Book review: The Memoirs of Jin Luxian

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 1:50pm

The Memoirs of Jin Luxian: Learning and Relearning, 1916-1982

by Jin Luxian

(translated by William Hanbury-Tenison)

HKU Press

When one's country is overrun by communists hell-bent on rooting out foreign influence, what can a Catholic priest do but follow the biblical advice: to be as cunning as snakes and yet as innocent as doves?

This was the choice apparently made by Aloysius Jin Luxian, who spent more than two decades in jail for the "crimes" of being part of the church leadership in 1950s Shanghai, and, after his release, took another 20 years before receiving a papal pardon from the Vatican for collaborating with Beijing by becoming its "illicit" bishop.

Jin, in the latest English-language translation of the first part of his memoirs, details the dramatic ups and downs in his life from birth, through imprisonment to the eve of his dramatic comeback to become the most powerful government-sanctioned bishop in the mainland church, who later also gained recognition from the Vatican.

"As long as my actions served the greater glory of the Lord, I went ahead in confidence," wrote the 96-year-old, citing the motto of the Society of Jesus of which he is a member.

The problem, as readers may realise, is how to interpret what is good for the church.

In many respects, this is a sad story which follows Jin's path since he was recalled in 1951 from his priestly training in Europe to reluctantly face danger posed by the communists in his native Shanghai. This was the start of his 18-year period in jail, and subsequent years spent with limited freedom as a translator under close government supervision.

With Beijing's recent unilateral decision to remove Shanghai's future Catholic leader, Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, Jin's experiences in the pre-1980 period serve as a stark reminder that even today, Catholics are still punished for not toeing the government line, despite being allowed to practise their faith in public.

For Jin, the main reason to write this account was to put the record straight: there had been as many critical allegations against him as there was praise.

Passing judgment on individuals who crossed paths with him, Jin hits back - with an occasional hint of bitterness - at accusations including claims that he had betrayed others in exchange for a lenient sentence, and that he was a two-faced opportunist who was after power rather than holiness.

The grudges the young Jin bore against foreign missionaries, and his controversial views towards Cardinal Ignatius Gong Pinmei, who was fiercely anti-communist, are a prelude to the later Bishop Jin who would openly embrace the banner of a communist-sanctioned church seeking independence from Rome in the 1980s.

While one cannot find fault with British art dealer William Hanbury-Tenison's translation, those who have read the original Chinese text may agree that Jin's narrative in his native tongue reveals extra dimensions to his emotions.

Readers may feel let down by the abrupt ending of this book. And there is little from the arguably more important phase of Jin's life, including his appointment in 1985 by the central government as a bishop in Shanghai without papal approval.

Readers will have to wait for the next part of the memoir, which is being drafted and has to clear Beijing's censors, to learn about Jin's political skills in bargaining with Beijing to rebuild the church in Shanghai (making it the most powerful diocese in China), and his delicate manoeuvres to regain the Vatican's favour.

This book alone won't offer a full picture of the mainland church during the troubled decades after 1950. But Jin's unique perspectives are valuable in providing fuller details to key historical events about the church and its people.