Two documentaries about Pope Francis and Catholic history in China were recently aired in China, a sign that Beijing has been grasping the opportunity to improve China-Vatican ties under the papacy of Pope Francis.
In a change from the past, topics related to Catholicism have appeared frequently on China's mainstream media platforms in recent months, which experts say is a good sign for China-Vatican relations.
On July 21, Phoenix Satellite TV, a Hong Kong-based television channel whose main audience is in the Chinese mainland, aired a documentary entitled Beyond East and West: When China meets the Vatican.
"Although China and the Vatican haven't formally established diplomatic ties, the Holy See has never showed any less concern for the distant Eastern land," the narrator said in the documentary.
In the same month, German filmmaker Wim Wenders' documentary 'Pope Francis: A Man of His Word' became available on Chinese streaming giant iQiyi, just two months after the film's Cannes premiere in May. According to website data, it has had a viewership of 119,000 so far.
Programs involving introductions to Catholicism are rarely presented on mainstream media in China where the government administers radio, film and television.
Although the two documentaries did not trigger much discussion on Chinese social media, Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Centre of European Studies at the Renmin University of China and a Vatican affairs expert, said this is a positive signal that shows China's good will in improving China-Vatican relations.
"I think it is a very important sign that China pays great attention to religion and to the Holy See, the largest unitary religion in the world. It is also evidence that China is willing to change and recognize in a modern way the role of elements in society, such as religion, which can improve the social fabric and understanding both within China and with the world," he told the Global Times.
The one-hour program by Phoenix TV documents the history of Christianity in China from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Middle East missionary Alopen travelled to the court of the Taizong Emperor in Chang'an, then capital of the Tang Empire, and introduced Christianity to the religiously tolerant emperor.
The documentary went on to introduce the religion's ups and downs in China, and its conflicts with Chinese emperors and rulers in history. It pays special attention to Catholic missionaries to China such as Matteo Ricci, who brought mathematical and astronomical knowledge to China, Frédéric-Vincent Lebbe, known for his identification with Chinese people, and Celso Benigno Luigi Costantini, the first apostolic delegate to China.
In addition to many academics and experts from China and Italy, the documentary also interviewed high-level Chinese and Italian priests, including Federico Lombardi, former director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Peter Zhao Jianmin of the Catholic Diocese of Beijing, Father Shen Baozhi, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Shanghai, and Father Leo Zhang Liang of the Tianjin diocese.
"The documentary is very well made and really shows the efforts of the filmmakers," Wang Meixiu, an expert on Catholic studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was also interviewed in the documentary, told the Global Times.
Wim Wenders' documentary follows Pope Francis' life from when he was elected pope in 2013 and features exclusive footage from the Vatican. Although the film doesn't mention China, it features some footage of Chinese believers.
Apart from documentaries, Catholic elements have also appeared in pop culture.
In the Chinese blockbuster Dying to Survive, which hit Chinese cinemas in July, one of the main characters is a Catholic priest, a leukaemia patient, who helped save the lives of fellow patients in his church and courageously fought with fake drug makers. The black comedy, which focuses on a businessman who imports generic pharmaceutical medicine from India to provide affordable treatment to leukemia patients in China, became the fifth-highest grossing film of all time in China.
It's rare that mainstream films on modern China have characters with a deep religious background in them. The fictional character of the priest and the portrayal by actor Yang Xinming won praise from Chinese viewers.
It also won praise from Christians. "Dying to Survive allowed the character of Priest Liu to enter the eye of the Chinese public. It demystified priests and allowed people to see what a priest is like in his daily life. Priests are not limited to preaching in the church, but also spread evangelism in the hospital wards, care for people and serve the people," reads one review by a Christian public account on questions-and-answers website zhihu.com.
Pope Francis has showed enormous commitment to improving China-Vatican relations since his papacy started in March 2013. Talks between the Holy See and the Chinese government were reinitiated and have been going on and off for years, according to officials from the two sides.
Experts say the pope's Jesuit background and Latin American origin both played a role in his commitment to China.
Pope Francis is the first pope from the Society of Jesus. Famous Jesuits include Matteo Ricci, and they are renowned for being flexible in their approach to evangelization and deft at communicating with high-level Chinese officials throughout history, according to Wang Meixiu.
Matteo Ricci, for example, managed to convert Ming Dynasty Chinese official and scholar Xu Guangqi when he was 41 years old, and the latter played a vital role in introducing the Catholic religion to China.
During the Chinese Rites controversy in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when Rome debated whether Chinese Christians could follow traditional Chinese practices of honoring family ancestors and other Confucian rites, the Jesuits argued that these rites were secular and should be allowed. The pope, however, did not follow the Jesuits' advice and banned these practices, infuriating the Qing court and resulting in the expulsion of Catholic missionaries from China.
Pope Francis' Latin American background plays a role too. "Pope Francis is from Latin America, and believes he has a good understanding of Marxists because of the liberation theology that was popular in Latin America, and he thinks the Chinese Communists are perhaps similar to the Marxists in Latin America," Yang Fenggang, a scholar of Chinese religion at Purdue University, told the Global Times in a previous interview.
But Wang said regardless of the pope's background, efforts to mend China-Vatican relations will occur. "Whether he is a Jesuit or not, he would still be committed to improving China-Vatican relations as the pope is the leader of all Catholic churches, and the fact that the Chinese church has no open communications with the pope isn't normal in the Catholic world," she told the Global Times.
Experts say that the papacy of Francis, therefore, is the golden opportunity for China to mend ties with the Vatican. "It could benefit the Church, China and the world," Sisci said.
"If, conversely, ties are not mended now, with this attitude so positive of this pope, the future pope could lose hope and may even revert to a confrontational attitude. It is like when wooing a lover: if you accept the other person's courtship love can blossom. If one refuses the other, there might easily be a freeze or even hate," he added.
See a trailer (in Chinese) for Dying to Survive: www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNl_kIW0Xjw
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