China in the 20th Century Fr. Seán McDonagh

I am a Columban, missionary, priest. I spent many years working on the island of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines.  The original name for the Society of St. Columban,  was the Maynooth Mission to China.  This is still its legal name in Ireland.  It was called the Maynooth Mission to China because the founders of the Society had studied for the priesthood in Maynooth and one of them, Fr. John Blowick was a professor of theology in Maynooth.  Our patron, St. Columban was the most famous of the Irish monks who built monasteries in Europe from the 6th to the 8th century. His feast day is November 23rd.

By the time I entered the seminary of the Society of St. Columban, here in Dalgan in 1962, all Columban missionaries had been expelled from China during the early part of the previous decade.  Still, I was always fascinated by China and spent a considerable amount of time reading back issues of The Far East. In that mission magazine Columbans described their work and mission in China from the time they arrived in 1920 until the last priest was expelled in 1954. There were stories of dedication and heroism when missionaries attempted to respond to the needs of their people most of whom lived in extreme poverty.  The thirty years which Columbans spent in China were difficult years. In the late 1920s, missionaries had to face bandits. The early 1930s saw massive floods in the area of central China where Columbans worked.  This was followed by war when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931 and six years later they attacked Beijing, Shanghai and Nanking.

The Japanese occupation of China was very brutal.  Some estimate that China lost between 15 – 20 million people in World War II. The majority of these were civilians, but there were over 2 million military causalities.   One of the most brutal events during the occupation was the Rape of Nanking. Both Columban diocese,  Hanyang  under the leadership of Bishop Edward Galvin, and Nancheng under Bishop Patrick Cleary, were occupied and looted by Japanese forces. The  story of the Columbans in China is  told in a gripping  and readable way by Fr. Neil Collins in his recent book Who Has A Blade for a Splendid Cause, published by Columba Press.

Unfortunately, for the Chinese people, the end of World War II did not bring lasting peace to China. The conflict between the Kuomintang under General Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Tse-tung re-ignited.  In 1928, the Nationalist government had forced the Communists to retreat to remote area of northwest China.  After the defeat of the Japanese the rivalry intensified.  There were a number of attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but these failed and hostilities broke out. Gradually the Communists gained the upper hand.  In October 1949, the Communists captured Beijing and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In December of that year the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and that government has remained on the island ever since.   Almost immediately after coming to power, the Government of the Peoples’ Republic of China began to attack and undermine the tiny Catholic community in China.  Assets such as schools, hospitals and orphanages were seized. Missionaries were accused of being anti-Chinese and were put on trial before being deported. Some were goaled.

Under the leadership of Mao China’s economy hardly grew at all between the 1950 and the late 1970s.  In fact, there were disastrous social experiments like the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.  In 1978 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China began to promote a series of economic reforms. For the next three decades China’s economy grew at eight or nine percent each year.

This rapid economic growth in recent decades has improved the living standards of a vast number of people.  In the early 1980s, sixty percent of the population lived on less than a dollar each day.  A dollar-a-day is the measure of poverty which the World Bank uses to compare levels of poverty across the globe. This dollar-a-day is just enough to cover the cost of basic subsistence.  According to World Bank statistics, poverty in China declined from  64 %  of China’s population in 1981 to 33% in 1990, to 15%  by 2004.  In 2010, it is expected to be well under 10% percent. While recognizing that there are political and human rights issues in China, this period of rapid economic growth in China is the largest and fastest movement out of abject poverty which as ever happened in all of human history.


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