The Benedictines in China

Fr Jeremias Schröder, OSB
Archabbot of St Ottilien, Germany


The first Christian contacts with China were forged by the monks of the Eastern Church of Syria in the seventh century. The Chinese gave their faith the name ‘Jingjao’, ‘religion of light’. Until the ninth century these monks were able to found monasteries and communities under the Tang dynasty. All trace of them subsequently disappeared. The monastic orders of the Latin Church played no part in the first missionary encounters, and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that they arrived in the Empire of the Centre.

A Catholic University for China

The Benedictine spirit penetrated China for the first time in 1883, with the installation of the Trappists at Yang Jia Ping. The Bishop of Peking had invited the Trappists of the French Abbey of Sept-Fons to found in the region of the Chinese capital a monastery intended to serve as a place of spiritual retreat for the diocesan clergy, and as a counterweight to Buddhist monasteries. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, their strict isolation from the world and their ascetic life-style, they soon achieved such an influence that in 1897 they were able to establish the monastery of Hokkaido in Japan.

Besides this essentially peaceful expansion, in the background was beginning a project which was to become a glorious page in Benedictine history. During the colonial period, and especially after the Boxer Revolt in 1900, the Protestants were involved in intense activities, particularly in education. They founded schools and universities, completed two translations of the Bible and produced an abundant literature, especially helped by financial help from America. In this way they had access to cultivated and influential sectors of society. By contrast, the Catholic Church was virtually cut off from cultural and educational sectors of Chinese society, except for the Jesuit University of Tianjin and the vicariate of Shanghai. It was considered the Church of illiterate peasants. For this reason the great Catholic Chinese writer Vincent Ying saw the foundation of a Catholic university at Peking as an indispensible condition for the contact of Christianity with Chinese culture, and for the inculturation of the Christian religion in China. In a letter addressed to Pope Pius X in 1912 he wrote, ‘Therefore we ask you, dear Father and Master, to send us virtuous and cultivated missionaries to found in our great capital a university open both to pagans and to Christians. This university must be a model for our whole nation. It must form an intellectual élite among Catholics and shine the true light on the pagans.’

Ten years later, in 1922, the project took form, when the Cardinal Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith addressed an invitation to the American Cassinese Congregation of the Benedictines to found just such a university. In this letter the Cardinal Prefect Van Rossum made it clear that the choice had fallen on the Benedictines deliberately, since they had always been promoters of culture and therefore of inculturation. These qualities were all the more necessary because China found itself in a situation comparable to that of the Roman Empire in its state of decadence at the time of St Benedict. In August 1923 the American Cassinese Benedictine Congregation accepted the invitation and entrusted the mother-house, St Vincent’s, to found the university. Two monks of St Vincent’s set off for Peking, Fr Ildephonsus Brandstetter, OSB, prior of the new monastic community, and Fr Placid Rattenburg, OSB. In March 1925, thanks to the help of many benefactors in America and China, they were able to buy the winter palace of Prince Tsai Tao, uncle of the previous emperor. The buildings in the traditional Chinese style were adapted for the monastic community and for teaching: conference halls and refectories, study-rooms and laboratories, and part of a conventual cloister.

On 1st October, 1925, the Catholic University of Peking opened its doors as ‘Fu Yen She’ or ‘The MacManus Academy of Chinese Studies’. The financial support of the American industrialist MacManus made it possible to enrol as deans four of the most renowned of Chinese scholars. Twenty-three students passed the entrance exam and constituted the first year-group. The first Chancellor of the University was the Archabbot of St Vincent’s Aurelius Saintele, OSB, and the President of the University was Vincent Ying. The teaching programme of the University of Fu Yen spread rapidly, and other Chinese scholars were able to be enrolled for the new university. Several professors from European universities were also recruited. In 1927 a noviciate was set up. In the same year the Academy received provisional official recognition of its status as a university, thanks to its Faculty of Liberal Arts, which at that time was unique. It took the official Chinese name of ‘Fu Yen Da Xue’ (University of Fu Yen).The years 1927-1929 were dominated by student unrest linked to the political quarrels and conflicts between the armies of North and South China. The rebellious students demonstrated against foreign universities. In this context of strife Fu Yen for a time lost its title of university. The title was returned to it as early as 1929, after the creation of two new Faculties; the University of Fu Yen then comprised three Faculties, liberal arts, natural sciences and education.

In September 1930 six American Benedictine nuns arrived in Peking. They set up the foundation of a college for girls, to be annexed to the college for boys created in 1929. In 1931 Fu Yen was granted definitive official recognition as a university. For the academic year 1932/3 it counted 605 students, of whom 48 obtained a university degree. The length of study to diploma level (baccalaureate) was four years.

In February 1933 the secretary of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith made it known that the direction of the Catholic University of Peking must be transferred to the Society of the Divine Word. This was a severe blow to the Benedictines of the monastery and of the university, and equally to the Benedictine nuns of the girls’ college. Many of them had taken part in the creation of a university at a difficult moment and in a strange environment at the price of considerable sacrifice and considerable effort. Despite all the difficulties, this development came to many of them as a bombshell. The world economic crisis principally explained why an isolated monastery like St Vincent’s was no longer in a position to provide sufficient financial resources to the Catholic University of Peking despite the commitment of a circle of friends scattered all over America. In such a situation the Benedictine structure was also perceived as a complication: although the foundation of the university had been confided to the American Cassinese Benedictine Congregation, nevertheless from the beginning St Vincent’s had been legally responsible for it. Because of the financial crisis the other monasteries of the Congregation were no longer able or disposed to lend their financial support to Fu Yen. Finally, daily life in a culturally foreign environment, an unstable political situation and constant tension between monastic life and that of management created challenges both on the campus and in the heart of the monastery for which many were not prepared. In April 1933 the Catholic University of Peking was transferred to the Society of the Divine Word.

Nevertheless, the innovative and pioneering work of the Benedictines endured and bore fruit: the university developed, other faculties and departments were created, the number of students grew continually. A large number of them were baptized. Beside the colleges for boys and girls a third college was founded, intended for Chinese priests; important books were published in liaison with Fu Yen. 1935 saw the establishment of the Art School of Peking, a famous school of painting which transcribed Christian motifs into Chinese ideograms, another sign and means of inculturation. The development of a vaccine against typhus in the microbiological laboratory of Fu Yen must also be mentioned. Its author, Dr Weigl of Lwow (Lemberg), directed the production of this serum which delivered North China, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Korea from a devastating plague.

In 1951 the communist regime integrated Fu Yen into the National University of Peking, which marked the end of the Catholic institution. The year 1960 saw the new foundation of Fu Yen at Taipei in Taiwan, where it is today numbered among the great universities of the land. While it concentrates on the imparting of knowledge in the faculties of natural sciences and social sciences, it nevertheless gives priority to the transmission of Christian values and the total formation of the young people. It numbers among its teachers missionaries and religious: Divine Word missionaries, Jesuits, Dominicans and also Benedictines.

When the University of Fu Yen was handed over to the Divine Word missionaries three of the Fathers were allowed to remain in China. They moved to Kaifeng, and in 1936 were put under the authority of the Abbey of St Procopius in the United States. In consequence of a disagreement with the bishop they decided to move once more, but, as American citizens, were forcibly assigned a place of residence from 1941 onwards. After the end of the war the communist take-over put paid to a new foundation. The American Benedictine nuns had also hoped to be able to continue to work in China. Like their American brothers, they had been assigned a place of residence and were compelled to leave the country in 1948. Both groups were finally installed in Taiwan, where St Procopius founded a small priory, of which the former Chancellor of the University of Fu Yen became the first prior.

The Archabbey of St Vincent’s, which had formerly borne the burden of the university, also took part in the creation of the new University of Fu Yen in Taiwan, and built a priory on the campus where two Benedictine professors still live today.

Benedictine Missionaries at Yanji

At about the same time as the American Benedictines, German missionary Benedictines arrived in the north of the country. En route for China, the Benedictines of St Ottilien passed by Korea. Since 1909 the first Benedictine missionaries had been active in Seoul, where they had founded the Abbey of St Benedict. In 1920 they received from the Holy See a very large mission territory in the north of Korea. The following year Propaganda added to their mission territory also parts of Manchuria in the north-east of China. Since the huge distances made the administration of this territory from the abbey in northern Korea virtually impossible, the Chinese part was separated off in 1928. The first superior of this Chinese Benedictine mission was P. Theodor Breher, who received the title of ‘apostolic prefect’. With a surface area of 5,800 square kilometres, the territory to be evangelized was slightly larger than Bavaria. The population of Manchuria was essentially Chinese. Nevertheless, the colonial Japanese régime compelled a growing number of Koreans to emigrate northwards, which gave rise also to the establishment of important Korean parishes.

Initially P. Theodor had a dozen priests under him, who were distributed through eight different missions. In the course of the following years the number of monks increased with the arrival of European reinforcements. In 1931 they were also joined by Olivetans from the Swiss town of Cham, who took charge of the schools and hospitals.

The principal mission, in the town of Yenki, founded in 1922, became a real monastery and in 1934 was raised to the rank of the Abbey of the Holy Cross; P. Theodor became the first Abbot. Like the Korean Abbey of Tokwon, the abbey provided space for workshops and a printing press as well as directing a major seminary and a boarding school. In 1937 the Vatican took note of the fine development of the mission and raised Yenki to the rank of an apostolic vicariate, whose superior had the status of a bishop. Thus P. Theodor received episcopal ordination on top of his abbatial blessing. At this time the vicariate was composed of 24 priests who, divided between 15 principal missions and 140 outstations, looked after 14,000 Christians. Seventeen brothers worked in the workshops and helped in the process of evangelization. Fifteen Swiss sisters were engaged in the education of girls, looking after the sick and ensuring the upkeep of the different missions. Thousands of children received instruction in ten state-recognized schools, and the older children, especially the girls, received their necessary education in the ten schools for the poor which had been set up. The number of Christians increased by an average of 1,400 each year, including adult baptisms and children of Christian parents. After the end of the 1930s there came also the ordinations of the first indigenous priests, who lent a strong hand to the missionary Benedictines. And in 1938 the first indigenous candidates were received into the noviciate.

Meanwhile, however, it was a troubled age: in 1931 Manchuria was occupied by the Japanese, who were manipulating the last Chinese Emperor, PuYi, like a marionette. Chinese and Korean resistance fighters battled with the Japanese. Bands of armed brigands profited from the general unrest to terrorize the flat countryside and ceaselessly attack the missions. In 1932 a missionary, P. Konrad Rapp of St Ottilien, was attacked and killed by drunken Japanese soldiers. At the same time typhus cost a number of missionaries their lives.

Under Japanese domination the Manchurian state at first showed itself reasonably well-intentioned towards the mission. The main Catholic schools of the region received official recognition in 1938. But, as in Korea, towards the end of the war the Japanese attitude to the mission visibly hardened. In 1944 the schools were nationalized and the Benedictines were forbidden to move around.

The news of the capitulation of Japan in August 1944 was greeted with great joy by the Koreans. However, the missionaries already had a premonition that, by contrast, the Russian threat scarcely gave grounds for rejoicing. Officers were billeted in the monastery, attacks against the missions caused deaths and wounded, work on the missions became more and more difficult.

In the midst of this difficult situation the news arrived from Rome that the missionary territory of Yenki had been raised to the rank of a diocese on 11th April 1946, together with a number of ecclesiastical limitations. Obviously, at such an agonized moment, this hardly made any difference. Meanwhile the Soviet troops had begun to evacuate Manchuria. On 20th May the Chinese communists in their offensive made an assault on the monastery and arrested the monks and nuns. They were exiled to Namping on the Korean frontier and spent two years there, admittedly exposed to less suffering than their Korean brethren who were arrested three years later, and many of whom lost their lives in a work-camp.

After two years the monks were allowed to return to their devastated abbey. There they were subjected to heavy tasks which made spiritual ministry impossible. The material misery of the community was also considerable. A priest who had hidden in the large town of Harbin contributed to the survival of the community, thanks to his regular winnings at gambling games, which incidentally were also forbidden. Mgr Theodor Breher, now seriously ill, saw with his own eyes the decline of the mission for whose construction he had been so largely responsible.

After an intense interior conflict the bishop decided to allow a progressive withdrawal of the missionaries. The martyrdom of Mgr Theodor began when he was obliged to ask the communist commandant of the province for his own permission to withdraw. The strategy of progressive pressure applied to the mission by its new masters in the course of the years had succeeded. As a first step only the oldest and weakest of the brethren were allowed to return to Europe, which would permit the others to continue. As none of them wanted to make the first move, in the end the bishop himself finally left with the first group in autumn 1949. A final blow awaited him in Europe: in the course of an audience Pope Pius XII showed himself extremely irritated at the withdrawal of the Benedictines, and treated the old and sick bishop in a manner less than charitable. It was with a broken heart that Mgr Theodor Breher, founder of the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Yenki and pioneer of the Church of Manchuria, died on All Souls Day, 1950.

The definitive collapse of the mission occurred by stages. When their monastery had been evacuated, the monks were able to lodge for a time in the monastery of the nuns, and, in September 1950, they settled in a parish of the western part of Yenki. In November they were ejected from the town and found a final refuge in the mission of Baldogu. In August 1952 the last Europeans were expelled from the mission territory.

The indigenous brothers, mostly Korean, were able to flee to Korea and later share in the foundation of the Abbey of Waegwan in South Korea. Subsequently a large number of the expelled Europeans too were able to take up their activity again. The last surviving religious of Yenki was P. Arnold Lenhard, who died shortly before his hundredth birthday in 2003.

A Chinese Monastery: Xishan

The flourishing state of the Benedictine Order at the opening of the nineteenth century also led Belgian Benedictines into the Empire of the Centre. Behind the foundation of the monastery of Xishan hide two men who were destined never to cross its threshold: the first was the Belgian Lazarist priest Vincent Lebbe, who began his missionary activity in China in 1906. He set himself against two trends which marked the Catholic mission in China and bore little fruit: on the one hand the western arrogance with which more than one missionary regarded from on high the rich and ancient Chinese culture, and on the other hand the strong politicization of Catholic missionary activity, which had frequently been put to the service of the French (and later equally the German) colonial quest. In the face of strong resistance Lebbe fought for an opening of religious life to Chinese culture and for the establishment of a Chinese hierarchy.

The second impetus to the installation of Belgian Benedictines in China was given by Pope Pius XI. In 1922 he sent Mgr Celso Constantini to China as Apostolic Legate. Constantini set himself energetically to providing roots for the Church in China. Four years later Pius XI published an encyclical in which he underlined the role of contemplative Orders in missionary work. The explicit order which he gave to the Abbot Primate to set up a foundation in China at first remained unfulfilled. The Belgian Congregation of Benedictines, which had split off from the Beuronese Congregation after the First World War was unwilling to undertake so demanding a task. Then in 1927 the Abbot of Saint-André decided to set about making a foundation in China on his own.

One the first two monks was Dom Jehan Joliet, of the Abbey of Solesmes. He had discovered China in his youth as a naval officer, and since then had always vainly tried to persuade his superiors to found a monastery in China. After thirty years of monastic life he obtained permission to put his long-standing plan into operation. The two pioneers made for the distant province of Sichuan in the interior of the country. This was part of Joliet’s project, for he was determined to found a wholly Chinese monastery, far from what he considered the ‘westernized’ Church of the coast. The two of them finally founded the monastery at Xishan, in the diocese of Chengdu.

If one believes all the stories, Dom Joliet was not a straightforward person. Obstinate and tenacious, he launched all his strength into imposing his visionary project of a Benedictine monastery of Chinese character, but incessantly found himself up against the limits of religious observance and juridical norms. The constraints also weighed heavily on the little community, which continually received the reinforcement of Belgian monks, and was soon receiving also Chinese candidates. In 1933, when the Abbot of Saint-André finally nominated another prior, Dom Joliet withdrew to a hermitage in the mountains, where he died three years later.

In the years which followed, the monastery of Saints Peter and Andrew developed on more traditional lines. A clinic and a seminary were opened. The new prior wished the monastery to make its name as a centre for learned Chinese studies. Hence the newly admitted monks – the monastery building was still very small – lived outside the monastery in order to devote themselves to the study of Chinese culture and language. The plans for the foundation of another monastery near Nanjings, equally supported by Dom Célestin Lou, a former Chinese politician and diplomat, came to nothing.

When in 1937 the Sino-Japanese war intensified, the monastery again found itself in a difficult situation. Some monks were requisitioned for patriotic and political purposes in the Kuomintang government. One of them was given the post of teacher of French and chaplain to Mme Chiang Kai-Shek, the wife of the Commander-in-Chief and President of the Chinese Republic. At the request of the ministry of information another took charge of the publication of a French-language periodical.

The monastery itself was transferred in 1943 to the regional capital of Chengdu, in order to allow the monks to work as deans and professors in several institutes of formation. The main apostolate of the monastery was to continue to be the study of Chinese culture and tradition. An Institute of Sino-Occidental Research was created for this purpose at Chengdu. This, however, exhausted the limited strength of the sixteen monks of the community, none of them finding the necessary time, in addition to the many tasks of teaching, to devote themselves to the serious study of ancient Chinese literature and culture.

At Christmas 1945 the communists arrived at Chengdu. At first the monks were allowed to continue unhindered in their various tasks and activities. But some three months later reprisals against the community began, initially in the form of frequent unannounced searches of the buildings. Attempts to set the six Chinese monks against their European confrères came to nothing. From 1951 onwards force was employed against the community. The prior was imprisoned for three months, and then expelled from Chinese territory. The other Europeans suffered the same fate one after another. In 1952 the last Benedictine left Chengdu.

The community did not disperse and did not rest content to return to Europe. After various experiments the monks took up residence in America, in California, where they founded a new monastery dedicated to St Andrew, the Abbey of Valyermo. The Benedictines there keep a lively memory of their Chinese beginnings. Among them was until recently Brother Peter Zhou, OSB, who had made his vows in 1950, and spent more than a quarter of a century of his monastic life in prison. In 1980, still in prison, he wrote these lines:

The struggle against wind and frost
During this frozen twenty-five-year winter
Has borne fruit, manifest fruit.

If I think of the past
If I think of the blessed future which awaits in the end.
I am full of fight.

So what, if the trial still continues?
I grow stronger and stronger for the fight.

For the glory of God
And the salvation of the world
My faith is offered in sacrifice like incense.

A Tentative Renewal

In a short time the arrival of the communists had destroyed the three Benedictine monasteries and the convents of nuns established in Manchuria and at Peking after the foundation of the monasteries. Only a few abbeys in Europe and the United States and three little monasteries in Taiwan preserve the memory of these foundations. New hopes began to develop after the death of Mao as, in 1976, China began to open up. Christian life also was renewed, for the first time independently of foreign influence. Believers, clergy and entire communities had kept the faith, in spite of severe persecution. As soon as it was possible, they also reaffirmed themselves in public as the Church, a Church weakened from the institutional point of view, but on the other hand entirely Chinese in its organisation. Religious life also had survived clandestinely. Many convents of sisters were able to be opened or reopened, although a renaissance of communities of male religious was not allowed. The dependence of several religious houses on Roman authorities remains a thorn in the flesh of the political authorities, and the transfer of a number of religious houses to Taiwan has stirred up their mistrust. The Chinese bishops themselves do not always feel a vital necessity to reintroduce male religious Congregations. Many still retain the memory of the old missionary situation in which the bishops themselves were dependent on religious Congregations. A certain number of obstacles still block the return of the Benedictines, although China is a changing landscape.

The revival of Catholic life in China has awakened in the Benedictine Order as a whole an interest which the Order bestows on no other land. One of the consequences has been the creation of a Benedictine Commission for China, in which participate all the Congregations wishing to make a link with China. The annual meeting of the Commission at Sant’Anselmo allows the representatives of the Congregations to promote projects, for example bursaries for Chinese priests and seminarians, visits to China and from China to the outside world, projects shared with local Chinese Churches and many others. Thanks to intensive fostering of several contacts with the Chinese Church, interest is developing in established ecclesiastical circles for Benedictine monasticism. Since 1996 Mgr Zong Huaide, former President of the official Conference of Chinese Bishops, has shown great enthusiasm for the life and action of Benedictine monks. On the occasion of a symposium he expressed the hope that there would be also Benedictine monasteries in the Catholic Church of China. In very recent times several Chinese Catholics have had an intense experience of monastic life, partly with the support of official organisations. The establishment of monasteries is therefore no longer a question of principle, but only a matter of time.