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Laity, modern history need more study

More scholars and the internet mean chances to enhance Catholic studies

Ku Wei-ying makes keynote speech at the Chinese Catholic history symposium Ku Wei-ying makes keynote speech at the Chinese Catholic history symposium
  • ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
  • China
  • February 28, 2011
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Scholars studying the history of the Catholic Church in China agree that lesser-known figures such as lay faithful and Religious nuns, as well the 19th and 20th centuries, need more research.

History professor Ku Wei-ying of National Taiwan University believes now is the best time to do so.

As mainland China has become more open, the number of scholars studying Catholicism has significantly increased and many have also strengthened their abilities in foreign languages. The growth of the Internet has also greatly increased the amount of information available, he noted.

Ku’s comments came during a keynote address at a “Chinese Catholic Historical Figures” symposium organized by the Hong Kong Baptist University last week. Some 30 scholars from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan attended the event.

Reviewing the development of Chinese-language studies of Catholic history in China since 1980, Ku said last year was the most fruitful yet, with nearly 150 books, research papers and translated texts published.

Last year was the 400th anniversary of the death of Jesuit missioner to China Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). According to Ku, 20 percent of last year’s research papers concerned Father Ricci. This figure did not include papers in symposiums themed on him, he added.

Ku observed that topics were also broader and deeper in general. Besides Church history, some papers examined the Church in relation to the government’s religious policies, women’s issues, regional development and the establishment of sinology. Some scholars ventured deep into remote regions to study local Catholic cultures.

Father Louis Ha Ke-loon, the symposium moderator and archivist of Hong Kong diocese, said the symposium was a “small but beautiful” start focusing on people.

“Most studies have centered around cardinals, bishops or other key figures, but this trend is dangerous,” as the majority of Church members are the laity, especially women, including Religious women who devote themselves to various services, said the researcher from the Centre for Catholic Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

More research on the 19th and 20th centuries is also needed, though it could be awkward for mainland scholars who face ideological and political pressures, Father Ha said.

Chen Zhixiong, a mainland scholar at the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, agreed more research on laypeople will boost better understanding on the development of the China Church.

Research into Catholic history has become more vigorous in mainland China since the 1990s, because many universities have established research institutes on Christianity, Chen said.

However, most research has focused on the 16th-17th centuries. “There’s been little study on subjects after the 1920s, since this would likely involve looking at the Communist Party which was founded in 1921, he noted.

Chen Fang-chung from Taiwan’s Fu Jen Catholic University presented the only study on the laity at the symposium – the laity of the Southeastern Tcheli Apostolic Vicariate (today’s Cangzhou and Hengshui dioceses in Hebei province).

He detailed the growth in the Catholic population in the late 19th century by citing figures from a book written by a French priest, the only source he could find. He admitted he found it extremely difficult to collect useful data from Church archives or from field trips.

Citing his experiences, Chen said: “Rural Catholics are suspicious of strangers. They would likely ignore or report you to the authorities. Even if they are willing to talk, they would hardly tell the truth, especially dishonorable things such as apostasy by their ancestors during periods of religious persecution.

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