At last, they rest in peace

By Qin Danfeng
0 CommentsPrint E-mail Global Times, March 29, 2010
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Steles commemorating missionaries to China. Photos: Qin Danfeng

 Steles commemorating missionaries to China. Photos: Qin Danfeng

While the name of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the CPC Party School leads one to believe the campus must be populated by statues of famous party leaders, in actuality the grounds are home to something rather unexpected: a cemetery of foreign missionaries who came to China during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Over the course of 400 years, Zhalan Cemetery, located in the center of the campus, came to be the final resting place of more than 100 foreign missionaries at the end of not only their journeys to China, but also the journeys of their lives. As a result of the upheavals of the Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution, only 63 tombstones currently remain.

Stepping over the threshold of a stone gate, the tombstone of Matteo Ricci, an Italian missionary who brought Western science, mathematics and geography to Chinese intellects, stands out from its companions, Ferdinand Verbiest on the left and Johann Adam Schall von Bell on the right, both also famous missionaries in China. Behind the memorials, unoccupied stone coffins lie on the ground, emptied of their bodies during the Boxer Rebellion. A humble gray wall separates the three men from the outside world.

On the other side of the wall, there are 60 more missionaries' tombstones, which including Gi-useppe Castiglione, an Italian missionary and a famous royal painter during the Qing Dynasty.

Every tombstone is topped by a carved dragon and cross, in an unusual combination of Chinese and Western cultures and religions. The epitaphs are carved in Chinese and Latin, with only a simple sentence to tell the story of each owner's life.

When Ricci died in 1610, his body was supposed to be buried in the seminary in Macao according to the rules at that time. But due to Ricci's great contributions, government officers, missionaries and his followers presented a petition to Emperor Wanli, asking permission for Ricci to be buried in Beijing as an official recognition of the church in China. Since then, more and more missionaries were buried in Zhalan Cemetery.

In 1900, Boxer rebels destroyed the burial grounds. After the Eight-Power Allied Forces invaded China, they forced the Qing government to rebuild the cemetery and erect a stone plaque to apologize. Maweigou Church was constructed next to the cemetery at the same time, with some of the remaining tombstones of other missionaries mounted in the wall.

It was only the beginning of Zhalan's troubles. In the 1950s, the cemetery was moved to Xibeiwang because of the city's expansion. The original plot of land was donated to the Beijing municipal committee (hence the shared grounds with the CPC School), but the tombstones of Ricci, Verbiest and Schall remained in place.

In 1966, the Cultural Revolution sought to eradicate all things either related to religion or foreigners. The missionaries' cemetery was something the Red Guards could not miss. The tombstones were knocked over and buried deep in the earth to convey the message, "Prevent the foreign devils from seeing the daylight for eternity."

After Deng Xiaoping came to power, he ordered the cemetery rebuilt as required by the Italian government, creating the version of the burial plots visible at Zhalan Cemetery.

"Lots of foreign visitors come here every year, and I believe most of them are religious believers," a retired employee from the school told Lifestyle. Politicians from these missionaries' home countries, such as the Italian former president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and the French former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, came to pay their respect as well, but the most frequent visitors, the retiree said, are the campus' stray cats.

Address: No. 6 Chegongzhuang Road, Xicheng District

Directions: Take Subway Line 2 to Chegongzhuang Stop

The entrance to Matteo Ricci's tomb. Photos: Qin Danfeng

 The entrance to Matteo Ricci's tomb. Photos: Qin Danfeng

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