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65 The orphanage gatekeeper in Cave Gully used to tell the story of a Chinese priest who entered the seminary late, after he had been married and widowed. He had very good grades so he did well, but he could not accept the low status of the Chinese priests. The Chinese priests were not treated with respect: at meals they sat at seats below the foreigners so when there was chicken the best bits were all gone before it reached the Chinese, and when they died they were buried at the feet of the foreign priests. So after hiding for three years, this priest ran away to Rome, but it was very difficult to get to see the pope, so he wrote his petition out and wore it on his head to attract the pope’s attention. The pope saw it and was convinced. He ordered that in the future, relations between the Chinese and foreign priests should be equal: they should eat facing each other and be buried head to head. When the priest got back to Cave Gully he entered on his knees with his back towards the bishop. The bishop asked why he did this, so he explained that it was because the Chinese priests’ position was low. Then he handed over the letter from the pope. This tale has a variety of endings, all of them demonstrating the priest’s success in his campaign for equality between the Chinese and foreign clergy. Wang Tingrong, who is often called Wang Ruose (Joseph), had already become a folk hero only a few years after his death: in the version collected by Barnaba Nanetti in the 1890s, he emigrates to America. In versions circulating today he becomes parish priest of a wealthy village, chapter 3 The Priest Who Ran Away to Rome 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 65 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 65 27/04/13 3:46 PM 27/04/13 3:46 PM 66 | The Priest Who Ran Away to Rome repeatedly refuses positions offered to him by the missionary bishop, and even introduces to Shanxi the foreign practices of growing tomatoes and smallpox vaccination.1 The story follows the form of many Chinese folktales, in which the hero undergoes many trials but finally reaches the virtuous ruler and is justified. It also fits into a pattern of popular stories of modern Chinese nationalism: to Shanxi Catholics today Wang Tingrong is a familiar nationalist hero who resisted the demeaning treatment of Chinese by foreigners. After many years of propaganda by the Communist government accusing Catholics of subservience to the foreign powers, the story of a priest who persevered in such difficulties to resist foreign oppression proves the strength of Catholic patriotism. But this is not simply a tale of Chinese nationalism, but also one about being part of a great transnational institution: Wang makes his petition not to a Chinese official but to Pope Pius IX in Rome. The global aspect of the story becomes even more important when we know more about Wang Tingrong’s life. He was born in Newtown , a Catholic village where the leading inhabitants were large-scale merchants in cloth and medicines. Far from being someone who resisted foreign control because he became a priest later in life, he entered the seminary in his early teens, presumably because his uncle was a priest. The priesthood was a lucrative and well-respected occupation , so there was considerable competition for seminary places and they often went to the relatives of priests and Christian leaders. Family connections made it very hard to ask these boys to leave the seminary if they turned out not to be suited for the priesthood. There is no evidence that Wang Tingrong was ever particularly devout, but nevertheless in 1838, during the last of the major government crackdowns against Christianity, he was among a group of seminarians sent first to Macao for safety and then on to the College for Chinese in Naples to continue their studies.2 In Naples he experienced the rising tide of Italian nationalism and the dramatic European revolutions of 1848. His later Chinese nationalism was shaped by the Italian south, a complex world where clergy were inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment but struggled against the modern state; resisted the growing dominance of the church hierarchy over their lives, but shared the longing of many European Catholics for the elevation of the pope. When Wang came back from Naples he brought these ideas with him, but in China they...


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