As I watch the cultural fillers broadcast this week between Olympic events, I’m alert to references to the Forbidden City and its Zhong Shan Park. I look at the trees, watching for a cypress whose trunk rises straight to the sky but whose main branch shoots off to the side just above ground level, before rising as a parallel “second trunk.” I know that it’s highly unlikely that the tree still exists, in its distinctive shape, even in a place like China where so many things change so slowly, and I know it’s even more unlikely that I’d see the tree even if it still lives. But I’m somewhat of a romantic, so I continue to watch for it.
On assignment from church president Heber J. Grant, apostle David O. McKay and his companion Hugh J. Cannon made an around-the-world tour in 1920-21, visiting the missions, examining the business affairs of church schools in distant lands, and in general gathering impressions for what was really the first practical consideration of the church as a truly international organization. They arrived at the Peking [Beijing] train station on the evening of Saturday, January 8, 1921.
The horde of ragged and revolting mendicants, grimy porters and insistent jinrikisha men, who fought noisily for possession of us, as we emerged from the station, was not such as to inspire a feeling of affectionate brotherhood. However, we had gone to Peking to do the Lord’s will, as nearly as we could ascertain what it was. His inspiration rested upon his servant in charge, and Elder McKay decided that the land should be dedicated and set apart for the preaching of the gospel of the master.
It seemed most desirable that this should be done on the following day, as that was the only Sabbath we should be in Peking. But where, in the midst of that clamor and confusion, could a suitable spot be found?
The sky was cloudless. The sun’s bright rays tempered the winter air to pleasantness. Every impression following our earnest prayers together and in secret, seemed to confirm our conclusions arrived at last evening; viz., that it seems that the time is near at hand when these teeming millions should at least be given a glimpse of the glorious Light now shining among the children of men in other and more advanced nations.
Accordingly, we strolled almost aimlessly, wondering where it would be possible to find a secluded spot for worship and prayer. We entered that part of the imperial city, known as the “Forbidden City,” and walked by the famous old buildings formerly used as temples. On we walked, until we came to a small grove of cypress trees on the edge of what appeared to have been an old moat running parallel with one of the walls. As we proceeded from east to west, we passed a tree with a large branch shooting out on the north side, and I distinctly received the prompting to choose that as the spot.
”This is the spot,” said Elder McKay.
A reposeful peace hovered over the place which seemed already hallowed; one felt that it was almost a profanation to tread thereon with covered head and feet.
Under the century old limbs and green leaves of this, one of God’s own temples, with uncovered heads, we supplicated our Father in heaven and by the authority of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, and in the name of the Only Begotten of the Father, turned the key that unlocked the door for the entrance into this benighted and famine-stricken land of the authorized servants of God to preach the true and restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Brother Cannon, with well-chosen words, and with a spirit of deep earnestness and humility, blessed the chosen spot as one of prayer and supplication to the Almighty. It was plainly evident that he was sincerely affected by the solemnity of the occasion.
Acting under appointment of the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and by virtue of the holy apostleship, I then dedicated and set apart the Chinese realm for the preaching of the glad tidings of great joy as revealed in this dispensation through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Never was the power of his calling more apparent in his utterances. He blessed the land and its benighted people, and supplicated the Almighty to acknowledge this blessing. He prayed that famine and pestilence might be stayed, that the government might become stable, either through its own initiative, or by the intervention of other powers, and that superstition and error, which for ages have enveloped the people, might be discarded, and Truth take their place. He supplicated the Lord to send to this land broad-minded and intelligent men and women, that upon them might rest the spirit of discernment and the power to comprehend the Chinese nature, so that in the souls of this people an appreciation of the glorious gospel might be awakened.
It was such a prayer and blessing as must be recognized in heaven, and though the effects may not be suddenly apparent, they will be none the less real.
We have members – and temples – on Taiwan and in Hong Kong, the barest beginning of the promise of that 1921 dedication. I understand that we have branches or “groups” on the mainland, composed of both native Chinese and western expats, in totally segregated organizations. I’ve heard that based on the descriptions Elders McKay and Cannon recorded in their diaries, American expats in China have located the spot, even the very tree, where the dedicatory prayer was offered. I don’t know how reliable those reports are.
I’d like to believe the tree still stands and could be recognized from its silhouette. But whether any physical witness to that dedicatory prayer remains, the apostolic blessing remains. Someday, perhaps soon, but sometime in the Lord’s timetable, famine and pestilence will be stayed, Truth will replace superstition and error, and “in the souls of this people an appreciation of the glorious gospel [will] be awakened.”