Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dispatch from China: The Study Seminar Leaves for China

By Kwok Pui Lan

After months of anticipation, members of the China Study Seminar of the Episcopal Divinity School gathered at 6 a.m. on Friday at Logan airport in Boston to begin our very long trip to China. The group consists of twelve students, four faculty, and two staff. We have studied the history, culture, and religions of China as well the development of the Christianity in the turbulent years of Chinese modern history in preparation for the trip.

China Study Seminar Begins their Journey
The journey was long and taxing: a six-hour flight from Boston to San Francisco, and then another thirteen-hour flight from San Francisco to Shanghai. But as we proceeded to the gate at San Francisco, excitement was in the air. This was for real. We were flying to China—a dream for many in the seminar.

I had brought along a book to read for the long flight across the Pacific: Culture and Historyin Postrevolutionary China by Arif Dirlik. Turkish by background, Professor Dirlik is one of the most astute observers of modern Chinese history and its relation to the global world. He was for many years a professor at Duke University before accepting the assignment to become a distinguished professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The book was very appropriate for the trip because it consists of lectures he has delivered in the fall of 2010 at the Academy of National Learning (Guoxue yuan) of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Using China as a case in point, the book discusses the complex relations between tradition and modernity, the role of culture in global capitalism, and the rise of China and its potential impact on global culture. Many scholars have pointed out we have to think beyond a notion modernity defined by Europe and North America and put forth the proposal of “multiple modernities” or “alternative modernities.” This raises the question of how modernity is defined and by whom? But the more important question is how to understand past traditions in China in the process of China’s modernization in the age of global capitalism.

Is there an East Asian way to modernization? What does it mean when the Chinese leaders say they want to pursue economic development with Chinese characteristics? Why is there a revival of interest in Confucianism, and a huge bronze statue of Confucius was placed at Tiananmen Square, albeit briefly? Confucianism was accused of holding China backward and “traditional” by the iconoclasts of the New Culture Movement in the 1920s and by the Maoists during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Yet what was once considered a cultural impediment is now considered a source of national pride, and a contributive force in the Chinese road to capitalism!

As someone who has studied postcolonialism for some time, I was struck to read Dirlik’s statement: “The Confucian revival since the 1980s is best viewed a manifestation of Eastern Asia of a global postcolonial discourse.” While the cultural past is revived and rehabitated, it has also been reconfigured under global capitalism, as Dirlik points out. Chinese intellectuals have been preoccupied with the complexities of reimaging Chinese culture and history in the global world since China adopted the open-door policy in the late 1970s.

There is no better place to observe the juxtaposition of the “traditional” and the “modern” than Shanghai—the most cosmopolitan city in China. It is also a city with deep ties to Episcopal mission. The famous St. John’s University in the outskirt of the city was established by Bishop Samuel Joseph Schereschewsky, who also translated the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into the Chinese language.

In Shanghai, we will have the opportunities of worshipping at Shanghai Community Church and meeting with the Rev. Cao Shengjie, former Chairperson of the China Christian Council. Rev. Cao is a proud graduate of St. John’s and has spoken at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church when Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori was elected.

We will also have conversations with scholars in religious studies to understand how religion is understood in a socialist country and the growth of religious studies in the past 30 years. On our last day in Shanghai, we will visit East China Theological Seminary to meet faculty and students and share a meal together.

We are very grateful to our Chinese colleagues for their generosity in hosting us and arranging for such wonderful learning opportunities for us. In April a delegation of theological educators and church representatives from China went to San Francisco, New York, and Toronto to visit seminaries and have dialogue with their American counterparts. I have helped hosting them when they were in New York. I am glad to have the opportunity of leading this seminar with Professor Patrick S. Cheng to visit our Chinese colleagues and to know how they are preparing women and men for ministry in their rapidly changing society.

Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her most recent book is Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue

1 comment:

  1. Hello Friends,
    The focus of the seminar is to learn about the culture and religions of China, explore the life and witness of the Chinese churches in a rapidly changing society, and study the legacy of the Episcopal mission in China. Thank you for sharing this...