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The Chinese emperor’s Catholic poetry

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Emperor Kangxi was China's longest-reigning monarch and a tolerant scholar friendly to Christianity.

The Poem of the Cross/The Death of Christ
功成十架血成溪,百丈恩流分自西。
身列四衙半夜路,徒方三背两番鸣。
五千鞭挞寸肤裂,六尺悬垂二盗齐。
惨动八垓惊九品,七言一毕万灵啼。
When the work on the Cross was accomplished, blood formed a creek
Grace from the west flowed a thousand yards deep.
He stepped onto the midnight road, to subject Himself to four trials.
Before the rooster crowed twice, betrayed thrice was He.
Five hundred lashes tore every inch of His skin.
Two thieves at six feet high hanged beside him.
The sadness was greater than any had ever known;
Seven utterings, one completed task, ten thousand spirits weep.

[The poem contains every number from 1 to 10 – the “10” being the Cross, because the Chinese ideogram for 10 is in the shape of a cross: “十”. 100, 1000 and 10,000 are also included. (Chan Kei Thong, Faith of Our Fathers <<先贤之信>>)]

That poem was written by Emperor Kangxi (康熙帝) (4 May 1654 – 20 December 1722), the longest-reigning emperor in the history of China, and one of the longest-ruling monarchs worldwide. He ascended the throne at age 7, and reigned for 61 years. He was also a learned scholar, who compiled the Kangxi Dictionary.

The early Qing emperors were receptive to Christianity. Kangxi’s father, the Emperor Shunzhi, often made trips to the oldest Catholic church in China, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception or South Beijing Church, to consult the Jesuit missionary Johann Adam Scall von Bell. The cathedral (video here) received a stone stela from Shunzhi with the inscription “built by Imperial Order.” During Kangxi’s reign, the cathedral was renovated and enlarged. Jesuits served as imperial astronomers and meteorologists in the courts of the Ming and Qing dynasties, introducing Western science and mathematics to the Middle Kingdom. They built universities, hospitals, museums, and public laboratories in key cities like Shanghai.

Kangxi gave the Jesuits a house inside the Forbidden City – which was exclusive to the imperial family and its retinue – as well as land on which to build a church. When the church was completed, the Emperor wrote an inscription for the lintel in his own hand:

To the true Principal of all things. He is infinitely good and is infinitely just, He illumines, He supports, He regulates all things with supreme authority and with a sovereign justice. He has no beginning and no end. It is He who rules and is the true master.

By the end of Kangxi’s reign, there were 300,000 Catholics in China, with more than 300 churches, even after the Ancestral Rites controversy which moved the Emperor to ban Catholicism as a threat to his authority. His ban was not absolute, and missionaries with visas were permitted to stay.

More of his poems:

The Poem on Truth
Everything as seen by the eye is His creation.
He who has no beginning and no end, is three persons in one.
Heaven’s gate was closed to the first man’s sin and reopens through the Son.
Rid of all false religions, we should become real disciples admired by everyone.

The Treasure of Life
The treasure of heaven is comprised of Sun, Moon and Stars;
The treasure of earth consists of crops, gold and silver.
The treasure of a kingdom is to have righteous officials;
The treasure of a family is to have descendents with piety.
Yet, Gold, silver and jade are not as precious as one’s life.
Hundred years of age is nothing compared to eternity.
Coming and going in life is like a dream.
The best food and clothing don’t mean a thing.
It’s no exception for someone born in a royal family.
The most important thing in the world is life.
Something that white jade, gold and silver can’t buy.
Even plain porridge can be satisfying;
No cloth is fit to wear for a thousand years.
Heaven’s gate was closed due to the first man’s sin;
The path to salvation is through the Son only.
I would like to accept God, the Son and the Holy Spirit;
And receive from Thee my free gift of eternity.

Let us pray for the souls of the Emperor Kangxi and his family, and for the people of China.

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