China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2015/Jul

When ancient Chinese stories meet Laudato Si’

What better way to cool our brain in the summer heat than to read some stories from Chinese mythology?

The 10 suns and archer Yi

In the Classic of Mountains and Seas, one of the oldest sources of myths in Chinese culture, it was recorded that Di Jun (Lord Superior) had 10 sons. They were the 10 suns. They lived in Scald Valley in the east.

A giant mulberry tree grew in the centre of the sea. Each morning one of the suns would climb from the bottom of the tree to the very top where it would board a carriage and journey to the west. Thus the 10 suns went on duty in an orderly way every day.

Later accounts tell of an unnatural disaster. During the reign of the sage king, Yao, the suns refused to take turns. All at once 10 suns rose in the sky.

The heat was too much. It dried up all vegetation. There was not enough water for human beings or the animals to drink. Food was scarce and famine spread. Terrible monsters began to wreak havoc on earth. King Yao pleaded with Di Jun to save the people.

Di Jun sent the great archer, Yi. At first, Yi pretended to shoot the suns, thinking that would frighten them. But they only laughed at him and went on their careless, excessive ways.

This angered Yi. He drew his red bow and took aim. An arrow shot through the air deep into the sky. One fiery sun fell, then another … until only one sun was left in the sky. Afraid that all life would perish without sunlight, King Yao persuaded Yi to leave the last sun.

Jing Wei tries to fill the sea

Yan Di (Lord Radiant) was a benevolent lord. One day his favourite daughter went out to sea on a small boat. A fierce storm broke. Huge waves swallowed the girl and the boat. Yan Di’s heart was broken.

The girl’s soul turned into a small bird named Jing Wei. She lived in Fajiu Mountain in the north. Everyday she would carry a small twig in her mouth, fly out over the sea and drop it in.

In this way she hoped to fill in the sea so no one would drown again. Even though her efforts were thought to be insignificant and therefore useless, Jing Wei continues her task to this day.

The phoenix

In the Book of South Mountain it is told: 500 miles to the east is Mount Dan Yue. It has abundant metal ores and precious stones. The Dan River flows to Bohai Sea. On this mount there lives a bird, shaped like a rooster with brilliant feathers that form myriad patterns.

The bird’s name is Phoenix. The feathers above its head look like the character Virtue. On its wings seem to be the word Loyalty. On its back one may decipher Rites.

Benevolence appears on its breast. On its abdomen one may discern Faithfulness. This bird draws its food from nature. It can sing and dance. The world is at peace whenever it appears.

Localise the Gospel

Celso Cardinal Costantini, the first apostolic delegate to China (1922 to 1933), was a strong advocate of inculturation (letting the faith take root in the local cultural context).

It had been only two decades since the Boxer Rebellion and the Eight-Nation Alliance that had ransacked the imperial capital. China was mired in civil wars. The foreign powers and even some members of the Church had a low opinion of anything Chinese, including Chinese Christians.

But Cardinal Costantini did not waver in trying to establish the local Church hierarchy. The Church in China belongs to the people in China. He kept a look out for promising bishop-candidates and actively promoted the formation of Chinese clergy and laity.

Thanks to the cardinal, Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Seminary (formerly the South China Regional Seminary) now stands as a graceful example of Catholic institutions that integrate Chinese architecture.

Cardinal Costantini had an eye for beauty that gives glory to God. He was a sculptor and the son of a sculptor. As former custodian of the fourth century Basilica in Aquileia, the ancient Roman city that was destroyed, first by the Huns in the fifth century, then by the Magyars in the 10th century, he was mindful of Church history (no less checkered than Chinese history) and what could bring about future growth.

He observed almost a century ago, “The Chinese altar dedicated to folk-deities has similar features as a Christian altar: a statue, a table, candles and an incense-burner. Replace the statue and keep the rest. The apostles took from Roman design and culture and made them Christian. Why can’t we do the same in China?”

Cardinal Costantini spoke with appreciation of the Chinese people and culture: “China has a great ethical culture. If we plant the living seed of Christianity and let it fill the souls of emptiness, China will become even more resplendent.”

So I wish to craft a scenario. What if ancient Chinese stories like the ones just recounted encountered the Gospel today?

Chinese art and philosophical thinking have a long tradition of honouring nature. The Classic of Mountains and Seas was once considered a mapping of geography, peoples and the environment, imaginary but real.

Perhaps nothing is more urgent today than the Gospel message put forth by Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home). It is a testament of God’s love for Creation. It is also an urgent appeal to every person for ecological and social conversion. We must “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 49).

When Chinese stories and Laudato Si’ meet

The rebellion of the 10 suns describes an apocalyptic turn. When the natural order is violated, every life on earth suffers. There are warnings, but they are not taken seriously.

Today “scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system … accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events … Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it” (LS 23).

Perhaps what saved the world in the story was the sage king who pleaded with heaven and who intervened to save the last remaining sun. Human beings have the power to change; to stop degradation if we act wisely.

Ten suns are too many. Today we also face multiple crises. Pope Francis lists technological innovations that affect employment, “social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence … growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity.

“These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion” (LS 46).

The problems are huge. What can we do? The little bird, Jing Wei, who tries to fill the sea – one small object at a time – is admired in Chinese literature for her indefatigable spirit. Her concern about people drowning in the sea brings to mind many refugees today who risk drowning as they flee racial and economic injustice in many lands.

Pope Francis also invokes St. Thérèse of Lisieux who “invites us to practise the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (LS 230).

How can we learn a spirit of generous care?

Pope Francis recommends that “love in social life – political, economic and cultural -must be given renewed value” (LS 231).

Now one rarely speaks about love in policies and in daily business. But love in political, economic and cultural life is actually akin to Chinese values – Virtue, Loyalty, Rites, Benevolence and Faithfulness – that the mythical bird embodied.

The phoenix is an icon of natural harmony. “The world is at peace whenever it appears.” It “can sing and dance.” As such, it presages the joy of the Gospel!

Birds nest happily on the branches

The poet, Tao Yuanming (365AD to 427AD), who famously quit official busy-ness to live simply on a farm wrote 13 poems titled Reading the Classic of Mountains and Seas. Here is the first one:

In early summer grass and trees grow around my house.
Birds nest happily on the branches.
I also love my humble hut.
The ploughing’s done and seeds are sown,
it’s time to go back to my reading.
The narrow lane is far from deep-rutted roads,
my friends’ carriages often turn back.
Content, I taste the new Spring wine,
gather vegetables that I’ve grown.
A light rain from the East,
blows in on a pleasant breeze.
I browse the story of King Mu,
peruse drawings of Mountains and Seas.
Encompass heaven and earth in one instant.
What pleasures can compare with these?

Tao’s poem follows a Chinese classical lineage that is in harmony with nature. Surprisingly, there are images and phrases that echo the psalms (#128:3) and the Gospel (Mark 4:32).

“In the Christian understanding of the world, the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ.” It is the mystery of incarnation when “one person of the Trinity entered into the created cosmos, throwing in his lot with it, even to the cross” (LS 99).

For us, as for the poet, there is a choice to be made: life (creation) is very good if we care for it.