China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2019/Feb

Guiyang’s life renewal pharmacy

Matthieu Masson

The Catholic pharmacy of Guiyang (1847)

Christianity in Guizhou started in 1796 when a hotelier of Guiyang, Wu Guosheng 吳國盛 (1768 to 1814), converted and started to preach the gospel openly. During the first half of the 19th century, Guizhou was a part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Sichuan, run by the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), and Christianity in there developed according to the missionary method of Sichuan. In 1847, there were about 52,000 Catholics in Sichuan and 2,000 in Guizhou.

Since Christianity was still officially banned in China, foreign missionaries worked in the background, while Chinese Catholics primarily carried out the evangelising. Among the missionary methods in Sichuan, Catholic Chinese physicians were employed to distribute medicine and to baptise the dying children of non-Christians.

Some of these physicians were itinerant, others ran Catholic pharmacies. The purpose of these baptisms was to save the soul of the child when nothing else could be done. According to Roman instructions, these baptisms require the consent of the parents, most of whom granted it easily since they regarded the ritual of baptism as medical care.

About 10 per cent of the treated children were baptised.

In 1846, Guizhou became an independent apostolic vicariate and Father Etienne Albrand, MEP (1803 to 1853) arrived in Guizhou in 1847. He immediately provided for the installation of a pharmacy in Guiyang, where medicine was distributed for free and where three to 10 dying children were baptised everyday.

As the pharmacy also took care of the needy, Father Albrand asked the physician to show compassion to the poor, the sick and the elderly.

Doctor Bruno Kiong (龔醫生)

In 1853, after the death of Bishop Albrand, Father Paul Perny, MEP, became the provisional superior of the Mission of Guizhou.

In order to improve the skills of his physicians, he called the experienced Catholic doctor, Bruno Kiong (龔醫生), to come from Sichuan and asked him to run a school of Chinese medicine in the pharmacy of Guiyang.

Kiong came from a family of physicians. He converted to Christianity after attending to a child in a Catholic family. As he asked for the sacrifice of a white chicken, the child’s father told him: “Please, just see to the sickness and prescribe the appropriate medicine.”

The family explained that they would not perform any sacrifice because they were Christians. That was a shock for Kiong who never heard about Christianity.

At first, he was afraid to be baptised. But two years later, he again met some Catholics and came to Chengdu for catechism. He was then baptised and started to work in the Catholic pharmacies of Sichuan until he was called to Guizhou.

House of life renewal

A rare and detailed Chinese painting shows what the Guiyang pharmacy was like during the 1850s.

The man seated at the desk is Dr. Bruno Kiong (龔醫生). The setting and inscriptions of this shop are similar to those of any Buddhist or Daoist charity pharmacy of this time and there was no sign that it was a Catholic institution.

On the blue pillar at the centre, we can see that the name of the shop was overwritten. The former name can however, be read as 保嬰醫館, meaning, Pediatric Clinic, while the new name, 復生堂, means House of life renewal.

The new name may have both medical and spiritual meaning. It suggests (so long as we know that this is a Catholic institution) that baptism, like a form of medical treatment, is for the recovery of health and renewal of life.

We see in the painting parents bringing their children. So the pharmacy mainly cares for the children, but there is also one elderly person among them. One father, without shoes and wearing a pointed hat, seems to be poorer than the others.

The poorest people are however, on the left, where we see a seated beggar and a group of four people wearing tattered clothes: a cripple and a blind man are between a fortune teller and a snake charmer. They may represent victims of quack and superstitions who would be better off seeking help in the pharmacy.

Lastly, other people are coming down from the mountains. They may represent the indigenous people of Guizhou.

The vertical inscription on the right promises: The care we offer is so good that many people in this world recovered.

On the opposite side, the inscription explains that this pharmacy is for charity: those who take good care of children do not ask for money.

On the ceiling are 16 Chinese proverbs. Some are drawn from the classic panoply of the advertising slogans of Chinese medicine. Two of them refer to the Book of Qingnang 青囊書, a classic treatise on Chinese medicine attributed to the famous doctor of the end of Han Dynasty, Hua Tuo 華佗.

Other proverbs assure that the medicine can restore the spring of life, or boast of the skill of the doctor. Some speak about mercy, love and benevolence, especially for the child or the needy. The last one at the back 仁愛為心, means love wholeheartedly.

The architectural project of 1856

At the end of 1856, Father Perny explained that since 1847, the pharmacy of Guiyang had provided care for 20,887 children of non-Christians, of which 2,753 were baptised. However, he regretted that almost half of the population of Guiyang were still unaware of the service provided by this pharmacy. He wanted to set it in a more impressive building.

The design of the project mixed western and Chinese styles. It looks like a church. The clock conveys a sense of modernity. It is still called 復生堂 house of life renewal. The vertical inscriptions 見病發藥,分文不取 means: See the sickness and dispense the medicine, no need to pay.

This inscription recalls the conversion of Bruno Kiong, when a Catholic family asked him: “Just see to the sickness and prescribe the appropriate medicine.”

Because of his good reputation, Kiong was also consulted by some mandarins and rich people in Guiyang, who offered to subsidise the construction of the new pharmacy.

However, it would not be built, first, because Father Perny travelled to France from 1857 to 1860 to raise funds. He was thus not in Guiyang to start the construction.

Second, some mandarins from other places in Guizhou also petitioned Kiong to build a pharmacy in their cities.

The missionaries preferred therefore to devote their resources to their opening. Guizhou thus had seven Catholic pharmacies in 1858, all of which have the appearance of ordinary street shops.

While Christianity was banned in China, the physicians of the Catholic pharmacies avoided preaching the gospel. The missionaries even forbade them to do so.

They were nonetheless Catholic institutions dispensing classic Chinese medicine freed from rituals incompatible with Christianity.