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.