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  • Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies: Christian Missionaries Imagine Chinese Religion
  • Whalen Lai
Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies: Christian Missionaries Imagine Chinese Religion. By Eric Reinders. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 266 + xvi pp.

For a long time, Sinology was dominated by scholars with direct or indirect missionary backgrounds, going all the way back to the founding of the discipline by James Legge. Legge occupied the first university chair in the China field in Britain. Legge's vision of China has recently been placed into historical context by Norman Girardot (The Victorian Translation of China [2002]). There were other early figures whose records of Chinese beliefs and folk customs we still use. Beginning with Timothy Richard, more came around to seeing how China needed more than soul saving for the hereafter. China needed urgent sociopolitical reforms in the here and now. In time, the YMCA and the missionary schools would help chaperone in a whole generation of "modern Chinese"; some of them, though exposed to the Gospel, would, in the May Fourth Movement, pit science and democracy against any and all religions. For all that, scholars still do count on the missionary records for understanding the "old China." By exploring what the majority of these men of God saw in China—or thought they saw, since their perception could well be colored by cultural biases—this book by Eric Reinders proves quite refreshing. Instead of holding up those records as a mirror on a Chinese reality, Reinders (to wit) "reversed the light so that it would reflect upon" the Protestant missionaries themselves. For one thing, these Protestant evangelicals reported on China using rhetoric borrowed from their long-standing complaints against the Catholics. For another, they painted the Chinese "body language" in light of their own proud Victorian manners. These missionaries were no James Legge, who was tutored into classical Chinese by erudite Confucians and who then presented the Confucian Classics with appreciative classical (Latin and Greek) references. They were no Arthur Waley either, Waley being one who could "without leaving the door [as to live in China], know all the affairs of the (Chinese) world." By steeping himself in Chinese language and its written culture, Waley could render the Confucian "chun-tzu" into the familiar English "gentleman," and doing so with due sympathy for two land-owning gentry cultures. There is no such sympathy from the Protestant missionaries who lived among the common people. They purported to know the "real" (rural) China that was opened to the inland mission. The China they reported on was not found in library books, the Confucian classics, or some Mandarin's manicured garden. Theirs is not the Good Earth depicted later by Pearl Buck, either.

These nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries, flourishing in the heydays of the British Empire, held few illusions about the once fabled Cathay. Their reports sent home served, in the end, both God and country. As means for raising funds for their missionary efforts, the reports probably had to fan high hopes for the Gospel in relation to a very deprecating assessment of the pagan, heathen culture they encountered. The reports also reflected the hard times these zealous missionaries did have [End Page 226] to face. They were living in the backwater, among often illiterate peasants and in isolated enclaves surrounded by what they saw as a huddling mass of faceless humanity. Their frustration at learning the vernacular tongue well enough to communicate with the people led to the still popular joke about the inscrutable Chinese. But the conclusion the missionaries drew, about how the Chinese language is inherently "godless," is more theological than philological. That the many Chinese tongues (local dialects?) were deemed a living Babel assumes somehow that the Queen's English is divinely inspired. This book does not tell us often what China was really like, for so much of that reality is woefully "lost in translation."

Above all, "Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies" is about how the Protestants transposed their endless bouts with Rome into seeing the errors of the Chinese way as copies of the Catholic way. The Chinese were mindless in their idolatry; they kept up blindly this ritualistic gesture with little or...


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