Economist and scholar used her skills and connections to humbly but actively support the rebirth of the Church in China

Michel Chambon Updated: June 12, 2020 10:29 AM GMT

Audrey Donnithorne had a unique gift to connect people, eras and civilizations. (Photo supplied)

As Covid-19 continues to affect people across the world, Professor Audrey Donnithorne quietly passed away in Hong Kong on June 9. Born in Sichuan in 1922 to evangelical Anglican Missionary parents, Audrey became not only a respected scholar specialized in the study of Chinese economy but also an extremely active and ecumenical figure of the Church who had a unique gift to connect people, eras and civilizations. Her passing calls for acknowledgement of her legacy and reflection on the role that laywomen play in the Church.

Although she was born in China, she spent much of her childhood in England to acquire a British education typical of the late imperial period. In April 1940, she traveled through France a few days before the Nazi invasion to spend three years with her parents in wartime China. It is during this stay that she converted to Catholicism. Back in London and having served at the Directorate of Military Intelligence of the War Office where her knowledge of China was already valued, she studied economics at Oxford University and met Margaret Roberts, later Thatcher.

After graduation, Audrey worked as a research assistant at University College London. In 1969, she moved to Canberra where she was soon appointed as head of the Contemporary China Center at the Australian National University. With this new geographic proximity and academic status, in 1973 she started to repeatedly visit the People’s Republic of China for academic reasons. These countless trips became unique opportunities to meet with an increasing number of local pastors, priests, nuns and bishops. Thus, Audrey was one of the first Westerners to reconnect with the Church on the ground and circulate across provinces.

Yet her growing scholarly focus on mainland China did not prevent her from traveling across Australia, Asia, the Soviet Union and Europe to the point of finding herself in Nazareth on the morning of Yom Kippur of 1973, the day that a coalition of Arab states attacked Israel. Her annual travels reflect her broad perspective on China, the Church and the world.

In 1985, at the age of 63, she retired from academia and moved to Hong Kong. In addition to becoming an honorary member of the Centre of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong, she started a new informal career as an ecclesial agent. She mobilized her numerous skills and connections to humbly but actively support the rebirth of the Church in China. 

As an elderly lady, Audrey regularly visited Christian communities in Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan. She played an essential role in gathering and circulating information, connecting people and institutions, and gathering funding. As a professional economist, she always remained pragmatic and attentive to the material autonomy of the Church.

Among the many projects she supported, Audrey set up an organization sending language professors to Chinese universities. In addition to favoring intercultural exchange and professional training, this platform also allowed Western missionaries to find teaching jobs in mainland China and reconnect with the young population. Well aware of her critical contribution, the Holy See and the Study Mission awarded her the Pro Ecclesia et Pro Pontifice medal in 1993. In 1995, she became an honorary member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP).

Nonetheless, in 1997, Audrey was expelled from mainland China. As she protested and asked for explanations, Chinese officials replied that she knew why. She answered that among her many sins she could not tell which ones they were referring to. Obviously, and as all her friends know well, she never lost her British sense of humor.

She remained well connected with authorities in China, Hong Kong and abroad. Thus, she continued to nourish an intense correspondence with a wide range of scholars, Protestant and Catholic clergy members, and political leaders. She arranged the publication of countless books and ecclesial materials as well as study abroad programs for many Chinese priests and nuns.  She continued to work closely with the Diocese of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Caritas and a vast number of congregations to meet the new needs of the Church in China. For example, after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, she set up a fund for the reconstruction of churches in her natal province.

Although her physical strength slowly declined, she kept a sharp mind and fun spirit until the very end. Affected by recurrent seasonal pneumonia, she died peacefully in Hong Kong among friends. For the record, most of her personal archives are at the library of the Paris Foreign Missions Society.  

To let Audrey conclude, I would like to return to her memoirs — a passage that she regularly highlighted:  

“Cultural continuity and traditional values are, at the time of writing, being trumpeted by China’s political leader, who simultaneously reiterates his party’s atheism. Yet surely, one of the most traditional of China’s concepts is that of ‘Tian’ — Heaven — sensed as the overriding and beneficent power of the universe. Nor, at any time in Chinese history, has a fiercer attack been made on traditional values and historic physical structures than that carried out, in the Cultural Revolution, through the instrumentality of the Communist Party or its offshoots.

“Another matter concerning China that has dogged the latter part of my life — the distinction, and confusion, between underground and above-ground Christians, especially Catholics in China — is not unconnected with the question of the significance of words in China which I discussed in the final chapter of my China’s Economic System and which I repeat here: ‘The Chinese have a sophisticated attitude to outward expression of opinion … words are regarded as symbolic counters, to be moved about the chessboard of life in order to produce the desired effect. This leads to reservations and subtleties of expression and action which need to be interpreted within the framework of the Chinese environment and which a stranger might not understand. There commonly lacks the sense of an obligation for words and beliefs, or words and actions, to correspond. While this phenomenon is certainly present in other cultures, it is not normally so strong as in China. It has the result that outward compliance is easily obtained but that an individual’s or a group’s ‘public face’ must not be taken as an indication of its ‘private face’. Thus, conformity though easily won is apt to remain superficial … sabotage need be none the less effective for being done in silence. Indeed, the more contrary to central government orders that local cadres are acting, the more loudly they may give verbal support to those orders.’ (Audrey Donnithorne, China’s Economic System, pp. 508-9). In the second (as yet unpublishable) part of my memoirs, I hope to take up this line of thought again.

“My own sentiment is that overmuch attention has been given, by observers of China, to formal definitions and wording in political and social contexts. Sometimes, situations are best left as accepted ambiguities, such, for example, as the ‘two Chinas’. As applied to religious matters, formal diplomatic relations might not necessarily benefit the Catholic Church, which might then lose its advantage among the Chinese people of being seen as at odds with a despised and disliked regime.

“The resumption of diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See will probably come eventually, but in God’s time, in this millennium or the next. Also, we must bear in mind that, perhaps, the greatest long-term danger to the Church in China may come not from government oppression but from government patronage and that, as in the fourth century West, the switch from one to the other might arrive with surprising speed. Such a development would be facilitated by any concession made by the Holy See to allow the Chinese government a role in the appointment of bishops. Meanwhile, the Church must continue to pursue its mission at ground level in the haziness of mortal view. Clarity may be necessary in certain areas of law and in natural sciences, but is sometimes best neglected, or at least not unduly worried about, in social and political — and, sometimes, with discretion, even in religious — matters.

“I often wish that the monsignori of the Secretariat of State, instead of spending time and effort on trying to re-establish diplomatic links with the Chinese government, would go out to the streets of Rome and look for any Chinese tourists who seem bewildered and offer to show them round the sights. On one of my last visits to Rome, in the 1990s, I noticed two young Chinese near St Peter’s, looking puzzled and consulting their guide book. I went up to them and, after their surprise that I addressed them in Chinese, asking if they would like to be shown round the basilica, they gladly agreed. Later, they gave me the address of their family firm in Shanghai where, a year or so afterwards, I called on them.

“There are now more opportunities to share the knowledge of the Incarnation with Chinese abroad rather than worrying over what the Church is unable to do in their homeland, although we should also try our best to help the local Church there. Let us remember that on the birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit descended on that prayerful gathering of believers, their immediate reaction was not to discuss how to deal with Caesar in the imperial capital, but to go out into the streets around them to speak both to the locals and to the visitors from overseas who were thronging the city.” (Audrey Donnithorne, China in Life’s Foreground, North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2019, pp. 413-415).

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