Beijing, the Catholic Church & Chinese TV

An interview with Father Emilio Zanetti

It’s a quiet autumn afternoon in Rome when I meet Father Emilio Zanetti, a Jesuit and television producer in China. I hold back the urge to leave the Aventine Hill behind and follow him to distant shores, limiting myself to a few questions. I meet him again the next day at the old Roman College, now home to the Liceo Visconti high school. He’s being kept busy by the production of a docudrama about the life of Matteo Ricci. I suddenly find myself wearing a Jesuit cassock, catapulted into the Rome of the late 1500s and ready to appear on TV. Between one take and another, among the dark corridors and frescoed halls of this marvellous building, I’m able to ask Father Emilio some short questions. It’s an opportunity to discover something about his role both as a religious and as a television producer in China, as well as the situation of Catholics in China following the historic China-Vatican agreement on the appointment of bishops.

What do you do exactly? What’s your role? How did you arrive in China and get to work on TV for the Chinese government?

For now, at least, I’m a producer (!). So what I usually do is look for ideas from the board of directors and from the management of the Kuangchi Program Service (KPS) and try to find the funds and resources to implement them. Some ideas survive, others are forgotten or remain on the back-burner until the resources or people able to carry them forward are found. KPS has collaborated with Chinese state television since 2003 when Father Jerry Martinson, who passed away last year, sent Mr. Zhou Wenyi (then the director of KPS) from Taiwan to mainland China to look into the possibilities of an official collaboration. After fully five attempts, he succeeded. I arrived later on, and became a great friend of Mr. Zhou’s and of the board of directors of Chinese state television. Starting out from these relationships, my work proved to be simple: bringing new projects and (above all) resources to the table.

Piero (third from the right) with other jesuits as extras in the documentary on Matteo Ricci

You’ve also produced many documentaries. How did the collaboration with the Chinese government begin with regards to these documentaries?

Mr. Zhou (who eventually had the honour of being thanked by Pope Francis for his work, an experience that marked him despite not being a Christian) met the president of Jiangsu Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), a television production company based in Nanjing which is at the  service of state television in Beijing. In 2003, JBC was the largest production company in China, both in terms of quantity and quality. Don’t be fooled, however: media is a field that is heavily regulated. All big media companies, despite their different names, work together in unison and are coordinated by the secretariat of the Party. Anyway, on that occasion the management of KPS asked if could produce a documentary about Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit who was a great friend of China and a historical figure well known to everyone here. The management of JBC let KPS know that the subject was somewhat too delicate, Ricci having been a Catholic priest. Instead, they wisely suggested the production of a historical documentary about Paul Xu Guangqi, Matteo Ricci’s Chinese friend, an official in the Emperor’s court recognized by all his contemporaries as a great academic. Obviously, the documentary could devote a great deal of time to Ricci. Following this positive experience (positive also in terms of audience numbers), JBC agreed to co-produce a new documentary about Adam Schall von Bell, a German Jesuit who continued Ricci’s work at the Chinese court and who eventually became the tutor of the young Emperor. After that, it was the turn of Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit brother and artist from Milan, to become the subject of a new documentary. Castiglione is well known in China for his role as imperial painter in the 18th Century. After this project, characterized by an unexpected success, was aired, we were informed that it was time to produce a documentary about Matteo Ricci himself.

A break during filming

The Vatican’s policy of reconciliation with the Chinese Patriotic Church has recently taken a big step forward with the agreement on the appointment of bishops. How does this series of television projects fit into the ongoing dialogue with the Chinese government? Do you think these documentaries could have helped in the gradual process of reconciliation with the Chinese church?

It is very important to correct the formulation of your question: there has never been talk of a “Patriotic Church” but of a “Patriotic Association”, to which a part of the Catholic community, recognized by the government, belongs. The agreement signed on the 22nd of September is simply the continuation of a process of rapprochement. The fundamental document in thi process remains the letter to the Chinese faithful of Benedict XVI, written in May 2007. This document speaks about a single church. There aren’t two or three churches, but a single Catholic Church in need of reconciliation within itself and in its relations with the outside world, including the government. It is important to read the contents of that letter carefully in order to understand the evolution of this path of dialogue. This journey is made possible by the work of the entire Catholic community and those  who want to work together with us, including those in the media.

Filming objects up close

What does it mean to be a Catholic – and, in your particular case, a priest – in today’s China? Can you see any differences following the recent China-Vatican agreement? Can you name any?

One can see the energy of the community participating in Catholic liturgies in Beijing. China is now celebrating the 40th anniversary of the great re-opening to the outside world (1978-2018) and one of the sectors involved is the religious one. The agreement is a milestone in this process. The Catholic community is large and vibrant and is made up of people who are very committed to dialogue and to leading the life of honest citizens.

You are currently producing a documentary about the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, one of the Europeans most beloved by the Chinese. Can his legacy positively influence the way Jesuits are perceived? Do you think that the fact there is a Jesuit Pope could have favoured the thawing in relations between China and the Vatican?

Matteo Ricci is one of only two foreigners (the other being Marco Polo), depicted on the Millennium Monument in Beijing. It’s not a coincidence that it’s just them. It isn’t really necessary to say this, but the Jesuits are very highly considered in China. We have just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the opening of The Beijing Center, our university campus in the Chinese capital. The Center is in good relations with other institutions, just as our documentaries are with state television. At the origins of this center is, amongst others, an Italian Jesuit, Father Belfiori, who died at the infirmary of the Gesù in Rome in 2006. He had looked to Father Ron Anton, an American Jesuit from Loyola Baltimore University, to kick-start the campus. When Father Ron sent in the permit application to the central government in Beijing, signing “Mr. Ron Anton”, the approval came back with the note (written by the authorities) “Jesuit”: not only approved, but also “certified” as a Jesuit by the same authorities. Certainly, that Pope Francis happens to be the first Jesuit Pope is something of great importance.

The world of TV and entertainment is fascinating and rich. It could, however, be difficult to live the priestly dimension in this context. What is your experience? Is there anything in particular that helps you to keep your religious identity alive?

True, the world of TV and entertainment is fascinating and full of possibilities. So it’s also marked by the need for responsibility. I’d like to say two things: the first is that, once you enter into the world of television, you find yourself faced with all the dynamics of “normal” jobs: you need to be able to “sell” your product, respect production timetables, get to grips with the budget, look for the funds, be convinced about what you’re doing and enthusiastic about bringing things to term. Nothing should be taken for granted (the film Silence, for example, risked being shipwrecked a month into production). Secondly, I’d like to quote Jerry, the only priest (that I know of) who has conducted prime-time programs on national television: “Working in the media is an act of faith, because, being unable to see the public, we must firmly believe in what we are doing.” This is the professional will and testament of someone who had to deal with artistic blocks, misunderstandings with producers, projects being cancelled and obstacles of all sorts despite a great public life and success on the screen. This phrase I’ve just quoted was also quoted by a famous female singer the evening of the career television award given to him following his death in November 2017. If we think in terms of audience numbers (when half of Asia is following your programme, sweeping away most of the competition …), Jerry was the best known Jesuit in the world … until he lost that record with that white smoke on an evening in 2013. In just a few minutes, Francis stole first place … Sorry, Jerry!

During filming

You collaborated in the production of Silence with Martin Scorsese. What was your role? Are there any interesting / funny anecdotes from production you’d like to share with us?

Regarding Silence, two years before shooting the actual film began, a team of Jesuits was formed to assist Scorsese. We were very lucky that the film was shot in Taiwan. I was interested in being on set, in getting to know the actors and in making an appearance! Jerry wanted me in the torture scene, when some of the characters were hanging upside down in bags: he had suggested me as one of those being tortured! He had spoken to all the staff responsible for choosing the extras, and had also spoken to Martin two days before the candidates were selected. Fortunately he replied: “I don’t torture priests” … Thank God! During those same weeks, I was looking for donors for another television program on Pope Francis. I was exhausted, and didn’t want to lose the production on set – it was very exciting for me – but I couldn’t bear hanging upside-down from my feet for two hours. In the end, my scene was one sitting comfortably on a bench and dressed in a kimono. Thanks, Martin!

Cover photo by Annie Spratt

The Author

author photo

Our latest posts

Our popular posts