Right in the heart of Beijing, the capital of China, in the back yard of a Communist Party school, lies the Zhalan Cemetery, the first Christian Cemetery in China. The very first tomb built for a foreigner was for the Italian Jesuit Priest Matteo Ricci. Before 1610 all foreigners that died in China had to be taken to Macau, a Portuguese possession, to be buried. Ricci is also known to have written the first ever Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, the first ever in any European language.
The Cemetery itself has a rich history, having been raided, sacked and destroyed more than once in the more than 400 years since its foundation. During the Cultural Revolution, the Zhalan almost saw it's end if it weren't for the wits of some history loving men.
Along with Ricci are also buried German Jesuit and astronomer Johann Adam von Bell and Flemish Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest. Both were actually sentenced to death but saved by the bell when an earthquake hit Beijing. Von Bell died a year later caused by the harsh conditions of his imprisionment. Verbiest died later after having being run over by a horse. Tough times.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)
Zealous Red Guards descended on foreign cemeteries with a special vengeance. From August to October 1966, Red Guards forced priests, brothers and Sisters to smash tombstones in these three cemeteries to pieces and to empty out the receptacles of all their remains. These pieces of stones were then given to peasants for building purposes. The remains were simply scattered. Today, nothing but a large field remains of these three cemeteries where more than 800 Catholics had once been laid to rest.
In August 1966 when the Red Guards descended upon Zhalan Cemetery itself, the tombs of Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest were relics protected by Beijing's Cultural Relics Bureau. The Red Guards ordered the Principal of the Party School to totally demolish the cultural relics within three days. The frightened principal went to the City Party Committee and the Religious Affairs Bureau. Nothing could be done. No one had power over the Red Guards. When the Red Guards returned three days later and saw that the steles were still standing, they demanded to know why their orders had not been obeyed. "We were waiting for you to help us," the custodian replied. "Let's dig a hole and bury the stones, and tell them never to come up again. Okay?" Strangely enough, the students agreed to this ruse. They dug three large pits and carefully lowered the steles and covered them with dirt. In this way, the steles of Ricci, Schall and Verbiest had been preserved.