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​Julia Ching

· Women of value ·

Julia Ching, who died in 2001 at the age of 67, was a sinologist of world renown for her studies on the religions and philosophy of China. Two of her numerous books are considered fundamental for the study of the two most important Confucian philosophers, Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming. Hans Küng chose her as academic spokesperson for the drafting of his volume on Chinese religions in the context of his well-known project of comparison between Christianity and other world religions.

She died after a long battle against cancer, in which she had won victories and suffered defeats. These were events she described, as a long and intimate journey, in her wonderful autobiography, The Butterfly Healing: A Life between East and West (1998).

The cover of the autobiography

The first signs of the disease had appeared when Julia was a Catholic sister in Taiwan, a member of the Ursuline Order. When taking a shower she had discovered a lump in her breast but her superior did not allow her immediate check-ups and this contributed to the worsening of the illness and, years later, to her abandonment of religious life which put her Catholic faith at risk.

The Ching family had fled from their native Shanghai during the Second World War to seek refuge in Hong Kong. Julia, born in the former British colony in 1934 attended Catholic schools since she was small. The secondary school for girls only was run by Italian Canossian Sisters. They made a good impression on Julia and at the age of 16 she decided to receive Baptism in the Catholic Church. Frank, her brother, followed her example.

A brilliant young woman, she moved to the United States to embark on university studies at the College of New Rochelle, New York, which belongs to the Ursuline Order. Attracted by the personality of Sr Hilda, her philosophy teacher, Julia decided to become a religious. She gained a Master’s degree at the Catholic University of America, Washington, but did not convince the superiors of her vocation to studies, and, out of respect for the mentality for which a spirit of obedience must be tested through trials and tribulations, she was sent to a remote mountainous area in the Island of Taiwan. Julia accepted, obeying with devotion. But the religious community was French and did not speak Chinese, the language of the people, and Julia, who knew many languages, found it hard to express herself in French. The superior, the same one who had not been alarmed at the first signs of cancer, not only showed no sympathy for the young Chinese sister educated in America, but also read her letters, violating the rules of the Order which protected the right to privacy.

After the sorry event of Taiwan, Julia did not abandon the religious life, although she felt ever more foreign to it, but left the Order after the return of her cancer. The doctor confirmed to her that the deterioration was in all likelihood related to the delay of the initial surgery. Thus she returned to academic research: she obtained a doctorate in Asian studies at the National University of Australia, Canberra, and teaching posts in the prestigious universities of Columbia and of Yale, United States of America, ending her academic life as a professor at the University of Toronto. She married her colleague Willard Oxtoby, a Southern Asian scholar who was close to her with love and devotion to the very end. The couple adopted a boy of Chinese origin.

Julia Ching’s case is fascinating and heartrending at the same time. The autobiographical memoir, enriched with cultural, religious and philosophical analyses on the great Chinese tradition of which she was an interpreter, introduces us into the soul of Julia, a woman who lived between the East and the West, passing through religions, cultures and philosophies as a protagonist.

Hers is the story of an Asian woman, determined and brave, who experimented with the generosity of conversion and of the choice of a convent; it tells of a cruel obtuseness in the Catholic religious life and the discrimination and subordination to which a woman, and moreover Oriental, was subjected in academic contexts dominated by men.

The cancer that had not been treated immediately returned at least four times to upset her life and her projects. The last time it proved fatal. The pain and the thought of the injustice suffered while she was a religious returned as a nightmare to disturb her nights, her dreams, her soul. She wrote a letter to Sr Hilda, who had become Superior General, denouncing the hostility of the Taiwan Superior and the disease which had repeatedly threatened her life. Sr Hilda asked her to forgive and to entrust herself to God. But Julia was finding it hard still to believe in that God.

There were many moments of discouragement in which she asked herself what the meaning of her life was, the reason for so much pain. In the attempt to recover she entrusted herself to conventional treatments, to invasive surgical operations, to chemotherapy and to psychoanalysis, but also, at the suggestion of Asian friends, she tried the way of Chinese medicine, of herbalist treatments which had cured others, and the disciplines of oriental meditation.

In the most moving pages passages of her autobiography Julia describes her fears and her conflictual relationship with God, from whom she knows she can no longer remove herself. “Where can I find the strength to fight? Why has it happened to me? And who am I? Am I Chinese, American? Am I Catholic, am I a former sister? Am I Confucian, Buddhist or even Taoist? What do I believe in? Who do I believe in? I still consider myself Christian, rather Catholic, but I am spiritually also Taoist, Buddhist and even Confucian. I come from the East, and the illness and my endeavours to recover have urged me to return, culturally, to my roots”.

At that point she decided to forgive God. “I was angry with God, but at the same time I had no one else to turn to. But even when I was angriest, I never reached the point of denying the Church, my Order or my past religious life. However I must still learn to forgive. The people who are the hardest to forgive are myself and God. When I was in the novitiate I abandoned myself to God. I made a private pact with him. I told him that he could do anything with me, even make me suffer. Perhaps God took me too literally. I now no longer believe in pacts of his kind.”

Julia Ching died a Catholic and her funeral was celebrated with a holy Mass. In the moments that preceded immersion in the hyperbaric chamber, or the operations for the removal of the cancerous tumours, Julia entrusted herself to prayer, reciting in Latin the verses of the Psalms which she had learned during the years of her novitiate.

Gianni Criveller

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