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Ancient Meets Modern at Burns Exhibit

Undergraduates make major contribution to show on history of East-West exchanges

Asst. Prof. Jeremy Clarke, SJ, (History), with items to be featured in the upcoming Burns Library exhibit "Binding Friendship: Ricci, China and Jesuit Cultural Learnings." (Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert)

By Melissa Beecher | Chronicle Staff

Published: Mar. 17, 2011

iPads, flat screen TVs and interactive online databases might not be the first thing to come to mind when you think of 16th century China, but a group of Boston College undergraduates are marrying the latest technology with an extensive history of cross cultural exchange between East and West.

The students of Assistant Professor of History Jeremy Clarke, SJ, will unveil an exhibit this Monday at Burns Library titled “Binding Friendship: Ricci, China and Jesuit Cultural Learnings.” Supported by a $35,000 Boston College Academic Technology Advisory Board grant, the exhibit will eventually feature a number of multimedia resources to demonstrate Christian mission history in Asia. The major sponsors of the exhibit are the Jesuit Institute, the Institute of Liberal Arts and the University Office of Mission and Ministry. Co-sponsors include the History Department, Asian and Asian-American Studies.

“It’s about East-West cultural exchange and how even though we think the Europeans brought all of their knowledge over to the East and the Chinese, what we have found is that the Chinese were able to contribute as much to that exchange as the West,” said Gregory Pidgeon ‘11, a member of Fr. Clarke’s class, Beyond Ricci: Christian History in China Since 1552.

“This exhibition simply could not have come about without the work of this class,” said Fr. Clarke. “They have worked very hard to make this idea a reality.”

Students have illustrated — through a series of films, audio tours online essays and online essays — that the Chinese made significant contributions to modern thinking, including the measures of solar time, the first use of the celestial globe, measures of movement of celestial bodies and the measures of an angle between two objects, just to name a few.

In the 16th century, the Chinese were utilizing what at the time was advanced technology through their observatory in Beijing, Fr. Clarke notes.

“In one display, we show the observatory and all the astronomical devices that they used during the time the Jesuits were there. It’s been fun to match up the original etchings with the contemporary footage,” said Alexander Gilman ’11.

Utilizing excerpts and outtakes from Fr. Clarke’s documentary, “Beyond Ricci: Celebrating 400 Years of the Chinese Catholic Church,” students have been able to compile their own virtual history. They are in the process of designing an online database of all the material so their work can be seen around the world.

“This exhibit provides a visual medium as an accompaniment to the books, because books are very static,” said Zachary Citarella ‘12. “We’re showing how people communicated back then, but being able to have an audiovisual medium, we provide a contemporary look at how things were and how things are today.”

Utilizing resources across departments and schools, Fr. Clarke has incorporated many talents of BC faculty and students in “Binding Friendship.” Clarke said his two undergraduate research assistants, Lake Coreth '11 and Caitlin Cain '11, sophomore advisee Grace Heisenbotlle and History Department intern Stephanie Hu '12 have also been instrumental in coordinating the exhibit.

“One of the ways people learned about East-West cultural exchange was through six melody lines written down by a Jesuit in Beijing at that time,” said Fr. Clarke. Using these melodies as a creative point of departure Clarke commissioned Assistant Professor of Music Ralf Gawlick to compose an aria that is played as people pass through the exhibit. Gawlick subsequently wrote a more than 20 minute piece incorporating text from Ricci’s journals. A public performance of this will take place on April 26th.

A number of rare books will be on display, including Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, the translations of the first three of the four canonical books of Confucianism.  It was a group of Jesuits that originally translated the fundamental philosophies of the Chinese to lead to greater understanding of Chinese thought and brought the culture to Europeans and beyond, Fr. Clarke said.

Anne Orlowski, a student of the Lynch School of Education used “Binding Friendship” as a subject of lessons plans to be used by high school and middle school teachers in the area.

“The big emphasis in the Lynch School is on interconnection and the many ways you can expand the education field beyond the classroom,” said Anne Orlowski ‘12, an LSOE student who is also in Clarke’s class. “We’re into interactivity and bringing kids into a historic setting. They will be able to view primary sources combined with a fun activity so help them better understand the material.”

“Binding Friendship: Ricci, China and Jesuit Cultural Learnings” will run through Oct. 31. The first talk of the seminar series will take place on March 28, at 5.30pm. Click here to watch a video preview of the exhibit.