The Last Priest of the Peking Mission
A Conversation with Fr Michael Li
Interviewer: Priest George Maximov
Mitred Protopriest Michael Li, the Head of the Russian-Chinese Orthodox Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Australia, a clergyman of the Church of All Russian Saints in Croydon, NSW, turned 90 this January. Fr Michael is the last surviving priest of the Orthodox Church in China, ordained during the period of the Peking Orthodox Mission, and he continues to perform divine services on a regular basis. Fr Michael spoke about his life, the history of Orthodox Christianity in China, and about suffering for the faith during the “Cultural Revolution.”
– Fr Michael, can answer a few questions for us?
– Yes, but I don’t speak very good Russian; I’ve forgotten a lot. Since 1966 I was in exile, spending 20 years doing “black work” (labor camp at a stone quarry). I was not allowed to speak. So I forgot how to say anything in Russian. I used to speak Russian fairly well, we had a good education. In 1966, we were expelled from our homes and sent to labor camp, for our Orthodox faith.
– Not much is known about this period about the Orthodox Church in China. Can you tell us what was happening then ?
– It was a bad time: the local Russian Ecclesiastical Mission was closed. All the parishioners were put out of their homes. We lost everything. We had been living in an apartment owned by the Church. We were driven out and given a tiny apartment with no kitchen, no water, no electricity or toilet. We lived there for twenty years, there were four children. I was forced to work in a stone quarry where I had to produce one ton of rock every day. It was difficult work. After that they let us go.
In 1986, an Orthodox church was established in the city of Harbin. I was offered the chance to serve there three times. But the state organs spied on us, summoned us for questioning about the parishioners: what were they saying? What were they doing? I didn’t like this at all, I did not want to participate, so I declined to serve there. But one parishioner from Harbin told Vladyka Hilarion (Kapral) of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, who was then in Australia, that Fr Michael Li is still alive, living in Shanghai. So Vladyka invited me, helped me move, and I began to serve in Australia.
– During the persecution, when you were in exile in labor camp, what helped you preserve your faith?
– The reading of prayers; but we had to pray secretly.
– Tell us about your childhood, when Orthodox Christianity in China was blossoming.
– I was born in Peking, Beigaun, at the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission. The Mission’s territory was very large, there wasan entire complex of buildings. There was a print shop, a farm, and a lot of other things. Orthodox Christians worked there. It was a very good time. My father, Gregory, studied at the seminary, thought about monasticism as a way of life, but later married. He had six children, I was the eldest. At the age of seven I was enrolled in school, right there in the Mission. It was called the Russian-Chinese Orthodox School. Since the age of ten I sang in the church choir; we were taught everything, including reading notes, and I sang soprano. I used to sing well, but after twenty years of hard labor, I forgot everything. Now I remember very little. When I was a child, I loved church, prayer… In Peking, the Mission was on a hilltop: everything was so beautiful. I would stay in church all Pascha night. I loved divine services.
-Were there many Chinese Orthodox Christians in Peking at the time?
– Yes, about two thousand.
– Who was your first spiritual father?
– Vladyka Viktor. China had three bishops at the time when I was the Chief of the Mission. The first was Metropolitan Innocent, who was very strict. When someone was disobedient, he would mete out punishment. The second was Archbishop Simon, and the third was Archbishop Viktor, who later went to Russia. He ordained me to the priesthood in 1952.
– How did that happen?
– After school, I enrolled in the seminary. The Mission had twenty students, but few were good, they fooled around. From our graduating class, three were ordained to the priesthood: the first was Thaddeus, the second Evangel, and I was the third. Thaddeus first became a deacon, but during the Cultural Revolution, he was killed. Deacon Evangel is still living in Shanghai. Recently he fell and broke a leg, now he cannot walk. I am the only one of us who is still serving.
– When you finally served your first Divine Liturgy in Australia after a long hiatus, how did it make you feel?
– I was very happy; but I was also nervous that I had forgotten a great deal. I was given everything I needed: a Gospel and service books. But I had completely forgotten how to serve. But can you imagine, I remembered everything again my very first service!
– Did you ever meet St John of Shanghai?
– Yes. Once he came to visit Archbishop Viktor and served Liturgy in Peking, while I served as an altar boy, and received his blessing. I remember that he was a short man.
– And your family, your children also adhered to Orthodoxy?
– Yes, but my children stayed in Shanghai, I only came to Australia with my matushka
– When you were ordained to the priesthood, did you serve in Chinese or Church Slavonic?
– At first in Chinese; the Gospel and everything else; very little in Slavonic. I had a Gospel and service books in Chinese and many books, which were later confiscated and burned.
– Do you have any Orthodox Chinese people among your parishioners in Australia?
– Yes, a lot. They emigrated from Guangzhou. Some spoke neither English nor Russian.
– What do you think about the future of Orthodox Christianity in China?
– I don’t know what to expect, it is difficult to say. Every word, every deed in China is connected to politics. A Christian must remain outside of politics. One must be patient, and just pray. God will decided, for He knows all. All hope is on Him.
April 2, 2015