- Forgive Us Our Sins. Confession in Late Ming and Early Qing China
The 964 pages of the Handbook of Christianity in China, published in 2001 under the editorship of Nicolas Standaert,1 cover almost all aspects of the Catholic mission to Ming and Qing China. One lacuna in an otherwise comprehensive guide is the study of religious rituals, which this present work tries to fill. Under the editorship of Standaert and Dudink of the Catholic University of Leuven, leading scholars in the research on the Jesuit mission to Ming China, this volume includes three studies on the norms and practices of the Catholic sacrament of confession and an annotated source publication of an interesting confessional manual.
The first article is also the longest (pp. 9–101). In a wide-ranging essay, Eugenio Menegon, who has studied the social and cultural contexts of Catholicism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Fujian, explores in two parts the Chinese-language normative confessional texts as well as the practice of confession from the end of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries in the Chinese Catholic Church. In part 1, Menegon focuses on two key confessional texts composed by the Italian Jesuit Giulio Aleni (1582–1649), who enjoyed the sobriquet of "Confucian scholar of the West" and was widely considered by the Ming literati as the most worthy successor of Ricci. Menegon presents a detailed textual exegesis of the two texts the Dizui zhenggui and the abbreviated Dizui zhenggui lüe, the former aiming at a sophisticated Confucian elite searching for self-perfection and the latter for the general use of the growing Catholic-convert population. He discusses the different elements of penitential theology, the ritual of confession, and the role of the clergy in an undermanned and thinly institutionalized mission church. With a firm grasp of the religious history of early modern Europe, Menegon interprets these texts in light of general Catholic penitential theology (the four elements of examination, contrition, confession, and satisfaction) and a specific Jesuit pastoral spirituality that emphasized the role of the confessor as the healer of souls rather than as the judge of sinners. The success of indoctrination is attested to by the reception of this Jesuit penitential literature in the writings of the Chinese converts. Although these are few in numbers, they reflect the consciousness [End Page 550] of sin for the convert literati elites, steeped in the late Ming tradition of self-introspection and self-perfection.
A very different story is told of the common people, who formed the great majority of the convert communities. To pursue this theme, Menegon follows a different track in the second part of his essay. He explores missionary reports, constitutions of confraternities, and other sources to reconstruct a general picture of the social practice and chronology of confession in Ming and Qing China. Menegon advances a psychological and social explanation for the acceptance of confession by Chinese converts. While many were motivated by anxiety—the fear of dying in sin and going to hell—more experienced confession as a central moment in the affirmation of community identity. The scarcity of clergy implied most Chinese Christians confessed but once a year, and for those living in remote rural areas or during times of persecution, sacramental consolation was even harder to come by. But when a priest was present, the exercise of sacraments (baptisms, mass, confession) formed the focal rituals in the affirmation of Christian identity, especially in rural areas, where converts usually formed a minority of the community population and were often widely scattered. An intriguing finding is the strong interest manifested by women in the sacrament of confession, in spite of the sexual boundaries between priest and penitent. Menegon describes in interesting detail the social practices of women penitents, drawing upon his own work on Fujian. With the growth of the mission, the sacrament of confession became...