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  • Erik Zürcher's Study of Christianity in Seventeenth-Century ChinaAn Intellectual Portrait
  • Nicolas Standaert (bio)

On September 12, 2007, a few months before his death, Erik Zürcher (September 13, 1928–February 7, 2008) was honored in Brescia, Italy, the native town of the Jesuit missionary Giulio Aleni about whom Zürcher had written so much. The occasion was the recent publication of his second opus magnum: the translation of Kouduo richao 口鐸日抄 (Diary of Oral Admonitions, 2007). This appeared nearly fifty years after his first major work, The Buddhist Conquest of China (1959, 1975, and 2007). At that celebration, Zürcher did not give a scholarly lecture; instead he shared some personal remarks on the reasoning behind his last project. In these remarks he actually put his recent work into the context of his whole scholarly accomplishment.

The starting point that Zürcher raised was how his research field changed from the history of early Chinese Buddhism to the history of the early Christian mission in China.1 In his eyes, "although it looks [like] a rather drastic change, it is in fact more apparent than real." Since his senior student days, he had become fascinated by the "mechanism of cultural interaction," that is, "the way cultures and civilisations influence each other and in doing so enrich each other." Being a sinologist, that is, someone who studies first and foremost premodern China or early China, "the choice was rather obvious, since Buddhism was after all in early Chinese civilisation by far the most important influence from abroad. Coming from India and Central Asia in the early middle ages, it underwent a whole process of absorption or adaptation." This was exactly what Zürcher wanted to study. In his own words, he was not interested in dogmatic or purely doctrinal Buddhism, but in the question, "What makes the process work?" In the many years that he worked along those lines, he felt that he started to recognize certain mechanisms and certain forces that were at work, ranging from total rejection to total acceptance, including selection, change, and all kinds of other aspects. He considered it an immensely complicated process. What was lacking, however, was a matter of comparison. "At some lucky moment," says Zürcher, he realized that he could find a similar subject in the way Christianity came from Europe to China in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and how it was received by and indebted to the Chinese environment. That is precisely what he did with his research on Christianity. This is the background of the shift in attention from Buddhism to Christianity, which is "not so much a shift but another application of the same model." [End Page 476]

Studying China's Reaction to Foreign Religions

The opening section of his speech gives some clues for understanding Zürcher's choice for the study of Christianity in China. Initially, he was interested in neither Christianity nor Buddhism as such, and he was never really tempted by the thought or even devotional practice of these religions. He was rather fascinated by the phenomenon of cultural interaction that these religions provoked. In an interview series with Western sinologists in 1989 titled "When West Meets East," Erik Zürcher conceded that the subject of his research somehow had been "when east meets west": "My research has mainly been on the history of the relationship between China and the outside world, not just between China and Europe but between China and the whole world." When the interviewer asked, "The history of both Buddhism and Christianity in China falls within the field of religion. Why did you choose this subject? Are you religious yourself?" Zürcher answered:

Not really, not very clearly. I am not really that ideological and church going. But it's a matter of interest and that is what interests me. Especially foreign things. And from the point of view of China, both Buddhism and Christianity are foreign religions. I believe that Chinese culture shows its features most clearly when it is confronted with something from outside. It's like people in conflict—when you're quarrelling with your neighbour, you may say things and show...


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