- Han-Mongol Encounters and Missionary Endeavors: A History of Scheut in Ordos (Hetao) 1874-1911
This tome is as weighty as a dissertation and could have profited greatly from an editor's whittling it down to the manageable size of a scholarly monograph. I assume that the title was not invented by the publisher's marketing department; in any case, this thoroughly researched work is much wider-ranging than the title would suggest, and in its present published form it is at least three distinct monographs in one.
The first monograph, which occupies most of the first two hundred or so pages concerns the life of the Ordos Mongols and particularly their religious beliefs and ranges as far back as a.d. 300, but also includes such esoteric details as the diseases of Bactrian camels and the fact that they were branded on the left jaw! This is followed by what could be called the second monograph: a discussion of Christian missions in Europe that covers everything from the Treaty of Tordesillas and William Carey to the Jansenists, the Moravians, and the Rites Controversy—quite a stretch for a book supposedly about missionaries in the Ordos desert in the late Qing! Curiously, I was more than two hundred pages into the work before learning that Scheut is in a suburb of Brussels—by that time I had combed maps of Belgium in several atlases searching in vain for the place—and Taveirne never does reveal why the missionaries are called Scheut fathers when their order is the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM), or, more specifically, how they differed from other Catholic missionary orders other than by nationality.
There are brief biographies of many of the Scheut fathers, including details of their early education and who their teachers were. Much is made of Belgian Dutch differences among the priests, which sheds little light on the Ordos mission but does highlight the concerns of European ethnic/national groups. More illuminating are the details of the difficulties faced by non-French missionaries because France claimed to represent all Roman Catholic missionaries in China.
When I finally reached what I would call the third monograph—the part of the work that deals with the Scheut fathers in the Ordos in the late Qing—I couldn't help recalling Charles Kuralt's CBS television documentary, "Misunderstanding China," which was done in 1972 as Richard Nixon was about to depart on his historic visit. As pictures of priests disembarking at Shanghai and elsewhere appeared on the screen, Kuralt intoned "By ship and by sampan, the missionaries descended on a civilization four thousand years old and pronounced it heathen." That fairly accurately sums up the Scheut fathers' work in the Ordos. There they [End Page 247] used their treaty rights to obtain large tracts of land and then rented out parcels to their converts. Duplicating the pattern that other Catholic missionaries had used centuries earlier in the New World, they brought the "heathen" into the lands around the churches they built. Taveirne also mentions that this was how the Europeans became civilized, that is, by living near monasteries. Ignorant of, or choosing to ignore, the Chinese way of life, not to mention the Chinese ethical systems, the Scheut fathers employed this method and took advantage of the marginal lifestyle of the arid Ordos and the influx of Han Chinese to offer irrigated land to those who would convert.
James Gilmour, a missionary from the London Mission Society who was in Mongolia from 1870 to 1891 but never made a convert, wondered in his letters about the great numbers of converts made by the Catholic fathers, working elsewhere in Mongolia. Little did he realize that the Scheut fathers had carried the concept of "rice Christians" (Taveirne calls them "millet Christians") to new heights.
The book contains some incredibly interesting photographs such as that of Mongol prayer flags (p. 408). Unfortunately, none of the pictures is dated, and...