Missionary Myths

Christians in China
A.D. 600 to 2000
Jean-Pierre Charbonnier,
Translated by Archbishop M.N.L. Couve de Murville
Ignatius Press, $29.95, 664 pp. 

Journey to the East
The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579–1724
Liam Matthew Brockey
Harvard University Press, $35, 512 pp.

Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, a priest of the Missions Étrangères de Paris, begins his ambitious new book with the Syrian Church, whose arrival in China during the Tang dynasty fourteen centuries ago marks the first recorded appearance of Christianity in that country. From there, he continues through the mission to the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the extraordinary (and often-told) story of the rise and fall of the Jesuit mission from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Then, after a twilight period, the modern era opens with the arrival in the nineteenth century of a new wave of missionaries, Protestant and Catholic, in a weakened China open to Western incursion.

The author’s emphasis on Catholicism makes the book a useful counterweight to the preponderance of studies of Protestant activity by Anglo-Americans. (His treatment of Protestantism, though fair-minded, adds nothing new.) Despite his great tact, Charbonnier’s sympathies show through his story. He appears to deplore Rome’s condemnation of the Jesuit interpretation of the Chinese rites in the eighteenth century, and he certainly deplores the ways in which later missionaries appealed for military help in their cause. The protectorate that France claimed over the Catholic missions after 1858 provided a ready excuse for aggressive intervention in a country where Paris had few economic interests that rivaled Britain’s, and Catholic missionaries were too often ready to call upon it.

Yet the Catholics found themselves unprepared for the extraordinary intellectual revolution of the early twentieth century, and were thus badly “outdistanced” (Charbonnier’s word) not only by Protestantism, but more particularly by secular nationalism. Not surprising, perhaps, since this Chinese enlightenment, as it’s been called, drew from the contemporary West, and Rome’s repeated failure to engage modernity in any but an anathematic mode badly weakened Catholics, here as elsewhere.

Rome did understand the need for Chinese ecclesiastical leadership, sending to China (over French grumbling) the remarkable Celso Constantini as the Vatican’s representative. With his help, six Chinese bishops were ordained in 1926, the first since the seventeenth century. Meanwhile, many Protestant churches were also moving rapidly toward indigenization, and continued to do so in the terrible years of war and revolution that followed.

With the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, of course, China’s religious life darkened. Foreign missionaries were expelled, and both Catholics and Protestants were expected to cut financial and doctrinal ties to Rome or other foreign churches. Even the severely limited toleration of these years ended with the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, when virtually all Christian life was forced underground or ceased altogether.

Charbonnier describes well the improvements since Mao’s death in 1976. Despite the government’s continuing insistence on church “autonomy” (that is, control by Beijing) there has been something of a thaw. Although there are no precise figures on present Christian numbers, perhaps 12 million Catholics and 40 million Protestants would be a good guess. The number of Protestants has increased far more rapidly than that of Catholics in the past several decades, a phenomenon Charbonnier hardly mentions. Both Catholics and Protestants remain divided between those who accept the “official church,” and those who go underground and are often the victims of persecution. Interestingly, Charbonnier argues that, among Catholics at least, some of the current splits are rooted in old divisions that go back well before the People’s Republic.

Rich as it is, Christians in China unfortunately contains a number of errors, very likely the result of careless editing. Though the French protectorate, for example, is said to have extended over Christian missionaries, in fact only Catholics were affected. The book has the scholar Pascal d’Elia, SJ, appearing not only in the twentieth century (where he belongs) but in the eighteenth century as well. The German missionary Sinologist Richard Wilhelm is identified as an employee of the Third Reich—a good trick, since he died in 1930, three years before Hitler became chancellor.

Charbonnier’s treatment of the troubled Jesuit mission of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is clear and fair, reflecting a story that many teachers (myself included) passed on to students in covering this period. That old interpretation is now, if not exactly turned on its head, enormously enriched by Liam Matthew Brockey’s Journey to the East, which studies the Jesuit approach to China from the days of Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci (d. 1610) to its eighteenth-century conclusion, using a vast trove of Portuguese sources hitherto ignored, at least by English-language scholars. Missionary myths fall right and left, perhaps most notably the idea that the Society of Jesus restricted its work to the scholarly elite of Ming and Qing China, when in fact their greatest efforts and successes were with less educated people.

Brockey examines in fascinating detail the way the Jesuit mission actually worked in its religious life, its teaching, and its adminstration. For Rome, if not for the overworked missionaries on the ground, the big issue was the question of the Chinese rites that honored the ancestors and Confucius. Ricci and most other (not all) Jesuits believed they were purely civil ceremonies that Christians could embrace; their rivals, often Dominicans and Franciscans, saw them as intolerable superstition. Though the Jesuits obtained a document from the Kangxi emperor in 1700 upholding their position, Rome paid little attention. As the great historian Fritz Mote put it many years ago, by what right did a pagan emperor lecture a pope on what was fundamentally a theological matter? And by what right did a foreigner, ignorant of China’s civilization, lecture a sage emperor on the interpretation of the Classics? (And if many Chinese emperors were nonentities, Kangxi himself fully deserved the title of sage ruler.)

Customarily the history of this disastrous controversy is put in terms of Jesuit tolerance and cultural understanding against Roman blindness to difference. Though this interpretation is true enough in its way, Brockey points to other reasons for the mission’s ultimate failure. The numbers of converts put an enormous strain on the short-staffed Jesuits, while distant developments in Europe affected them as well. The Jesuit mission, having set forth under Lisbon’s aegis, suffered from Iberian decline and the rise of France, where Louis XIV pretended to discover an Asian destiny for his country. Anti-Jesuit sentiment within the Catholic Church grew stronger. Meanwhile, adaptation of Christianity to local needs gave way to the dictates of a post-Reformation centralizing papacy, which, as Brockey says, was determined to control what it did not understand.

Thus came a series of prohibitions against Christian participation in the Chinese rites. In 1742, Benedict XIV finally put the matter to rest with Ex quo singulari: not only must Christians avoid the rites and priests take an oath against them, but all discussion must cease, and the papal declaration would bind all Catholics forever.

Forever is a long time, of course—in this particular case, 197 years long. As Peter Phan pointed out in these pages some years ago, in 1939 Pius XII lifted Benedict XIV’s proscription. And, as Charbonnier writes, by the early 1970s, the archbishop of Taipei was celebrating a liturgy for the Lunar New Year which included, among other things, offerings of fruit and incense before a gold-lettered tablet dedicated to the ancestors.

Matteo Ricci must be smiling in heaven.

Published in the 2008-07-18 issue: 

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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