I had a wife and/or children, he didn’t understand what I was saying about being a priest. I used a translator app to try to explain it, and he seemed to lump me in with the Buddhist monks, which I guess makes sense. He put his hands together and bowed to indicate that I must be like them. What followed was a pretty hilarious conversation in which I attempted to ask him what he believed in, where we go when we die, etc.. His English is not great (he kept telling me that my English was excellent), and suddenly we were talking about fast cars, how much he would like to visit America, and girls—all somehow in answer to my burning questions about life and death. I wish I could have had a real conversation with him about such things, but I guess that will have to wait until artificial intelligence machines allow us to have instant and simultaneous translations, which may be just a couple of years down the road.
But in some ways I think that a lot of young people in our nation are on the same page as their Chinese peers. Many like to think that America is a Christian nation, but I wonder where that is all heading. The Catholic Church in America surely has more vitality than in China, but I have observed my own students (the majority of them from Catholic families) who do not see the institution of the Church as relevant to their lives. Do they follow a Christian moral framework? Probably, and it often boils down to the golden rule. But I do not think that many of them really buy the divinity of Jesus, nor have they any experience of a relationship with him.
For a believer, it doesn’t matter so much these days what others believe. The missionaries of old are over. To each his own. What a difference from the world of Matteo Ricci and Francis Xavier, who were on fire with the deep conviction that the world needed a savior---and not one under glass.