- Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies: Christian Missionaries Imagine Chinese Religion
In an address to the overseas mission agencies of the major U.S. church denominations more than three decades ago, John King Fairbank (who saw foreign intervention in China as not necessarily a bad thing) claimed that "[t]he American contribution to modern Chinese life in the full century from the 1830's to the 1940's is a very ramified and fascinating story of cultural-social contact. Influence was plainly two way." The understanding of the missionary presence and the Chinese response to it was, according to Fairbank, "highly controversial and disputatious" because of the differences in beliefs of the two sides, with the Americans and Chinese of today quite far apart in their understanding of the modern history of China. The subject, he said, "is replete with folkloristic biases among both peoples and with ideological preconceptions on the part of historians of diverse views." The Chinese of Mao's China saw the Western presence as all imperialism and exploitation, while Americans who deny this sweeping generalization themselves need to study their own imperialism, beyond the reported achievements of the missionary enterprise found in their denominational house histories. To reach some common understanding of this period of ferment in modern Chinese history and the missionary movement's part in it, Fairbank urged taking the Chinese view seriously and at the same time looking critically into the archival accounts of the missionary presence in China.1
Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies by Eric Reinders is one of the more recent of the scores of monographs on the study of the Western missionary movement [End Page 215] in the nineteenth century that have appeared since John K. Fairbank made his remarks. The study of Christianity in China and in part the missionary movement from the West has successfully entered the mainstream of sinological publications. "All this is extremely important if we are ever to have a common view of the past as an agreed upon basis for living together in the world," Fairbank concluded.
Eric Reinders states that the scope of his study is confined to missionaries from Britain, and he holds essentially to a negative view of them. In any case, he seems to be leaning too heavily on the side of the Chinese accusers of imperialism and exploitation. Nevertheless, his book can serve as a useful mirror to examine some of the assumptions about American missionaries, who (with the British next in line) constituted by far the largest group from all the Western countries. My own Presbyterian (U.S.A.) denomination provided China with 1,730 missionaries between the years 1841 and 1952. These served in twelve provinces and over fifty cities, from Beijing in the north to the tropical island of Hainan in the south. More than two hundred of them and two hundred fifty of their children died and were buried in China.2 Many were of Scotch-Irish background, sharing the same cultural ethos as their British compatriots.
Coming from their rather provincial background and with little or no knowledge of Chinese culture, the early British missionaries described by Reinders can be seen in today's light as suffering from a severe case of "culture shock." Being in a totally new and strange environment with strange people and their strange customs, these missionaries found themselves illiterate in the Chinese language and cultural milieu. They could only experience the Chinese people and ways with their physical senses, and thus they interpreted what they encountered in China on the basis of their own prior experiences in the United Kingdom. Their chief preoccupation, claims Reinders, was their Protestant mandate to proclaim the truth of God in all its purity against all the unnecessary accretions of established religion, as seen in the Roman Catholic Church. For Reinders, the title Borrowed Gods "refers to the appropriation of other people's religions, such as for the purpose of creating an Other-image with...