Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Father David a Basque Priest in China

The reputation of Father David is essentially due to a few great discoveries such as that of the Giant Panda

Jean Pierre Armand David was the third son and child of Rosalie Halsouet and Fructueux Dominique Genie David. He was born 7th September, 1826 In Espelette, Basque Country. His elder brothers were Joseph (doctor and, later on, the mayor of Espelette ) and Louis ( a pharmacist and, also later on, the mayor of the nearby town of Hasparren). His younger sister, Leone, married, becoming Mrs Berho, and continued to live in Espelette. All Armand’s family predeceased him. They were from the French Basque region of Espelette, near Bayonne, in the Pyrenées, almost on the shore of the Bay of Biscay.

A very close relative after whom, presumably, Armand was named, was an uncle Armand Halsouet. He was a lawyer in Bayonne and the godfather of Armand David. They kept in contact when Armand was in China. It was to this uncle that Armand wrote from China; “Above all do not think that China will become Catholic. At the pace things are going now, it will take forty to fifty thousand years before the whole Empire will become Christian”. Fructueux, his father, was a doctor of medicine, the local magistrate and Mayor of Espelette. It was from him that Armand gained his love and knowledge of nature as well as the practice of trekking through the forests and mountains for hours at a time. It was from his father too that he gained useful medical expertise that later saved his life, and that of others, from plague, typhus, smallpox, leprosy, rabies, cholera, dysentery and malaria.

During his years in China he suffered all these things and in most cases his knowledge of what to do saved himself and others. There were no helicopters or telephones! He accepted some local remedies like boiled bamboo roots when he had no medicines left. But he did not accept the remedy offered by a lama monk from Tibet on one occasion. David asked him for any form of diuretic to combat an illness he was suffering with. The monk went to get something but found he had none left. He told Armand not to worry because he had the next best thing. He wrote the name of the remedy on a piece of paper, put it in his mouth and chewed it for some time. Then he took it out, rolled it into a pill in his dirty hands and then told Armand to chew it too and swallow it. To swallow the name of the “cure” was as good as the medicine itself apparently. Armand desisted.

During the revolt of the Taipings (1850-1864), the Nian and the Muslim uprisings which caused tens of millions of deaths, the very weakened central Chinese power also suffered the blows of the Franco-British colonial troops. The right to evangelize for Christians is acquired following the humiliating defeat suffered by the Chinese Empire before the Franco-English troops. It will ensue a permanent hostility of the mandarins brought to the solid missionary organization, seen as a foreign attempt to double the administrative structure.

“While studying the language of the country, he wrote, and collaborating in the priestly ministry, I began to explore the surroundings of the capital”. He then pushed his explorations in the western mountains in 1863 and then on the side of the Imperial Residence of Jehol near Chengde 承德市, 260 km northeast of Beijing. Each expedition was followed by shipments to the Museum of Paris where naturalists were immediately surprised by their quality. "We found in Father Armand David a correspondent who was no less active than enlightened," wrote Professor Milne Edwards in September 1864. notes with which he accompanies them. The Museum approached the Superior General of the Lazarists to authorize Father David to carry out explorations for several years in the lesser known regions of the Empire with public funding from the Ministry of Public Instruction.

Milne-Edwards gave at this time the scientific description of some remarkable species sent: the gray-ash squirrel, the camel deer and many others, but it is the enigmatic "deer of the Father David" which commands the most attention. This deer is named by the Chinese 四不象 sì bù xiàng, "the four characters that do not fit" because this animal had the antlers of a deer, the neck of a camel, the foot of a cow and the tail of a donkey. To add to the mystery, the animal, virtually extinct in the wild, was guarded by Tatar soldiers in the Nanhaizi Imperial Hunting Park a league south of Beijing. “No European can enter this park; but this spring having hoisted myself on the surrounding wall, I had the good fortune to see, quite far from me, a herd of more than a hundred of these animals… So far I have made fruitless attempts to to have a body of this kind” wrote Father David in September 1865. I will hasten to send you.” At the beginning of the following year, he ended up obtaining the skins of a female and a young male, which he immediately sent to the Museum. The skeleton and skin of an adult male will soon follow. At the same time, the French charge d'affaires obtained from the imperial ministers that they send a couple of these living animals to the Museum. The English also obtained, thanks to the good offices of the missionary, a few individuals. It is thanks to these living individuals sent to Europe that the species has not disappeared.

Encouraged by these first successes, Father David led three major naturalist expeditions in the depths of China in the years 1866-1874:

in 1866, a seven-month trip to southern Mongolia;

in 1868-1870, an exploration of central China and eastern Tibet (Sichuan);

in 1872-1874, a journey through the Qinling Mountains (Shaanxi), Hubei, Jiangxi, Fujian and Zhijiang.

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