One hundred years ago, the three intricately carved pagodas currently standing in O’Neill Library were in the Tou Se We orphanage in Shanghai, where orphans carved them to represent China’s art in the San Francisco World’s Fair. After the fair, the pagodas were transferred to the Chicago Field Museum. Three remain there today, but up until this December, the other 83 pagodas in the collection appeared to have vanished.
Boston College students in the Chinese history class From Sun Yat-sen to the Beijing Olympics, offered by Rev. Jeremy Clarke, S.J., tested the limits of technology in a research project that ultimately led to the pagodas’ discovery in a Somerville, Mass. warehouse.
“In some ways, this is an event that is far beyond class research,” Clarke said. “This has become an event.”
Now, after weeks of negotiating with the anonymous owner of the newly located pagodas, three of the most culturally significant ones will be on display in O’Neill Library until the end of Arts Fest in April.
The small exhibit officially opened on Wednesday night in a ceremony featuring a talk by Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia and a Chinese history scholar currently teaching at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Rudd’s talk, entitled “Imagining the China of 2023,” a year that would mark over 100 years of communism in China and 10 years since the discovery of the pagodas, dealt less with the pagodas themselves than with major challenges that the U.S. and China must face together.
“If we can’t fix climate change, the outlook is bleak for all of created order,” Rudd said. The U.S. and China, because of their vast industrial and global impacts, are the two principal agents of stopping global warming, he said.
Social and economic inequality is not going to disappear with wishful thinking, either. “The measure of inequality in the world is going through the roof,” Rudd said.
Tied into fixing that is China’s economy, which is expected to become the largest in the world by 2023, Rudd said.
“It will be the first time since George III sat on the throne that a non-English speaking, non-Western, and non-democratic country will have that,” he said.
In dealing with this larger economy, China will also have to deal with its environmental footprint and figure out how to raise people out of poverty in a sustainable way, Rudd said.
Another major concern is how China will interact with the region and the world and vice versa. Rudd’s current research, which he will present to the governments of China and the U.S., aims to suggest a policy in which two countries with different political structures, interests, and values that sometimes overlap can work toward solving these issues.
“Your generation gets to live it, and live it big time,” Rudd said. “You’ll be engaging in everything just described.”
The exhibit fits seamlessly into the China Watching speaker series that Clarke organized this year.
“It connects to a historical period when China was relatively closed,” Clarke said of the title of the series. “Now, a lot of Chinese are watching the rest of the world and watching themselves … these projects are hopefully all raising questions about ‘What is China?'”
During his talk, Rudd said that the presence of so many Chinese students in U.S. colleges was an unmistakable sign of this shift.
“China sees the world differently,” he said. “Now the giant is watching itself.”
Chinese oral historian and Arts Fest’s artist-in-residence Sang Ye and photographer Lois Connor, who has been photographing China for 30 years, will give talks at Arts Fest to conclude the China Watching series.
In addition to the pagodas, the exhibit features a small glass case filled with postcards, photos, and cut-paper art from Clarke’s own collection of Chinese cultural objects, and an iPad loaded with his class’ MediaKron website, which it used to organize its data throughout its search last semester.
“The technology and static pagodas are going to be communicating,” Clarke said.
On the website, visitors to the exhibit can read about the project itself, the history of the pagodas, and the locations of the real-life structures on which they were based. The students in Clarke’s class put the site together, and Meghan Daly, A&S ’14, and recently updated the exhibit.
“It’s a small, boutique exhibit that rewards and showcases the wonderful scholarship of the students,” Clarke said.
The site also includes interviews that the students conducted with Chinese students at BC in both English and Chinese about the cultural significance of the pagodas that Clarke chose for the exhibit.
The Great Pagoda has a small carving on the front of it that depicts a folk story called “Journey to the West,” an old, but very popular legend that tells the story of a playful monkey king who is sworn to protect a Buddhist monk as he travels to India to recover sacred texts.
“Many Chinese just love this story,” Clarke said. “On the MediaKron, one of my students has spent a lot of time interviewing students at BC in English and in Chinese on how important the monkey story is to them. It [has] issues of cross-cultural exchange.”
The smallest pagoda on display, called the Thousand Buddha pagoda, is also the most detailed. Clarke said he chose it both because of its unique lack of paint and because of the opportunity it gives to explain the religion.
“Pagodas are Buddhist in function, and in this one there’s a very clear instance of veneration of Buddha,” Clarke said.
This particular pagoda shows Buddha holding a small pagoda, which Clarke says may have to do with healing.
The largest of the three, the Six Harmonies pagoda, is also full of Buddhist iconography and gives the viewer a sense of how large these carved pagodas were made, Clarke said.
“Visually, it’s a bit different from the other ones,” he said. “The lower part of the pagoda is hand-painted, and it’s very intricately painted. It would have been painted by the orphans in the art workshop … which has been described as the cradle of modern art in China.”
With the recent closing of Bapst Library’s art exhibit space, it became especially difficult to find a place for the pagodas on campus. Clarke turned to Thomas Wall, University Librarian, for assistance in putting together the current exhibit, which in itself had to be carefully planned and negotiated.
“He’s all about making the libraries student friendly and accessible,” Clarke said. “We take seriously as part of the Jesuit-Catholic tradition engaging with, forming, and mentoring students. Tom, as part of his mission, would support me as an academic, but also me as an academic focusing on students.”
This project and exhibition represent something of a tipping point for universities worldwide, Clarke said.
“Where I think our challenge is, is to ensure that, or to hope, there are people who share our mission,” he said. “The Catholic University in Peking, which was formed in the same vein as the Tou Se We orphanage, says that universities should not only be forming the mind, they should be castles of the spirit.”