China: Patient Scholarship, Historical Imagination, and Hope

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by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

I wanted to stay longer at the new Yuanling grave site for the seventeen Catholic missionaries on August 13, 2004. In particular, the opportunity to stand before the grave stone and touch the carved English and Chinese characters associated with the names of Passionist Fathers Walter Coveyou, Godfrey Holbein, and Clement Seybold set in motion a process of reflection about how I have come to understand China.

Since August 2004 I have found myself somewhat selective in my response to people who have asked me to explain my trip to China. This is because solitude of thought, written reflections on the trip, and discussion—often measured—with others has led me to acknowledge the tangible power of history in a manner I had not anticipated. Concretely, discussion about Fathers Coveyou, Holbein, and Seybold was less about an academic research and more about a living missionary experience kept alive by the Chinese themselves. Furthermore, I wished to ramble on with respect about the other fourteen Catholic missionaries buried in Yuanling. I was cognizant that a simple description about my Yuanling visit was, in fact, a verbal painting made up with colorful words that I gained in over thirty years of study.

Patient Scholarship

Access to the Passionist archives at St. Michael’s Passionist Monastery in Union City provided me with a new-found awareness that documents make people and events come alive. Throughout the 1970s—the archives were transferred to West Springfield, Massachusetts when the monastery closed in 1981—I found myself spending hour upon hour reading hand-written correspondence about the twentieth century Passionist mission to China. In turn, I needed a wider context. Consequently, this led me to examine historical records from many monasteries: assorted journals that celebrated jubilees or preaching; chronicles that revealed life and decision-making behind the monastery walls; and economic or legal ledgers. A dilemma ensued whereby I needed time and skill to digest the China story as part of a larger picture. Comfort with the work in the Passionist archives made me see the relevance for undertaking similar historical inquiry in the archives of a diocese or religious order, the National Archives of the United States and Canada, as well as university or independent archives.

This process of inquiry generated discomfort because I found that history produced unanticipated challenges. For instance, one of the most vivid and shocking memories for me was looking at old China photos of the 1920s. Suddenly in my hand was a photo of Father Basil Bauer, C.P. standing over a Chinese man who had just been beheaded by local officials. Over the years I have wondered what would be an appropriate caption should this ever be published. Given the present conflict in Iraq the question is ever more haunting and urgent.

Books on China have generated another sense of discomfort as well, because I realized that the China story was about missionaries that were sent to spread the gospel. The more I read the more I asked questions about missionaries as imperialists; bandits in relationship to Nationalists and Communists; famine and refugees, economics and geography, and United States diplomacy in relationship to diplomacy of the Vatican or Holy See.

Making sense of the memories shared by former missionaries to China was the ultimate test of my patience. I learned memory can be selective. I learned some memories may be painful. I had to change my mind and be open to the fact that dramatic history might very well be the ability to explain the routine of daily life in the city of Yuanling in the 1930s or in a prison cell in the 1950s.

Patient scholarship had to find a home in my mind and heart if archives, photos, books and people such as missionaries were to have relevance.

Historical Imagination

Looking back, I can say that China research has been mesmerizing. Moreover, I was indeed fortunate to somehow take all the acquired notes and ideas to the next stage and complete my dissertation at Georgetown University.

Having that degree meant that I entered a new world whereby instead of working and studying history to complete assignments for my professors, I was given the responsibility to make history sensible and public for the wide variety of audiences that may be interested in Passionist history. To achieve success in this area I had to use my historical imagination. By this I mean I had to envision numerous creative ways that would bring history to life in two areas: as historian and, eventually, as director of the Passionist Historical Archives.

Teaching history to undergraduates and graduates led me to blend facts and theories of interpretation through lecturing. I was surprised how my preaching and ministry in retreat houses provided me with a firm foundation. On the one hand, I made a decision to teach history to undergraduates so they might be able to become critical thinkers. In part this meant a willingness to see facts as part of an inter-disciplinary mosaic of ideas that could be re-articulated in a term paper or essay exam. Engendering respect for the thematic analysis was a definite by-product of China dynastic study. On the other hand, teaching graduate students presented the opportunity for students to be historical contributors in their own right and use original sources. Study of Chinese history had made me respect that creative inquiry was a risk worth taking. Creative also was the opportunity to learn from their research.

Experiences of administration gained from various academic employment opportunities, work on committees, collaboration on large projects, and in archives management has taken time to appreciate. Saying yes to a project, declining to participate in a project, or better yet negotiate a project has required application of historical imagination that meant sound planning and appropriate use of time, financial management, and use of an internal intellectual clock to research, think, travel, write, and rest. All too often I have found the rested mind to be the first casualty. Making sense of the vastness and unknown of the China story has made me more comfortable to enter into the varied terrain of historical imagination in an all the more realistic fashion. Historical imagination offers unlimited ways to experience the wealth of limited interpretation.

As time has gone by I have found understanding Passionist history has proved to offer as many hurdles as Chinese history. For example, study of each monastery or ministry is so much like spending time researching a specific province in China. One can spend an inordinate amount of time on the topic which becomes a world unto itself. More sensitive is how historical imagination has led me to study Passionist identity as it corresponds to Passionist spirituality, intellectual life, and religious culture. I sometimes wonder if the lore of the Great Wall of China is similar to the lore of a full-monastic choir of Passionists in full habits. Like China myths, Passionist myths can comfort or upset life in the historical imagination.

Finally, historical imagination has encouraged me to be—as much as possible—a discerning writer. I hearken back to the wisdom of Father Linus Lombard, C.P. This old China hand reminded me to love China. Since it was bigger and richer than I could imagine, my life would make more sense if I did not make understanding China a burden. Rather history should be a gift. He encouraged me to use my historical imagination and creativity to understand and share what I know—not what I don’t know. As a result, I know that audiences are different. Internet audiences are different than those who read Passionist public relations inserts. Journal articles are different than books. Salvaging documentation to keep in the archives is a challenge unto itself. Once in the archives, arranging and preserving the documentation is a different challenge altogether. Historical imagination and creativity instills responsibility of knowledge for all parties concerned.


Ministry and service as a Passionist priest, historian, and archives director is a constant opportunity to see hope realized. On the world stage this took place at the new grave site in Yuanling, China. I have to remind myself that this moment in Chinese history emerged into a hopeful experience through years of reading documents in archives and doing my best to remember my love to speak the Chinese language. Furthermore, hope was present during the trip through the give and take of negotiations which were so real. When confronted with perplexing situations I was able to recall the wide range of experiences that only the study of history can teach.

Ideally, I wish to see history as a hopeful means for peace. Maybe that is why I have spent so much time studying military history in China. Life is not utopian. Peace and reconciliation demand cultural awareness. What gives me hope now? It is that our desire to resonate with the multi-cultural world may in fact lead us back to respect how much we must bring the depth of culture back into our own lives as people and nations. History can be an important deposit of knowledge in the quest.

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