Hong Kong 2: Historical Notes

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Hong Kong 2: Historical Notes

For this installment of my reflections on Hong Kong, I wanted to talk a little bit about HK’s history, and how it fits into the schema I have been developing on these trips.

When a person first gets to Hong Kong, after a relaxing massage–foot, or whole body–and a good meal (after all, there are priorities!), I recommend that the first major thing he or she does is go to the Hong Kong Museum of History, in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Their website gives you a very good glimpse of this amazing resource.

The history of this remarkable area is chronicled from prehistory to the handover in 1997. You can see the exhibits on the web pages. Here are my thoughts.

The Hong Kong history exhibit is very well mounted, with signage in Chinese and English. Briefly, one learns that this Fragrant/Incense Harbor (Cantonese: Heung Gawng) has been home to humans since around 4000 BCE. At the time when the area was inhabited by the Tanka people, beginning in the 11th Century, one by one, the Five Great Clans of the Han began to migrate here from farther north: first the Tang, then the Hau, the Pang, the Liu and the Man. Collectively, the Cantonese-speaking Chinese Clans called themselves the Punti, the “locals” or “indigenous,” which, of course, they were not: So often humans do this!

For centuries, this small outcropping on the edge of Guangdong (Canton) Province was a neglected part of the Chinese Empire. Unfortunately for them, they sided with the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in the uprising that toppled that regime and ushered in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Qing rulers were none too pleased at this, and after their victory, in the 1660s, the Qing ordered Hong Kong and the surrounding area on the Southeastern coast evacuated of inhabitants.

Excursus: Christianity in China:

The period of the Ming Dynasty was an interesting one for Christians. As you recall, The Church of the East (Persian Christians) evangelized the Mongols, beginning around the 630s. The Nestorian Stele commemorates the 150th anniversary of this. Chaldean Christianity flourished among the Mongols:

“Know ye, O our Fathers, that many of our Fathers (Chaldean missionaries since the 7th century) have gone into the countries of the Mongols, and Turks, and Chinese and have taught them the Gospel, and at the present time there are many Mongols who are Christians. For many of the sons of the Mongol kings and queens have been baptized and confess Christ. And they have established churches in their military camps, and they pay honour to the Christians, and there are among them many who are believers.”—Travels of Rabban Bar Sauma, as related to the Western Monarchs.

This was Asian Christians sharing their faith with other Asians. The much fabled Prester John, although sometimes located by legend in Ethiopia, was also identified as the Christian Mongol Toghrul in other accounts. Some Mongol Christians also practiced Buddhism, with no apparent contradiction.

In 1368 when the Chinese Ming Dynasty defeated the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, great pressure was put on the faithful of the Chinese Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities to assimilate. By the 1500s, no reliable information remains about Christians in China.

Then in the 16th century, Europeans arrived, and in 1552 St. Francis Xavier died on Shangchuan island off the coast of Guangdong, with the signature of St. Ignatius Loyola still firmly sewn into his tunic next to his heart. Following him, the Jesuits came in force, led by Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri. As it turned out, Ruggieri saw many parallels of Christianity with Taoism (there is a modern Eastern Orthodox work, Christ the Eternal Tao), while Ricci favored Confucianism.

When the Qing succeeded the Ming, there were thousands of Chinese Latin Christians. The Jesuits sought to become favorable in the Imperial Court by downplaying Europeanism and inculturating, as well as bringing western math and science, all decidedly Jesuit strategies. Most striking of these was Ricci’s and his followers contention (and practice) that Confucianism and Ancestor Worship (Veneration) were fully compatible with Christianity. Ricci used the newly discovered Nestorian Stele to convince the Emperor that Christianity had deep roots in China. The Emperor approved Ricci’s approach, and expelled any western missionaries that disagreed with him. Effectively, a “Chinese Rite” had been established.

In the early 18th Century, the affronted Dominicans and Franciscans (Hell hath no fury like a Mendicant scorned!) whined to Pope Benedict XIV, who in 1742, with European bias and an insufficient understanding of theology, forbade Ricci’s approach. This resulted eventually in the expulsion of all Christian missionaries from China (good job guys!), although many Jesuits kept true to Ricci’s approach, and remained in China until the Society of Jesus was suppressed by Clement XIV for its liberational work with the Guanari of the “Paraguay Reductions,” which offended the Bourbon Courts. It is amazing how rich people so often get their way. That story we’ll talk about at another time (watch the film, The Mission).

This ban was lifted in 1939 by Pope Pius XII, following the example of his predecessor Pope Pius XI, a remarkably progressive man who spearheaded the fight against Racism in all its forms, and tried to awake the conscience of the west against Fascism.

In 1958, all doubt was erased by Pope John XXIII who proclaimed Matteo Ricci the “model of missionaries.”

So much of this history occurred near the location of Hong Kong.

Back to Hong Kong:

As we have seen Europeans first arrived in 1557. Guangdong had long been the foreign trade area of China (Arabs, Persians), and the Portuguese now began this trade, basing themselves in the nearby Macau. By 1711 the British had established offices of the East India Company (remember Singapore!!) in Guangdong.

The next step is one of the most shameful in the West’s history (of which there are plenty of competing events). You can Google or Wiki this for the full story. In brief, the British had an almost inexhaustible supply of Opium from their poppy fields in India. They found a ready market in China. In 1839 Emperor Dao Guang set out to stop the use and trade of Opium in China, quite rightly so, for the health of his citizens, and the financial drain on the country.

The British Government opted to back its entrepreneurs rather than support good health and morality. They invaded, and defeated the forces of the Qing, and as a result, forced the annexation of Hong Kong Island in 1943. A second Opium war ended similarly, and after this, they acquired Kowloon. By 1898 they also took control of the New Territories and the surrounding islands.

The Museum is remarkably sanguine about these events. Even though the British Crown was clearly illegal and immoral in its actions, the Museum’s attitude, and I suspect, those of Hong Kongers, is that this offered an opportunity for an almost unprecedented sharing of Eastern and Western cultures. I agree. Although Hong Kong is clearly not a Western City, it is an Eastern City deeply influenced by the West, and is better for it, I believe (and so do they).

After that, the Museum shows the urban growth of Hong Kong, the horrendous occupation by the Japanese during WWII, and HK during the post-war years (they had pretty much the same fads as we did in the West…the Museum has a very entertaining video presentation)!

All of this culminates with the handover in 1997 to the PRC. In my next blog I’ll talk about that. It all seems to me like our Novice Master Bob Schmidt’s “Good News, Bad News” story.

In addition, the Museum also had a marvelous traveling exhibit on Mesopotamia, which I’ll talk about in subsequent blogs.

With the orientation that the Museum affords the visitor, you are able to understand much better the incredibly complex, crowded and vibrant landscape of Hong Kong, Lantau, Kowloon and the New Territories which make up the HKSAR. We’ll explore at least some of those in upcoming blogs (we never got to the New Territories).

Enjoy the upcoming weekend. More soon!

Thank you!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

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