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Jesuit TV cracks the big time in China

TAIPEI (UCAN): With its sprinkling of graffiti and grey, decades-old façade, the head office of Kuangchi Programme Service looks anything but like the home of a pioneer.

Yet the Jesuit television studio in central Taipei—now 56-years-old—remains light years ahead of the pack when it comes to gaining entry to the world’s most populous nation.

This summer, Kuangchi will launch its third television series on Christian missionaries in imperial China, when partner, Jiangsu Broadcasting Corporation in China, screens a joint docudrama on the 18th century Italian Jesuit Father Giuseppe Castiglione.

The vice president of Kuangchi, Father Jerry Martinson, says that CCTV, the world’s biggest television broadcaster, will then beam the series into hundreds of millions more Chinese homes around the end of this year.

On the surface, Kuangchi’s foothold in China makes little sense. A Catholic television studio in Taiwan, a country technically still at war with China, that makes programmes about missionaries screened by two broadcasters labelled repressive by Christian Solidarity Worldwide in a country described by Reporters Without Borders as having the most sophisticated surveillance system in the world.

In the mid-1990s, Father Martinson teamed up with Giraffe, an English school in Taipei, making educational programmes in the studio basement. He starred as the host.

Switching between English and Chinese, Father Martinson taught in a way that was more sermon than lesson, dubbed Uncle Jerry’s English, but in order to broadcast in China, religion had to be kept well below the surface.

“Church you could say, as long as it is a church or a concrete building. Jesus, yeah, we probably wouldn’t. It would have to be an indirect reference. Basically we used gospel stories or parables or things like that, but we didn’t sign Jesus’ name. And actually, I don’t think Jesus minds,” Father Martinson chuckles.

Courtesy of Giraffe, Father Martinson had become a television star by the late 1990s. His all-American good looks and closely cropped brown hair was a regular feature over 15 years on Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, one of the few private broadcasters permitted entry to China.

Set up by billionaire, Liu Changle, a post-Cultural Revolution broadcast journalist, and Rupert Murdoch’s Hong Kong subsidiary, Star TV, Phoenix shunned politically sensitive news in favour of entertainment. Father Martinson was risqué to Phoenix, but to China unprecedented.

“I don’t know of others trying to get their broadcasts in the way Jerry and his team has done,” Augustine Loorthusamy, the head of SIGNIS Asia, the global Catholic media association, says. “He learned well from the Uncle Jerry series and found that was the way to evangelise.”

Father Martinson says he always wanted to shoot a feature on the pioneering Italian missionary, Father Matteo Ricci, the first westerner to enter Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1601. But it was against the law.

But combining Father Ricci with his friend from Shanghai, Paul Xu Guangqi, a Christian convert who helped him introduce western geometry to China, worked.

By focussing on the Chinese and downplaying the foreigner, suddenly Kuangchi was able to shoot a film about Father Ricci for a Chinese audience.

“I asked the head of Jiangsu Television at that time: Well, you know, our programmes they do have a religious element, won’t they be censored by the government?” Father Martinson said, adding that the reply was, “We are the government.”

Screened on Chinese television in January 2006, this series of four roughly 25-minute segments focussed more on the cultural and scientific than the religious. 

There was no mention of anything remotely Christian until nearly 80 minutes into the first episode and the first Jesus reference did not come until 18 minutes in.

Perhaps the most explicitly Christian section was an interview inside the Jesuit Archives in Rome about a bone relic of Ricci, its significance explained by what he did in China, and for China and for the Society of Jesus.

His conversions of Ming dynasty officials were alluded to, but conveniently left out.

“CCTV, which broadcast the series later, was stricter with its editing than Jiangsu,” Father Martinson explained, and although the national broadcaster later made its own Ricci programme, it also suffered at the hands of the censors.

Kuangchi waited for a sign from the very summit of Chinese Communist power before it went ahead with its second missionary film, the story of 17th century German Jesuit Father Johann Adam Schall von Bell.

During a state visit to Germany in 2005, then-president, Hu Jintao, noted Father Schall von Bell’s significant contribution to China’s effort to align its calendar with that of the west. Kuangchi took it as a green light.

First screened in China on CCTV in March 2009, the film again stuck to the relative safety of science and cultural exchange, documenting feats of astronomy and mathematics rather than Christianity, although in his time, an estimated half a million people were baptised.

“It was interesting because in each of the programmes they always portray Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall as friends of China, people that made great contributions to China, they really opened China to the western world,” Father Martinson says.

The narrative fitted well into the government line that China is happy to receive the rest of the world.

“And it works fine for us because the people watch somebody who has sacrificed a lot and failed to some extent. It creates great sympathy on the screen,” Father Martinson surmises.

The new film ties in with the Chinese Year of the Horse through Father Castiglioni’s hybrid east-meets-west-style paintings which enchanted 18th century China.

The Italian Jesuit missionary’s most famous work, the 7.7-metre long scroll, One Hundred Horses—stolen from the Forbidden City by the fleeing nationalists in 1949—is copied from the original housed in Taipei’s Palace Museum.

Kuangchi hopes that the Italian Jesuit will become better known at home when the film is screened at the Milan Expo 2015.

“What we want to do—if possible—is to build a bridge, a relationship between Father Castiglione’s time and ours, something that will help us connect with the past,” JBC director, Gao Wei, says in a recently released video.

“The project achieves different goals for everyone,” Father Emilio Zanetti, a Milanese priest consultant for Kuangchi says.

Chinese entrepreneurs and the government have committed to funding the China section of the expo as a showcase of the country’s culture.

With Father Castiglione there are strong allusions to Chinese treasures which remain in overseas looters’ hands, the One Hundred Horses included.

“The main interest is about his art, since they are trying to recover all the art belonging to China from everywhere,” says Father Zanetti.

But what of the religious exposure the film is expected to create as it reaches millions of Chinese homes later this year?

It is a question which drives at the very heart of what Kuangchi has aimed to achieve since it started as a radio broadcaster back in 1958. Whether it is preaching to the converted or its message remains too diluted to realise its goals remains difficult to say.

For Father Martinson, the point is that Kuangchi’s content exists in China and continues to go further all the time.

“The whole purpose is to bring these values to the people of China, no doubt about it,” he says.


“If we could, and I hope in the future we can, we want to tell some of the other stories, because the real growth of the Church in China happened at the grassroots. But we can’t do that yet,” the Jesuit star of the box concludes.

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