China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2014/Mar

But where do you see the face of God?

This is a story told through a painting, a largely overlooked work among the vast collection of The Field Museum in Chicago (Catalogue No.116027).

It is a Chinese scroll and portrays a lady dressed in a pale robe holding a child. At first glance, it may be a portrait of the white-robed Guanyin (Buddhist figure of compassion, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara), which in popular Chinese culture took on a female form.

But Guanyin is more often depicted as a solitary figure and there is no pictorial tradition of Guanyin holding a child carrying a book.

We can tell by his clothing, the lock of hair and the stitched-bound book that the child is Chinese. He is dressed in red and is looking affectionately at the woman; two of his fingers are raised, pointing.

The right hand of the woman is echoing the gesture of the child. The figures, the poses of the woman and child, as well as the gesture of the fingers bear remarkable resemblance to the icon Salus Populi Romani (Protector of the Roman People).

The icon has been venerated since 590AD in the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and has been invoked to end two serious plagues, one in the sixth and another in the 16th century.

According to tradition, the icon was painted by St. Luke the evangelist, revealing both the likeness and presence of the holy mother of God.

It is known that the Jesuits took reproductions of the Salus Populi Romani on their first missionary journeys. Priests from the Society of Jesus arrived in southern China in 1583 and Father Matteo Ricci finally reached the capital, Beijing, in 1601.

They had developed by trial and error a missionary approach in dialogue with the Confucian tradition, the pre-eminent ethical-political system in China. Competence in Chinese culture and language, western science, technology, cartography and a copy of the Salus Populi Romani icon were all missionary tools, a way to the hearts of elite, educated classes in China.

The Chinese scroll was thought to be a copy of the painting presented by Father Ricci to the emperor, Wanli. The artist clearly took some liberties (the child now appears Chinese without the halo).

Did it allow local people to draw on a familiar tradition (Guanyin) the better to relate to a faith whose God is love, or has Christian theology (Christ as the saviour of the world; two raised fingers signifying the divine and human natures of Christ) been watered down through local adaptation?

These are questions that accompanied evangelisation in the 17th century – and still do today.

Walk the line

The Jesuits walked a fine line between proclaiming salvation through Christ Jesus and accommodating local culture. Father Michel Ruggieri wrote the first catechetical book in Chinese, Tienzhu Shilu (天主實錄), between 1580 and 1584.

It was considered a less successful evangelising tool, precisely because it presented revelatory truths, but contained few rational explanations or arguments that would engage non-believers.

In 1621, Yang Tingyun (楊廷筠), one of the scholar-officials baptised by the Jesuits, wrote In Place of Doubt (代疑篇) to dispel any confusion between the local worship of Guanyin and the veneration of the holy mother. “Consider the holy mother as Guan Shih Yin or compare to the latter by common people – this is absolutely not comparable” (至視聖母與俗所謂觀世音者比倫,尤萬不相侔也).

But such scrupulosity did not spare the Jesuits from the Chinese Rites Controversy (whether Christians could take part in rites that honour Confucius and their ancestors; and whether such rites, the bedrock of Chinese culture, especially among the scholarly class, amounted to pagan worship or not).

Pope Clement XI, in response to accusations brought by other missionaries against the Jesuits, as well as being wary of the dangers of idolatry, issued a decree in 1715 forbidding Chinese Christians to take part in the rites.

Kangxi’s decree

Outraged, the emperor, Kangxi, issued his own decree (1721) outlawing Christianity. “From now on, westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.”

The scroll painting seems to corroborate this unhappy history. Laufer, the museum staffer who acquired the scroll in 1910, dated it in the 17th century, even though it bore the signature of Tang Yin (唐寅), more commonly known as Tang Bohu (唐伯虎), who lived from 1470 to 1524.

Laufer thought the signature might have been forged to antedate the painting, in order to protect it and its owners during times of persecution, when Christianity was deemed alien and incompatible with Chinese culture. The plot thickens!

Recent scholarship suggests that the scroll could actually be older, dating to an earlier attempt to bring Christianity to China during the Yuan dynasty.

In 1289, following the exchange of emissaries between the Vatican and the Mongol Court, Pope Nicholas IV sent John of Montecorvino, a Franciscan, who reached what was later known as Beijing in 1294.

Other Franciscans followed. Lauren Arnold, a researcher at the University of San Francisco Ricci Institute, actually linked “the evolution of the child-giving form of Guanyin to Franciscan images of the Madonna brought to the south coast of China during the Yuan era” (

Toward the end of the Yuan dynasty, believers numbered about 30,000, but few Han people were among them.

Christianity, perceived as a religion of foreigners, was driven out, along with Mongol invaders.

We can look at the painting and peel back layer upon layer, as art historians have done (tracing its origin, the identity of the figures, cross-cultural influence, from Buddhist to Chinese to Christian, or vice versa).

The painting looks at us

But if we allow it, the painting also looks back at us and asks important questions about our identity – who are we as Christians in Asia today?

For before the Franciscans and the Jesuits, Nestorians from Syria first brought the faith to China almost 1,400 years ago, during the Tang dynasty.

The religion was known as the luminous religion (景教). Today we know little about this first wave of Christianity, except for the stele in Xi’an, a pagoda and the recently discovered grave(s) in the Longmen Grottoes.

As recently as September 2013, Reuters reported on the hope of the president, Xi Jinping, that the traditional religions, that is Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, would fill the moral void that is desperately plaguing China.

After 1,400 years, Christianity remains an outlier, a minority-religion, if not a foreign faith.

Art challenges us to see. When we enter most Catholic churches in the mainland or Hong Kong, the majority of religious art is strikingly western.

Does the reflexive borrowing of the image of God mask an inability or unwillingness to look deeply at our own cultures? Where do we need to be redeemed? What are our gifts?

Asian face of Christ

In an insightful essay, The quest for an Asian face of the Christ, Luna Dingayan draws from the sixth assembly of the Christian Conference of Asia.

The ecumenical body summed up its perception of the dominant reality of Asia saying, “People are wasted: wasted by hunger, torture, deprivation of rights; wasted by economic exploitation, racial and ethnic discrimination, and sexual suppression; wasted by loneliness, non-relation, non-community” (JTCA, 2007, Vol. 6, p57).

If this is what we hear and see around us, what do we, as Christians, do about it? What is the good news we proclaim?

To the Nations, the Vatican II decree on missionary activity, clarifies, “The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature, since it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father.”

All Christians are called to be missionaries! St. John writes in his first letter, “Something which has existed since the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes… and touched with our own hands, the word of life – this is our theme. That life was made visible” (1 John 1:1-2).

We believe in salvation through a God incarnate, who became one of us. What we see, hear and touch in our everyday lives is made holy, not just within, but also outside the Church. The Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World notes “Some more urgent duties of Christians in regard to culture” (Gaudium et Spes, 60):

“It is now possible to free most of humanity from the misery of ignorance.

“Therefore the duty most consonant with our times, especially for Christians, is that of working diligently for fundamental decisions to be taken in economic and political affairs, both on the national and international levels, which will everywhere recognise and satisfy the right of all to a human and social culture in conformity with the dignity of the human person without any discrimination of race, sex, nation, religion or social condition.”

The common good

“Therefore it is necessary to provide all with a sufficient quantity of cultural benefits, especially those which constitute the so-called fundamental culture lest very many be prevented from cooperating in the promotion of the common good in a truly human manner because of illiteracy and a lack of responsible activity.”

The gift of Asia can be to live and work in a way that everyone can live in freedom, justice, love and peace – to affirm life and dignity and not to waste.

We are declaring to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may share our life.

“Our life is shared with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing this to you so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:3-4).

The Chinese painting, inspired by missionaries, by the Roman icon, communicates joy that points to life shared with God.

It is beautiful, perhaps with traces of Christian, Confucian and Buddhist dialogues. But where do you see the face of God?