Christ and Confucius in Belgium

Dom Pierre-Célestin René Lou Tseng-Tsiang OSB was a remarkable man with a remarkably long name, every part of which has a little to say about him.

He was born in 1871, during the declining Qing dynasty. His family name was Lou (pronounced Lu, written 陸), and his given name was Tseng-Tsiang, written 徵祥. In Chinese, one’s given name can consist of any character (essentially, any word) or pair of characters, so they tend to be chosen for their meaning and with great care: tseng 徵 can mean ‘to ask for’ or ‘a sign’, and tsiang 祥 means ‘good fortune’ or ‘happiness’. His father, Lou Yong-Fong, was a Protestant catechist at a Shanghai mission, and would have known very well the Christian significance of these ideas. 

In his autobiography, Souvenirs et pensées (translated into English by Michael Derrick as ‘Ways of Confucius and Christ’, from which the quotes below are taken), he writes that his parents taught him ‘to face critics among men and the vicissitudes of life’. Unfortunately, this may have been necessary; he enrolled at the age of 13 in the School of Modern Languages in Shanghai, where he specialised in French, and sometimes used the French name René. At this time in China, parts of many major cities were effectively European or Japanese colonies, in which Chinese law and the Qing government had no jurisdiction; in Shanghai, the French Concession was not dissolved until 1943. It is easy to see why the students at the School of Modern Languages were regarded almost as traitors.

Lou would remain caught between these poles his whole life: as a diplomat in Russia and in Europe, he moved among foreigners who saw his country as inferior; but he always retained the deepest attachment to the Christian religion, first as a Protestant and then, after his conversion in 1912, as a Catholic.

Christianity is arguably not a foreign religion in China: the Nestorian Stele, an inscription documenting the arrival of Nestorian Christian missionaries from the Eastern Roman Empire during the Tang dynasty, dates its introduction to 635 AD, hardly later than the Gregorian Mission. Nonetheless, many Chinese leaders have seen it as a threat: the Kangxi Emperor had expelled all Christian missionaries in China by 1721, after years of controversy about the compatibility of Christianity and Confucianism; the Taiping Rebellion, which had caused the deaths of at least 20 million people by 1871, was headed by a pseudo-Christian syncretic religious leader who believed himself to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother; the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising, was brutally suppressed in 1900 by Western powers seeking retribution for the murder and expulsion of missionaries.

With this history, for Lou to be wholeheartedly Christian and Catholic took immense courage; but he was not entirely alone. He relates that his mentor, Shu King-Shen, a Qing diplomat and Catholic, told him: ‘The strength of Europe is not to be found in her armaments; it is not to be found in her science; it is to be found in her religion. Take the most ancient branch of that religion and enter into it. When you have grasped the heart and the strength of the religion of Christ, bring them and give them to China.’

Shu King-Shen’s Christianity made him suspicious to the late Qing court, and he was executed by the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1900, nominally for having opposed the Boxer Rebellion. His severed head was displayed at the Caishikou execution grounds in Beijing. Lou planned all his life to return to China as a missionary to carry out his mentor’s wishes, but was never able to do so.

While Lou was in Russia, he met Berthe Bovy, the Catholic daughter of a Belgian officer, and they were shortly married. Though they had no children, he wrote that it was said of their household: ‘Nobody speaks ill of his neighbour in Madame Lou’s drawing-room’. He attributed his conversion to Catholicism (after ten years of marriage) partly to her immense sensitivity, and described her as having ‘a true Confucianist wisdom’. 

Lou always believed, like the old Jesuit missionaries, that Christianity and Confucianism were compatible. One of the central tenets of Confucianism is that leaders have a sacred duty to be virtuous, and to rule by example; Lou wrote after the Second World War that he wished that the rulers of the future should not ‘obscure their moral and spiritual sense’. He meant this in both a Christian and a Confucian way, and was doubly disappointed.

When President Yuan Shikai, in 1915, dissolved the newly established Republic of China and installed himself as the Hongxian Emperor, it was Lou, then his Prime Minister, who was most horrified. He had accepted the office only reluctantly, and because he saw Yuan as a capable statesman. The ‘Empire’ lasted only for a year, but it irreparably damaged the young Republic, and condemned it to decades of warlordism and anarchy.

Demoralised by a reactionary and nominally Confucian coup, Lou and his country were soon to be treated just as badly by Christian and progressive European powers. As leader of the Chinese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, he was outraged by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ceded Shandong (formerly occupied by Germany) to Japan, instead of returning it to China. In protest, he refused to sign the treaty; China was the only participant not to do so.

Berthe was by now seriously ill, and for her health she and Lou moved to Switzerland in 1922, where he became the Chinese envoy to the League of Nations. Neither of them would ever return to China. After her death, he became in 1927 a Benedictine postulant at St Andrew’s Abbey in Bruges, under the name Pierre-Célestin. He would remain a religious for the rest of his life, being ordained in 1935, and in 1946 being appointed by Pope Pius XII as abbot of St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent. He lived to see his country torn apart by Japanese invasion and his abbey occupied by German soldiers. Even after the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the ensuing Chinese Civil War meant that he was never able to return home to carry out the instructions that Shu King-Shen had given him so long before.

After Berthe’s death, Lou wrote these words about her:

‘She has carried my religious life into her grave, and I have carried her eternal life into my retreat. What is there remaining for us to say to one another, to suggest to one another, to ask of one another? We have given to each other all that God has given us to exchange between us: body against body, heart against heart, soul against soul, the religious life against eternal life. Yes; death has separated us, but the religious life has united us a second time, and forever. She watches over me; I pray with and for her. She looks at me from above; I admire her from below. Between us, no distance has ever existed. Today, one more bond unites us more closely than ever; our communion. Oh, my dear life’s friend, for me thou art not dead; thou livest. But I, I am dead, and have well died, for thee!’.

Lou died in Bruges on the 15th of January 1949. Only a few months later, the civil war ended with a Communist victory. By 1953, Mao Zedong’s officially atheist government had expelled all foreign missionaries from China, and in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, gangs of students violently suppressed any expression of religion or traditional culture. Almost all churches, mosques and temples were forced to close, and the possession of religious texts was made illegal; the cemetery of Confucius was desecrated, and the body of the 76th Duke of Yansheng (a title given to the direct descendants of Confucius) was dug up and hung from a tree. At least 200,000 people died; some estimates are as high as 20 million.

What can this life, so remarkable and yet so disappointing, teach us? Lou Tseng-Tsiang did not live to see anything that he hoped for. He was not ordained a priest until the age of 64, and he lived the last years of his life in seclusion, among people to whom his language and culture were alien. There is no cause open for his sainthood, he was given no papal honours, and he had no children. Maybe he did indeed live a life of ‘heroic virtue’; truthfully, I don’t know. But that he lived as a faithful Catholic is certain.

I shall close with the words with which he closes his autobiography:

‘What has my life been worth? Heaven will judge it. But you would please me if, at the end of my story, you would join with me in praying to God that my poor qualities may bear witness to His goodness and to His majesty.’

At the end of our stories, may we all be able to ask the same.

David Fenton-Smith