- The Bible and the Gun: Christianity in South China
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee's book The Bible and the Gun: Christianity in South China, 1860-1900, stands out in the increasingly rich literature on the history of Christianity in China as a particularly fine example of the best work being done today. Since the 1980s, marking the lifting of restrictions on both expression of and research on religion, the scholarly study of Christianity in China has been enhanced by greater access to a wide array of archives and also more recent access to rescued documents, artifacts, and memories. Scholars have also been allowed to observe living traditions in local communities throughout China. It is no accident that the scholars who have been able to make the most of this new access-such as Joseph Lee, Nicole Constable, Ryan Dunch, and Eriberto Lozada1-tend to be anthropologists or historians trained in the analysis of material culture and ethnographic techniques. Their scholarly output has been produced by painstakingly thorough research, creative questioning, and novel and ingenious approaches that make the most of often limited data. For earlier centuries in particular, collected materials lack the voice of the common people. As with the pots of material culture, scholars must use a whole repertoire of skills to collect, reassemble, and interpret these shards of stories.
As with all anthropological case studies, these books contain both a big story and a very small story: big because each one of them has blasted apart some earlier accepted wisdom about Christianity in China; small because they tell the story of only a single case study-what Joseph Lee calls "this small corner of (southern) China" (p. 170). The Bible and the Gun: Christianity in South China, 1860-1900, takes on the big story of the spread of Christianity and explores this spread in the small corner of Chaozhou prefecture in northeastern Guangdong, although the referenced guns were not always on foreign boats. Rather than reducing the story to the high culture debate between Confucianism and Christianity in urban areas thick with literate elite à la Gernet, Lee instead situates the story of Chaozhou conversion in the ongoing violent and often deadly local struggles for resources and power endemic to the southern countryside by the mid-nineteenth century. Lee argues that these struggles are the result of fierce local competition on the one hand and an increasingly powerless state apparatus on the other, which is an argument aligned with southern Chinese Christianity scholarship by Jessie Lutz and Gary R. Tiedemann.2
Understanding the rural context that increasingly lacks a central power holder's presence is of paramount importance. As Lee argues at the outset, "In [End Page 449] this frontier environment, Christianity seemed to be a useful instrument to foster political allegiances and to attract external resources in local power struggles" (p. xviii). Religion had always played an integral part in rural survival strategies-as Lee stresses throughout-and rural people used Christianity as they had other sectarian systems (p. xvii). It is the interaction between Christian conversion and intragroup fighting that forms the core of his argument-conversion to Christianity often was a Chinese strategy to gain access to external protection-and differentiates this volume from many other works on Chinese Christianity. Yet it is not just the elucidation of Protestant Christianity's protective function that distinguishes this book. (Due to availability of data, Lee focuses on Protestant rather than Catholic China, which in Chaozhou means Baptists and Presbyterians.)
This volume is also set apart by its rejection of conventional wisdoms. After setting out his argument, Lee turns to the world of Chaozhou, deftly describing the landscape and its complicated history in Braudelian fashion, particularly from the Ming-Qing transition on. He finds unsatisfactory the traditional capital-focused perspective of the Chinese government, the treaty port focus of missionaries, and even Skinner's geographic focus on an integrated southeast coast macro-region. Challenging the popular image of an isolated...