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  • Ancestors, Virgins, & Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China
  • Robert Entenmann
Ancestors, Virgins, & Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China. By Eugenio Menegon. [Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 69.] (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2009. Pp. xxii, 450. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-674-03596-6.)

Eugenio Menegon's Ancestors, Virgins, & Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China is a path-breaking contribution to scholarship on Christianity in China. Drawing on Chinese and European archival and published materials, Menegon examines the Chinese Catholics of Fuan county in Fujian, an area evangelized by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spanish Dominicans, and shows how Chinese Catholics made Christianity a Chinese religion.

Christianity may be universal, equally true in all places and at all times, but it also is a historical phenomenon, a product of a particular time and place. In China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures (New York, 1982), Jacques Gernet argues that [End Page 875]

everything that goes to make up Christianity—the opposition in substance between an eternal soul and a perishable body, the kingdom of God and the earthly world, the concept of a God of truth, eternal and immutable, the dogma of the Incarnation—all this was more easily accessible to the inheritors of Greek thought than to the Chinese, who referred to quite different traditions.

Christianity and China were incompatible, Gernet suggests, because of "fundamental differences between two mental universes."1

Menegon effectively refutes this view. He demonstrates that Chinese Catholics transformed Christianity from a foreign religion into a Chinese one with "a new religious identity, both Chinese and Catholic, local yet universal in aspiration" (p. 8, emphasis in original). He shows as well what the localization of Christianity in this part of southeast China reveals about the relationship between late-imperial Chinese society and religion. Although proscribed in 1724 and thereafter regarded as a heterodox sect,Christianity, like other illegal popular religions, generally enjoyed local de-facto toleration. Menegon shows that it functioned much like indigenous lay devotional groups in popular Buddhism and Daoism such as the Non-Action Sect and the cult of the Lady of the Water Margins.

Chapters 2 to 4 offer a chronological overview of Catholicism in Fuan. Chapter 5 shows how Christianity embedded itself within kinship networks and found a place for itself in local society. Chapter 6 deals with the role of priests, both Chinese and Europeans, in pedagogical and catechetical instruction, as healers and exorcists, and as enforcers of control and discipline over Christian communities. Incidentally, Menegon's assertion that marriage, although a sacrament,"remained outside the purview of missionaries in China" (p. 221n22) is questionable. This may have been the case in the Dominican Fuan mission, but evidence from eighteenth-century Sichuan shows that European missionaries and Chinese clergy labored, persistently but often unsuccessfully, to enforce canon law on marriage, even though Catholic norms often conflicted with Chinese custom. Church practice in late-imperial China varied from time and place, and no place was completely representative.

Menegon is particularly insightful in examining the religious life of Chinese Catholics. Chapter 7 offers fresh perspectives on the issue of Chinese rites, showing how the Dominicans tried and largely succeeded in redefining the central Chinese virtue of filial piety in a way that would not conflict with the Church's prohibition of ancestral rites. Chapter 8 deals with the beatas, women who took vows of celibacy as members of the Third Order of Dominicans. Chinese culture valued female chastity but rejected virginity as [End Page 876] an ideal. Menegon examines how the beatas' embrace of religious virginity gave them agency and gradual acceptance, challenging patriarchal authority both in their society and the Church.

Ancestors,Virgins, & Friars is superb. Grounded in Chinese and European missionary materials and informed by Menegon's training in Chinese social history, it is well written and analytically rigorous. It is an important original contribution to both Chinese history and the history of Christianity.

Robert Entenmann
St. Olaf College


1. Jacques Gernet, China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures (New York, 1982), pp. 3-5.


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