New book sheds fascinating light on early Chinese Catholicism
Oxford historian delivers a rich piece of microhistory
Book cover: University of California Press
- Ian Johnson for ChinaFile
- March 26, 2014
Like most pilgrimage sites in China, the shrine in the village of Cave Gulley in Shanxi province is located partway up a mountain, reachable by steep stairs that are meant to shift worshipers’ attention from the world below to heaven above. Thousands make the journey each year, ending up in a structure of red columns, glazed tiles, and friezes of swirling Chinese dragons. It could be any Chinese folk religious temple, except for a cross on the roof that hints at what’s inside: a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, a title for apparitions of the Virgin Mary in nineteenth-century France.
In The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village, the Oxford historian Henrietta Harrison describes the competing forces that resulted in the creation of this active center of Chinese Catholicism. The Missionary’s Curse is a rich piece of microhistory, replete with violent priests who bullied their flocks and pious missionaries who spent their lives in hiding. But the tale is even more ambitious than the recreation of this bygone era, with Harrison using it to challenge contemporary ideas about how foreign ideas are absorbed in China.
Her book is especially timely because the new government under Xi Jinping is in the midst of trying to define what is China’s “dream”—what are Chinese values after a century of absorbing so much from the outside world? Xi used the phrase last year for the first time and since then it has become a ubiquitous slogan in China. Until then, probably the only country whose leaders regularly spoke of a national dream had been the United States. Xi’s use of it has begged the question of whether he is echoing the American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Recently in these pages, I reviewed Orville Schell and John Delury’s Wealth and Power, which convincingly argues that the twin ideas in this book’s title have driven China’s most influential thinkers and leaders for nearly two hundred years.1 Foreign ideas were imported but adapted to the Chinese situation. Judging from recent propaganda campaigns in major Chinese cities, President Xi likely has similar ideas in mind when he talks of China’s dream. These campaigns portray it as a collective vision of national greatness defined by traditional Chinese values, with the ideas illustrated by cute folk art images of children, birds, and flowers.
Harrison argues for a broader view of Chinese people’s hopes and aspirations. She acknowledges that China has borrowed liberally from other cultures—her book, after all, is about a Catholic village—but writes that Christian ideas have not been Sinicized as much as many imagine. On the contrary, the first foreign conceptions that were adopted were the ones most acceptable to Chinese, and over time people strove to add foreign content, not subtract it. Thus ideas in China have tended more toward international norms, not Chinese versions of them. The trend is slow—frustratingly so for many who argue that China over the past decade has moved further away from international standards, especially in the field of human rights, or even economic regulation. But Harrison has a long view. Her story starts in the sixteenth century, and with that perspective she describes a clear shift away from localism and toward international engagement:
"From this point of view Christianity is an ideology that can be seen alongside science, democracy, communism, and contemporary ideologies of global capitalism, while the Catholic church can be compared to institutions as varied as the Comintern and the Red Cross."
This is a bold claim, especially given the size of her sample, but like another historian of China, Jonathan Spence, Harrison has a knack for finding narrow but telling figures on which to hang big-picture stories.
Full Story: The Brave Catholics of China
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