A Reflection on Zhalan, a cemetery in Beijing where illustrious Italians rest
“A visitor who travels to Beijing might not expect to find a cemetery that honors in a very special way a past Christian missionary presence, where numerous illustrious Italians rest since 1610. Quite ironically, one may say, is that Zhalan cemetery is located on the grounds of the Beijing Administrative College, better known as the Communist Party School. The school is located in the northwestern part of downtown Beijing.
A gift of the Emperor
The Zhalan Cemetery lies in a quiet and secluded area shaded in the green foliage of cypresses and pines and the majestic beauty of yellow poplars. The cemetery includes the tombstones of Italian Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), German John Adam Schall Von Bell (1591-1666), Belgian Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) and 60 other clergymen: 46 foreign missionaries and 14 Chinese priests, all people who were in China during the Late Ming and Qing dynasties.
With almost 400 years of history, Zhalan is Beijing’s oldest Christian cemetery. Matteo Ricci, from Macerata, the distinguished Jesuit scientist and missionary, and certainly the most admired missionaries ever to come to China, was the first person to be buried there. Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest, two other distinguished Jesuit colleagues, later joined him. These three men brought about a mutually enriching exchange between China and the West. As time passed, many other missionaries from many countries and Chinese priests were buried there.
Matteo Ricci must be credited for uniting two of the world’s most celebrated civilizations: the Chinese Ming Dynasty and the Italian Renaissance. He did so in the name of friendship, science, culture and faith. His early death at the age of 57, on 11 May 1610, was due to overwork, from constantly receiving and visiting his friends and guests. In those days, many literati from all over the country would go to Beijing for their examinations; many desired to meet the learned man from the West, famous for his writings.
The Ming Emperor Wanli Emperor himself provided the land for Ricci’s burial site, an unprecedented privilege for a foreigner. This was not only considered official recognition of Ricci’s work, but also affirmed the legitimacy of the Christian presence on Imperial soil. The Jesuits took over the property in 1610. Throughout the years Ricci, Schall and Verbiest’s tombs has served as a witness and a challenge to China and Europe that dialogue between the two is not only possible but also mutually enriching.
Matteo Ricci’s positive influences on human history may be under-appreciated. Joseph Needham, author of the monumental work Science and Civilization in China shares this opinion. Along with Marco Polo, Ricci is the only non-Chinese mentioned in the inscription on the China Millennium Monument in Beijing. Under the name of Li Madou, Ricci is included in history books of China, while he is not so well known in Italy. His extraordinary work warrants much more attention than is given here and, unfortunately, this work is too short to go into greater details.
Italians buried in Beijing oldest Christian cemetery
Besides Ricci, there are tombstones of three more great Italians. The Jesuit astronomer from Milan Giacomo Rho (1553-1638), in 1621 helped Macau people defending themselves from Dutch attacks building cannons. In Beijing he helped Adam Schall Von Bell in the reformation and correction of Chinese calendar. Jesuit Ludovico Buglio (1606-1682), from Mineo (Catania), a great sinologist who took on himself the not easy task of translating in Chinese the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas, and numerous other liturgical texts.
The most famous Italian buried in Beijing, after Ricci, was certainly the painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). Born in Milan, Jesuit Brother Castiglione served as an architect and painter at the court of the Qing emperor and took the Chinese name of Lang Shining, a name familiar to most educated Chinese. In Beijing, Castiglione designed the palaces in the Western-style imperial gardens of the Old Summer Palace; he also completed several paintings, including the famous representations of horses now housed at Taipei’s National Museum.
The other seven Italians are not equally well known: the Jesuits Giacomo Antonini (Venice, 1701-1739); Giovanni Giuseppe da Costa (Naples, 1679-1747); Fernando Bonaventura Moggi (Florence, 1684-1761); the member of Saint John Baptist Congregation Giuseppe Francesco della Torre (Genoa, 1732-1785) and the Franciscans Angelo da Borgo San Siro (Pavia, 1669-1724); Eusebio da Cittadella (Padua, 1717-1785); Crescenziano Cavalli (Ivrea, 1744-1791).
In June 1900, when the Boxers entered the Zhalan property, there were 88 gravesites. The Boxers leveled all the graves, opened the tombs, gathered the remains, burned them and scattered them everywhere. When the Boxer Rebellion ended, the property was returned to the Catholic Church. Out of respect for the dead, all remains which could be found were gathered together and placed at the north end of the property and covered with a mound. The Church of All Saints was built at the south end of the cemetery, and the most ancient tombstones except those of Ricci, Schall and Verbiest and three others were on the outer walls of the Church.
In 1954, the Municipal Party Committee of the Communist Party of Beijing began to make plans to set up a Party school on the Zhalan property. Zhou Enlai himself personally made the decision to keep the tombs of Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest in their original places.
When on August 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) zealous Red Guards descended upon Zhalan Cemetery, the tombs of Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest were relics protected by Beijing’s Cultural Relics Bureau. The Red Guards ordered the Principal of the Party School to totally demolish the cultural relics. However the principal suggested to dig three holes and bury the stones. In this way, the steles of Ricci, Schall and Verbiest had been preserved.
In 1973, the Church of all Saints was also demolished and tombstones of 77 missionaries that had been placed in the church’s exterior wall were scattered across the yard.
A new era for Zhalan
Following the end of the Cultural Revolution (1976), and China’s new openness to the outside world, the head of a delegation of scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Xu Duxin, went to Italy. He heard a great deal about Matteo Ricci and his contribution to the cultural exchange between East and West. He met various officials and scholars, including Professor Piero Corradini, from Macerata University, one of the most important Italian sinologists. Many friends expressed the hope that a memorial to Ricci could be set up on the original site. Mr. Xu was also informed that in Italy there was a replica of the original stele. Italia politician and friend of China, Vittorino Colombo, was also instrumental in facilitating the interest of the Chinese on the restoration of the cemetery. The Central Committee of the Communist Party approved the project and gave the responsibility for restoring the tomb to the Beijing City People’s Government, that promptly organized a team to start working. The tombs of Ricci, Schall and Verbiest were unearthed and repaired, so that the three original steles were restored.
In 1984, the cemetery, now adjoining the Beijing Administrative College was again added to the list of Beijing’s protected monuments. The Municipal Party Committee provided money to extend the missionaries cemetery. Sixty of the tombstones that had originally been placed in the wall of the church in 1903 and in 1978 were set up in neat rows.
In 1997, Jesuit Father Edward Malatesta (d.1999), together with Gao Zhiyu, Yu Sanle, and Lin Hua (researchers at the Beijing Administrative College), published a beautiful and notable book on the history of Zhalan Cemetery, with pictures of all the tombstones. The volume is entitled, Departed, Yet Present: Zhalan, The Oldest Christian Cemetery in Beijing, It is now available in English, Chinese and Portuguese at the Instituto Cultural de Macao.
The lost sheep Zhalan
There are presently 63 tombs in Zhalan, a lasting memorial: Chinese, Macanese and Western, many of whom worked for emperors in a variety of capacities as astronomers, physicians, engineers, artists, musicians, etc. Most of the tombstones carry the three letters D.O.M. signifying the motivation for their life and presence. These letters are the Latin abbreviation of Deo Optimo Maximo. Loosely translated, this means “To the Most Good and Great God.”
In December of 1990, Father Edward Malatesta, of happy memory, who has done extensive research on the Zhalan Cemetery was taking a leisurely stroll in the cemetery and the grounds of the Administrative College. He wrote,
A stone object caught my eye. It turned out to be the figure of a sheep carved out in marble, reclining silently and peacefully under the trees of the extensive campus some 30 yards from the cemetery. The sheep aroused my curiosity. What was it doing here alone, obviously out of context? Where did it come from? When was it made? How did it get here? The guardian of the cemetery agreed with me that this lost sheep might well be a lone survivor of the decorations of Schall’s original grave…The lost sheep now found stands watchful guard at the entrance at the western side of the Zhalan Cemetery.
Historical developments effected the return of the tombstone of Matteo Ricci and other missionaries of Zhalan Cemetery to their original resting place on the grounds of the Beijing Communist Party School (Beijing Administrative College). As a consequence the College has established a Center for cultural exchange and historical research named after Matteo Ricci.
It seems that this is a witness, a sign that Christianity is indeed part of China, yesterday, today and tomorrow. The results of the Catholic mission in Late Ming and Qing China appeared to some commentators as so insignificant that they spoke of it as a failure. While the results were certainly modest and controversial, they were, nevertheless, well grounded and enduring. A number of Chinese people were deeply touched by the Christian message. Italians were protagonists in this exchange, made in name of religion, science, culture and friendship.
This “Christian” cemetery in today’s Beijing, together with a second one, which consists of a series of 36 tombstones of early Qing French Jesuit missionaries that occupy a section of the Beijing Art Museum of Stone Carvings, are a clear sign, an eloquent witness that, from an evangelical perspective, even a modest result can have great significance. The Christian tombstones seem also to be a prophetic symbol, a sign of hope, an indication of a path on which all Chinese and other world religions should walk: a path of respect, dialogue, mutual understanding and appreciation, collaboration and unity. Religions, cultures and art can and should contribute, in China as anywhere else, to the elevation of human spirit, to the promotion of human aspirations, to the dignity of human life in all its complexities and expressions.
This cemetery shaded among cypresses and pines with their fascinating tombstones of people of different nationalities provide visitors with an exceptional and unique setting for deep and creative reflection.”
Gianni Criveller is a long-time Hong Kong resident and religious scholar. He spent 22 years in Greater China and is currently Professor at The Holy Spirit Seminar College of Theology and Philosophy in Hong Kong, as well as Honorary research Associate at the Centre for Catholic Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has a Doctorate in Dogmatic Theology at The San Thomas Aquinas Theological Faculty of Naples, with a thesis on early Jesuits’ China missions. Professor Criveller presided over the historical commission for the beatification of Matteo Ricci, the great China missionary. His books include “Preaching Christ in Late Ming China” and “From Milan to Hong Kong, 150 years of Mission.”