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  • The Interweaving of Rituals: Funerals in the Cultural Exchange between China and Europe
  • Liam Matthew Brockey
Nicolas Standaert . The Interweaving of Rituals: Funerals in the Cultural Exchange between China and Europe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008. vi + 315 pp. index. illus. gloss. bibl. $30. ISBN: 978-0-295-98823-8.

Analyses of intercultural interaction in the early modern period have multiplied in recent years. Scholars exploiting both European and non-Western sources have produced abundant studies of colonial and missionary efforts and indigenous responses in cultural settings around the world. Among the themes that have attracted most attention are religious doctrine, medicine, astronomy, technology, and the fine arts. Nicolas Standaert has written a valuable new study of a subject that has attracted surprisingly scant attention, that of religious ritual. Despite the fact that historians have long recognized the importance of religious conversion as a means for cultural transmission, and the dominant role of Roman Catholicism, with its emphasis on ritual uniformity, in early modern missions, it is curious that the specific gestures, sequences of prayer, and ceremonies have not been studied more extensively in the past. To be sure, ritual is a difficult subject to examine. One must contrast normative texts with historical descriptions of what was actually done during rituals, and explain how the prescriptions of religious professionals interacted with the desires of members of lay communities. In The Interweaving of Rituals, Nicolas Standaert has done an admirable job of maintaining a correct balance between these factors.

Standaert's study deals with funeral rituals in China in the seventeenth century, and in particular with the emergence of Chinese Christian funerals within the context of missionary activity. Continuing the line of argumentation first traced in his biography of a mandarin convert (Yang Tingyun, Confucian and Christian in Late Ming China: His Life and Thought [1988]), Standaert demonstrates that the first generations of converts engaged in dialogue with their (primarily) Jesuit interlocutors in the elaboration of a distinct form of religion that was both Chinese and Christian. Distancing himself from those who consider them mutually exclusive, Standaert shows how the two cultural traditions were fused together. The Interweaving of Rituals uses textile weaving as its central metaphor to demonstrate how entrenched indigenous practices such as mourning rituals and burial practices were overlaid and intertwined with imported meanings and symbols. The end product of this mixture of rituals was a new form of funeral practice, one that was recognizably Catholic to European observers while being identifiably Chinese to indigenous Christians.

Standaert's book opens with a discussion of Chinese and European funeral customs outside of the context of interaction. He explains the relevant passages in the major prescriptive texts of the Confucian tradition, such as the Jiali, or family rituals, and compares them to important Catholic texts, such as the Roman Ritual. Standaert then traces the elaboration of new Catholic funeral practices in China, showing how missionaries and lay Christians added or removed rituals from each tradition in order to create a common form of ritual behavior that was acceptable to all parties. As should be expected with questions of orthopraxis, the missionary [End Page 1300] pastors played an important role in censuring indigenous practices that seemed too reminiscent of non-Christian rituals: indeed, the famous controversy over the Chinese Rites was partially ignited over specific funerary rituals that the Jesuits permitted among their followers. The central chapters of this book are therefore devoted to missionary debates over specific Chinese practices, and whether or not they should be considered licit for Chinese Christians. As a point of contrast, Standaert also includes a discussion of a handful of Jesuits at the Qing court who received state honors at their funerals, ceremonies that were more in keeping with Confucian orthodoxy than with Catholic tradition. The arguments made in this study are solidly grounded in copious citations from printed sources in Chinese as well as a host of Western languages, although further descriptions of these and other rituals are certainly to be found in archival materials for future researchers to consider.

The metaphor of weaving that Nicolas Standaert introduces in this volume is a useful conceptual tool for scholars working on intercultural...


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pp. 1300-1301
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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