Focus: Teilhard and China
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a French Jesuit at the forefront in his chosen field, paleontology. After his death, his writings became immensely popular, dealing as they were with the connections between science and faith as well as with globalization and the future of humankind. Teilhard was based in China for 23 years (1923-1946), and wrote his two most influential books there. They included several of the writings that would later be gathered under the title "The Divine Milieu", and, most importantly, "The Phenomenon of Man."
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Teilhard's death, the Taipei Ricci Institute and the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University released a documentary about Teilhard's evolving relationship with China: Teilhard and China (德日進與中國). The film is available in English, French and Simplified Chinese (for more info, email cerise[AT]erenlai.com).
This Focus aims to discuss the meaning that Teilhard's thinking can have today for the contemporary world and for China in particular by presenting excerpts of the documentary as well as unreleased footages and an interview with Alex Wang, an extraordinary reader of Teilhard who translated into Chinese his book "The Place of Man in Nature."
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was all the rage in Catholic circles and beyond them thirty to fifty years ago. He is credited with having had a major impact on Vatican II (1962 – 1965). As a scientist, he was at the forefront in his chosen field – paleontology.
Now the thought of the influential but no longer popular French Jesuit is making a comeback and from an unlikely place – China.
The relationship between Teilhard and China was much deeper and more decisive than most of his readers realize. Teilhard was based in China for 23 years (1923-1946), and wrote his two most influential books there. They included several of the writings that would later be gathered under the title "The Divine Milieu", and, most importantly, "The Phenomenon of Man."
The Jesuit scientist was already 42 years old when he went to Hebei Province in northern China on archeological digs. And he he had come to China not entirely by choice: an article on original sin saw a question mark put over him in "orthodox" circles, and he was directed by his religious superiors to concentrate on scientific research in the Chinese hinterland rather than tackling tricky theological subjects.
Teilhard was not a new Ricci in his adaptation to Chinese culture and more. Nor was he at ease with traditional missionary methods. And he felt himself often to be in exile. Still, it is in China that he made his most exciting discoveries, identifying in 1930 "Beijing Man' as a "Homo Faber", and conducting extensive geological surveys across China.
As the text of his "Mass on the World" eloquently testifies, it is primarily the Chinese earth, replete with early testimonies to the development of life, which inspired Teilhard and provided him with the basis for the full development of his thought.
But such exploration came from a choice he made early on after arriving in China: he had left the private museum of natural history created in China by his colleague Emile Licent, choosing instead to join the Geological Survey Bureau created by the Chinese government.
He is remembered as one of the three founding fathers of Chinese paleontology. When leaving China, Teilhard eloquently spoke of his "enormous gratitude" for the country in which he made so many friends, conducted so many exploratory missions, and was able to reflect in new ways on humankind's and cosmic destiny.
After his death in 1955, Teilhard's thought exercised an enormous influence on the Catholic Church and beyond, before somehow waning towards the end of the 1970s. During the same period, Teilhard was of course never mentioned in China.
Today, the situation seems to be reversing. During the 1990s, the Chinese Institute of Paleontology was the first to rehabilitate his name and scientific contribution.
What about his cosmological and theological thought? Professor Wang Hayan of Beijing's Language and Culture University wrote her doctoral thesis in Paris on Teilhard. She was the first to popularize his concepts in Chinese context, publishing an Anthology of his works based on his Complete Works.
As well, "The Phenomenon of Man" and many other his seminal works have been translated, sometimes twice. Older Chinese Jesuits published early translations in Taiwan from the 1960s, and some of them now available in the PRC. And the process continues with a short book by Teilhard, "The Place of Man in Nature", published by Beijing University Press in October 2014.
The translator of this last work, Alex Wang, is a Chinese-born senior manager of a French firm. He was awarded two doctorates in Paris - one in engineering and the other in philosophy. Wang has enthralled with Teilhard's vision for many years and was the main organizer of a colloquium entitled "Teilhard and the Future of Humankind" which was held in Beijing on October 19, 2014.
This was the first event dealing with the entirety of Teilhard's thought, not only his scientific writings, to take place in the Chinese language and in Mainland China. It attracted a galaxy of talent:
• Professor Huang Huiwen, from the Chinese Institute of Paleontology, recalled Teilhard's contribution to Chinese Geology;
• Professor Li Tiangang (Fudan University) spoke of Teilhard as a "global man", helping us all to put our various levels of relationship into a broader context, challenging the common time-space continuum in which we move and think;
• The Mongolian writer Yang Dorje eloquently recalled the travels of Teilhard in the remote Ordos region and quoted the Chinese translation of "The Mass on the World." Evoking the physical relationship that still links humankind to matter and the earth, Yang Dorje highlighted Teilhard as a cosmic poet and thinker, anchoring us deeper in our origins and destiny.
• Liu Feng, the creator of XLab in China which specializes in training students to collaborate in their work, spoke of the concept of "Noosphere' and "Omega Point" in relationship with the insights provided by contemporary cybernetics.
• Thierry Meynard, a Jesuit teaching in China, reminded the audience of the way Teilhard was envisioning the future of humankind beyond national and ethnic barriers and the way such vision was congruent with the United Nations ideals developed at the same time.
The colloquium drew 100 participants, mainly university professors and doctoral students. It concluded by deciding to launch the Chinese association of the friends of Teilhard and on a program of promotional activities for 2015, the year of the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Teilhard.
At the colloquium, a 45 minute documentary entitled "Teilhard and China" premiered. It was co-produced by the Xu-Ricci Institute at Fudan University and the Taipei Ricci Institute. The work, directed by Benoit Vermander, SJ and Cerise Phiv, was filmed in Auvergne (where Teilhard was born), Paris, Shanghai, Beijing, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. It also includes testimonies by Henri du Passage, a nephew of Teilhard, who recalls how much his uncle suffered from the rejection he often experienced in Catholic circles, especially after his travel to Rome in 1947.
Besides recalling the Chinese adventures of Teilhard, the film documents an intercultural workshop on Teilhard's thought conducted in the Ordos desert in August 2013. In the place where Teilhard wrote "The Mass on the World", young intellectuals from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Fudan University and the "Shanghai Culture" journal read and discuss excerpts from "The Mass on the World' and "The Phenomenon of Man." They felt moved by the "radical optimism" that such works engender in the reader, helping one to go beyond failure and limited life-span so as to insert one's work and life into a process of cosmic and spiritual evolution.
Teilhard may not have secured a place in China's intellectual landscape just yet. But the Jesuit thinker is definitely reaching a new public, and several MA theses dealing with him have been or are presently being written in several Chinese universities.
There are several reasons that explain for such developments:
(a) Teilhard provides resources for thinking one's human condition beyond cultural and national determinisms;
(b) his own life illustrates how the presence of a priest-scientist in China was challenging the traditional missionary model;
(c) Globalization gives new relevance to the way Teilhard was envisioning evolution and the management of increasing complexity.
(d) Finally, Teilhard's life experience offers a touching resonance with his own choice of "radical optimism" when set in the context of the future of humankind.
It is not impossible that some of basic intuitions of the Jesuit scientist will bounce back to the West from Chinese experience and interpretations.
The 'Teilhard adventure' started for me at the beginning of the year 2013 after reading the 'libretto', written in French by Benoit Vermander. Very dense and documented, the 20 pages were my first immersion into Teilhard de Chardin's world. I appreciated Benoit Vermander's pedagogical approach: in his usual concise style, he resumed a lifelong story while giving prominence to the texts and the voice of Teilhard. Thus I discovered the intense text of the Mass on the World and even had the chance to re-read a French school classic: an excerpt from 17th century philosopher Pascal.
But my challenge was to make a film of this 20 pages-long literary piece.
While working on the pre-production phase of the movie, we came across another team preparing a bigger scale documentary for US television: Frank and Mary Frost from Frank Frost Productions. Frank and Benoit had met during a colloquium on Teilhard in 2012 and they had kept in touch since then. Frank and Mary had planned a research site trip to China and they were very kind to invite us to join them.
In May 2013, I embarked on a trip to Beijing and Ningxia with Taiwanese filming assistant, Sharon Liu. Thanks to Frank and Mary's contacts, we met for example Hailu You, a paleontologist from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of China (IVPP) who appears in the movie.
The following video is an interview with Frank at the end of our trip:
In the meantime, Benoit Vermander was planning an intercultural workshop organized by Fudan University with the support of the Taipei Ricci Institute. The workshop, held in Inner Mongolia, would invite scholars and writers, mostly from Shanghai and Taipei, to read and discuss excerpts from Teilhard's work. The logistical preparation of the workshop was undertaken by Liang Zhun, a photographer based in Shanghai and a long-term collaborator of Benoit Vermander. She notably contributed to the film the beautiful shots of the desert and the Salawusu Valley.
The workshop was also quite an interesting experience: our heteroclit group got immersed in the immensity of the landscapes that Teilhard had crossed nearly a century ago. One of the most dramatic moments was probably when a small group of us went at dawn to the plateau bordering the desert of Ordos to listen to Yaling Wu, a lecturer at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, read in Chinese the Mass on the World at the same spot Teilhard celebrated it.
After my trip to China, I joined Benoit Vermander in the region of Auvergne, Teilhard's birthplace in France, where we were very generously welcomed by his closest living relatives: his nephew Henri du Passage and daughter Marie Bayon de La Tour who inherited Teilhard's passion for geology. As we accompanied her to the banks of the river Allier where he used to take his nephews to show them rocks, one could even more vividly feel Teilhard's deep understanding of nature and Marie Bayon de la Tour, interviewed in the film, also emphasized this aspect: "Auvergne can only be understood if we imagine that it is alive, and that its geology evolves with time. I think it influenced Father Teilhard."
Once back in Taipei, I undertook the task of editing and finalizing the production of the movie, and finally the French version of the documentary premiered in Paris in June 2014 at the Centre Sèvres. The Chinese version was screened during the colloquium "Teilhard and the Future of Humankind" held in Beijing in October 2014. (Lien vers article BV) A year later the release of the DVD in its three versions, French, English and simplified Chinese would coincide with the anniversary of Teilhard's death.
Like any other project and human experience, this film in its three versions is the result of lucky encounters and fruitful collaborative work with all the difficulties and obstacles that it implies. I hope that this attempt of introducing Teilhard de Chardin to the Chinese audience, and to a broader public in general, can be the start of more dialogue, discussion and understanding between the people of different horizons.
Alex Wang completed the translation in Chinese of Teilhard de Chardin's book, La Place de l'homme dans la Nature: Le Groupe zoologique humain (Peking University Press, 2014)
Why did you choose to translate this book by Teilhard de Chardin?
The evolution of mankind on the earth, I should say, the evolution of intelligent life in this universe depicted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin provides us with a clear vision of what would come and what we should do to make it happen.
Teilhard has shared this version in his masterpiece "The human phenomenon" with a scientific and yet poetic language, while integrating the progress of his time. But the access to this major work is not easy, requiring patience and perseverance. "The place of human in the nature" is a condensed "but clearer" version of this important book, according to Teilhard himself. It could be considered as a stepping stone to enter Teilhard's world.
Why is it important to promote Teilhard de Chardin in China?
China has been achieving the huge and astonishing progress in each important domain for more than 30 years. There is no doubt that China will become a superpower of the 21st century, reshaping the entire world to come. Its uprising will be one of the major events of human history. All along the desire for the modernization and a better life, people feel at the same time and even more deeply a hunger for meaning, the meaning of life, the meaning of human efforts, the meaning of a higher moral standard, etc. In short, people are looking for the answers to the following questions: why are we here? Where do we go? In which direction and why?
Teilhard's thoughts provide us with his answers, inviting us to an extraordinary journey of exploration.
Could you recount for us the history of your career?
When I was a 13 year old boy, I asked myself a simple question: "What's the value and the meaning of human life?" Since then, all my life has been oriented to the search for this meaning.
Then in 1978, I felt the urge to leave the factory to resume my studies at the university after "the Cultural revolution". In 1983, I left my home land, flew to France, in order to "learn" with all the philosophers and thinkers I could find. There I obtained a PhD in philosophy and a second one in engineering.
But I remained unsatisfied until I encounter Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. For me, his thought is like a candle in the darkness of night.
I have been working for more than 25 years for the France Telecom Orange Group. After taking different positions in various divisions such as HR, Business development, Sales, R&D and procurement, I currently work as CEO of Orange Sourcing Consulting. I am very much involved in promoting Teilhard's thinking and also in the implementation of Corporate Social Responsibility principles, understood as part of efforts in the direction of ongoing human evolution pointed by Teilhard.
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Lettres à Jeanne Mortier, 1949, Seuil, p. 53
Teilhard de Chardin wrote The Phenomenon of Man (Le Phénomène humain) over a period of time that coincided with his entire stay in China, from 1922-1946, during which time he often left China to visit Europe, other countries in Asia and the US. This book, still considered as his magnum opus, tells the great story of the "human phenomenon" advent through the continuity of the formation of matter and the debut of life on earth, while being at the same time a reflexion on what will become of the "human phenomenon."
The book was published posthumously in 1955.
This excerpt of the documentary Teilhard and China introduces an original typed copy of the book conserved at the Beijing Center and gives us the testimony of a Chinese reader.
In the following video taken from the unused footage of the documentary 'Teilhard and China', Thierry Meynard, SJ, director of the Beijing Center, discusses the theory of evolution according to Teilhard de Chardin and its significance for the World today.
In June 2015, the French monthly Esprit published an issue on: "François, a Jesuit Pope."
The issue includes three articles of special interest for the readers of eRenlai:
- Luce Giard offers us a portrait of Teilhard, linking the prophetic version of the thinker to the transformations brought in the Chuch by the present pontificate.
- Benoit Vermander traces back the history of the second Jesuit mission in China, thus giving us glimpses on the institutional context of which Teilhard was part.
- Jin lu, a popular contributor of eRenlai, brings together the mystique of michel de Certeau with the spirit of Pope Francis.
Taken as a whole, this issue by Esprit and the documentary brought forward by eRenlai testify to the resilience of a spiritual and intellectual tradition that is taking a new meaning in view of the present global challenges.
It was in the desert of Ordos that Teilhard wrote one of his great mystical texts: 'The Mass on the World' (La Messe sur le monde). Without bread and wine, he couldn't celebrate mass everyday, as he was accustomed to doing. So it was the high plateau which became his altar, and all the matter in the universe that became his offering to God:
It is done.
Once again the Fire has penetrated the earth.
Not with sudden crash of thunderbolt, riving the mountain-tops: does the Master break down doors to enter his own home? Without earthquake, or thunderclap: the flame has lit up the whole world from within. All things individually and collectively are penetrated and flooded by it, from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being: so naturally has it flooded every element, every energy, every connecting-link in the unity of our cosmos; that one might suppose the cosmos to have burst spontaneously into flame.
In the new humanity which is begotten today the Word prolongs the unending act of his own birth; and by virtue of his immersion in the world's womb the great waters of the kingdom of matter have, without even a ripple, been endued with life. No visible tremor marks this inexpressible transformation; and yet, mysteriously and in very truth, at the touch of the supersubstantial Word the immense host which is the universe is made flesh. Through your own incarnation, my God, all matter is henceforth incarnate.
Through our thoughts and our human experiences, we long ago became aware of the strange properties which make the universe so like our flesh:
like the flesh it attracts us by the charm which lies in the mystery of its curves and folds and in the depths of its eyes;
like the flesh it disintegrates and eludes us when submitted to our analyses or to our failings off and in the process of its own perdurance;
as with the flesh, it can only be embraced in the endless reaching out to attain what lies beyond the confines of what has been given to us.
Watch an excerpt of the documentary Teilhard and China, produced by the Taipei Ricci Institute and the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University (more info here).
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