Thierry Meynard, S.J., began his term as the third director of The Beijing Center in August. Meynard, a former professor at Fordham University, holds a PhD in Chinese philosophy from Peking University and currently teaches at Sun Yat-sen University. Loyola magazine recently spoke with Meynard about his experiences in China and at The Beijing Center.
What experiences do you have that led you to become the director of TBC?
I arrived in China in 1988, working in Hong Kong as an engineer. I discovered a very fascinating culture, especially in the local Catholic Church in South China. I decided that I felt the calling to become a priest and to work as a Jesuit in China. I went back to France to do my studies in philosophy and theology. While I was in France, I studied Chinese language and culture. In 1997, I went to Taiwan for one year to study intensive Chinese.
I arrived in Beijing in August of 1998, with the first batch of students at TBC. Of course we were only 10 people at the time, but, for me, that program was very important, because I could continue to study the Chinese language, and I took classes that had a very strong impact on me, like a class on Chinese philosophy. The class was taught by the chair of the department at Peking University. It was a chance to get deeper into the understanding of Chinese culture and history.
What attracted you to China?
I have been in China for more than 20 years and have made it my permanent home. I was initially attracted by the long history and culture of China, by its ancient texts. I slowly discovered how Chinese culture is alive today amid deep transformations. Some Chinese people feel pessimistic about the survival of Chinese culture. Culture, however, is not a rigid reality but always changing. I really believe that the economic success of China will be followed by a renewal of the Chinese culture, transformed in new ways and in further dialogue with the other great traditions of the world.
Was it difficult to adapt to life in China?
When I first came to China, I faced many challenges in terms of language and barriers. In the 1980s some Chinese people would feel the presence of a foreigner odd, or even dangerous. When I started teaching in my department, some of my colleagues could find my presence disturbing. In China, it takes time to form personal bonds with people, to develop relations which are mutually beneficial. China is a school of patience.
Where is your favorite place to travel?
Of course I am personally attached to Beijing. I lived there during my studies and developed many connections. As a Jesuit, Beijing is also an important place. Matteo Ricci [the first Jesuit to begin a ministry in China] realized very soon that the Jesuits should get acceptance in the capital in order to be allowed to work in the other parts of the country. Ricci arrived in Beijing in 1601 and since then, Jesuits have maintained a strong presence. There are many places in Beijing related to the Jesuits and I myself wrote a guide book on the subject (Following the Footsteps of the Jesuits in Beijing). Today, you can still visit three churches built by the Jesuits, two Jesuit cemeteries, and the astronomical observatory where they worked for more than 200 years.
Learning about China and Chinese history/culture is essential because of its growing influence on the world. What skills and experiences at TBC give its students an advantage in that aspect?
Today, understanding China is not anymore a matter of choice but a necessity, an absolute priority. Our future is going to be impacted and shaped by China. There is a great probability that Loyola students will be working in America for a Chinese company, or they will go to China and work there for a Chinese or a Western company. The ability to speak Chinese language, to understand with some depth the culture and society, to have Chinese friends—all these are skills and experiences that you gain at TBC that will prove vital in the future.
Story courtesy of Loyola magazine (Winter 2012).