Upon first meeting Rev. Jeremy Clarke, S.J., one thing becomes immediately clear—this man hails from the land of Oz. Australian by birth, his traditional accent often initially distracts its listener, letting the ear become entranced by the unfamiliar dialect.
Listen to the voice behind the accent, though. It has a knowing confidence from years of study of Chinese culture, language, and history. It bears warmth that appeals to his students and his mentees. Then, evident in the subtle rasp, there lies just a hint of weariness gained from his hard journey to bridge the gap between two countries separated by 5,173 miles. His words, whether in lecture or through research presentation, speak to his greater goal of uniting the Boston College student body, but also honor the goals of higher education.
Clarke’s interest in Chinese culture began at the age of 13 in his Chinese language study course at a Jesuit high school in Sydney, Australia. “I thought doing Latin, music, and French was rather boring,” Clarke said. “When I was looking at a map and thinking to myself, ‘France or China,’ it was a no-brainer. China was just up the road, so it made more sense.”
His love of the language motivated him to travel to China on a school trip at the age of 16, and he recalled one particular experience that came to shape his view of cultural studies. While visiting a high school in Tangshan, China, a place struck by an earthquake 10 years before his trip, Clarke noticed a structure outside the school.
“There were literally slab upon slab upon slab. They had crushed down on top of each other. It was left there as a memorial to the high school kids who had died.” Clarke viewed this monument as a stark contrast to the warm, friendly high school students he bonded with in Tangshan. “The two really go hand-in-hand for me—the plight of the people and also just the sheer warmth and friendliness as the level of human interaction,” he said.
With this personal experience and a growing understanding of China’s troubled infrastructure, Clarke developed a desire to get involved with promoting awareness of the Chinese culture. “I wanted to be part of mates’ lives and part of maybe helping them make people understand China more but also help the Chinese people be free or have the opportunities that I have had.”
Arriving at BC only two years ago, Clarke brought these goals over seas and encouraged his students open their minds to diversity. “I didn’t actually think I’d be a teacher at a U.S. university,” Clarke said. “But I think of a great Chinese Jesuit called Xiang Bo, who was one of the first Shanghainese Jesuits in the 19th century. He eventually left the society because he said, “I didn’t learn French to help the French. I learned French to help the Chinese.”
Clarke’s education equipped him to bring a new face to the Asian studies department at BC. “Having done all this Chinese history, Chinese language, Chinese culture, BC being an institution that enables great exchange and great engagement with the minds of the future, teaching here seemed like a great place to be.”
This past year, with the help of undergraduates Lake Coreth, A&S ’11, and Caitlin Cain, A&S ’11, Clarke continued offering outreach through his research and organization of a rare book exhibition in the Burns Library called Binding Friendship: Ricci, China, and Jesuit Cultural Learnings. The exhibit brought together primary sources from the travels of Jesuit Matteo Ricci, a man given much credit for bringing Catholicism to the Chinese people, and explores his role in bridging the gap between the Catholic West and the Chinese.
“[Ricci’s] brilliant,” Clarke said. “I know aspects of his story have not been told, and as a bridge builder, I envisage myself creating links between those aspects of the story. For someone who doesn’t know the story of East-West cultural exchange, for someone who doesn’t know the role the Jesuits played. I hope to facilitate such friendships because I think it’s through friendship that we reach that mutual understanding.”
The exhibit marked the heft of Clarke’s work during this school year, but he also created a multimedia project in the form of a documentary he created over the summer with his colleague Rev. Jim McDermott, S.J. The documentary, titled Beyond Ricci: Celebrating 400 Years of the Chinese Catholic Church followed the journeys of Clarke and McDermott in China as they retraced the steps of Ricci’s journey through China. Filming took 30 days as the duo travelled from Macau in Southeastern China to Beijing, where Ricci passed.
Through the use of multimedia and interactive exhibits, Clarke aspires to reach those students who don’t recognize their own interest in the subject. “There needs to be a certain clarity and accessibility of message. It doesn’t matter how complex the material. It still has to be delivered in a way that invites engagement,” Clarke said. “If people feel they’re invited into a story, they can then engage in that story and pursue it deeper depending on their abilities and interest.”
As a professor, a Jesuit, a friend, and an advocate of culture, Clarke truly believes in his work not only as a researcher but as a visitor to the U.S., one with a unique perspective.
“I do come from a minority,” Clarke said. “Everyday people talk about my accent, where I come from, so I’m actually quite sympathetic to being a stranger in a strange land.”
With his outsider’s perspective, Clarke continues to work on publishing and exposing research that reflects the struggle of Asian nations and how relationships through cross-cultural exchange provide the necessary bond that can bridge the gap between two distinct cultures.
“I think world peace, world harmony, because that’s all we want, it’s only through putting ourselves in another’s shoes, or moccasins, or happy slippers, if you like, and therefore, I see my role as a bridge between different communities.”