Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wong Chin Foo

The following quote in the American Buddhist journal, Wisdom Quarterly, for May 23, from Wendy Cadge’s Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America, reminded us of another missionary, Wong Chin Foo, who frequented Mme. Blavatsky’s apartment in the late 1870s.

The origin of Theravada Buddhism in America can be traced to a speech made by Anagarika Dharmapala at the World Parliament of Religions meeting in 1893. Born in 1864 in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Don David Hewavitharne became a celibate layman and adopted the title Anagarika Dharmapala, meaning “homeless one,” “guardian of the Dharma.” Heavily influenced by Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), Theosophists who first visited India and Ceylon from America in 1878 [sic] and 1880, Dharmapala spent his life spreading Buddhism around the world. At the Parliament, Dharmapala spoke about how Buddhism, Christianity, and scientific approaches to the world overlap, saying that the “Buddha inculcated the necessity of self-reliance and independent thought,” and “accepted the doctrine of evolution as the only true one.” Theosophists and others in the United States were influenced by elements of Theravada Buddhism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

HPB referred to Wong Chin Foo as “a very earnest and enthusiastic student,” but the only record of his interaction with Theosophists is in Michael Gomes’ 1987 Dawning of the Theosophical Movement. The New York Times for April 30, 1877, carries an interesting article about his lecture in her rooms that quotes her as saying: “They may say as much as they please against the Buddhists. The Buddhists don’t believe in eternal hell, nor do their priests spend their time running after other men’s wives.” The rest of the article can be read here.

Wong Chin Foo (or Huang Qingfu), who was born in China in 1847
(or 1851, depending what source is used), is remembered today not for his missionary attempts or his 1887 article, “Why I am a Heathen,” but for his social activism. In 1883 he launched a short-lived bilingual weekly newspaper, The Chinese American, in New York, and in 1892 founded the Chinese Equal Rights League of America. According to his naturalization papers he stated that he first came to the U.S. in 1864 (other accounts give 1868) to study and later returned to China for three years. He became U.S. citizen in 1874 in Grand Rapids, Michigan (copies of his naturalization papers and other documents about him can be seen at the website of the Grand Rapids Historical Commission here). His work as a journalist, social activist, and lecturer took him through Chicago, New York, and finally San Francisco, but he disappears from history around the turn of the 20th century and his ultimate fate is unknown. In his chapter on Wong Chin Foo in Claiming America: Constructing Chinese American Identities during the Exclusion Era, edited by K. Scott Wong and Sucheng Chan, Qingsong Zhang writes that “his life and activities are a forgotten chapter in the history of the American civil rights movement” and compares his work to that of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X!

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