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  • The Interweaving of Rituals: Funerals in the Cultural Exchange between China and Europe
  • Miranda Brown (bio)
Nicolas Standaert. The Interweaving of Rituals: Funerals in the Cultural Exchange between China and Europe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008. viii, 328 pp. Hardcover $65.00, ISBN 978-0-2959-8810-8. Paperback $30.00, ISBN 978-0-2959-8823-8.

Funerals and rites of mourning have long occupied an outsized place in European and North American accounts of China. Anthropologists, art historians, social historians, and scholars of religion, including J. B. de Groot, James L. Watson, Wu Hung, and Norman Kutcher, have analyzed patterns of burial and mourning for clues to understanding broad cultural patterns and political dynamics. As Nicolas Standaert shows in his bold and stimulating new book, The Interweaving of Rituals, the fascination with Chinese funerals has old roots. Catholic missionaries of the seventeenth century were struck by the elaborateness of Chinese funerals, which stood in contrast to the often austere and rather perfunctory treatments of the dead in Christian Europe. To be sure, some of the missionaries were alarmed by what they saw: The funerary procession to the tomb resembled a Roman triumph more than a somber event. But other missionaries were clearly impressed— not only by the scale of the event, but also by what such civic ceremonies said about the central values of Chinese civilization. Through close analysis of European reports of Chinese funerals, the participation of Europeans and native converts in funerals, and the postmortem treatment of European missionaries such as Ricci and Verbiest by the Ming and Qing courts, Standaert puts a longstanding scholarly interest into its proper historical context. Along the way, he provides a fascinating tale about cultural exchange in the early history of East-West relations.

The first chapter manages to accomplish the nearly impossible task of introducing and comparing funerals in late imperial China and Catholic Europe without reifying the ceremonies in each of the respective places. The second chapter presents and analyzes the earliest accounts of Chinese funerals. Standaert does a fine job of explaining how such descriptions—which are startling for their detail as well as accuracy—cannot be dismissed as mere orientalizing. The Jesuits were clearly intrigued by what they found in China—and they struggled to find an idiom appropriate for communicating their findings to their European audiences.

The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters move the book away from the subject of proto-ethnographic descriptions to the mortuary regimes of the Jesuits and native converts of Catholicism. These chapters document shifting attitudes and policies among missionaries and Chinese converts vis-à-vis native mortuary traditions: from the earliest exclusionist stance espoused by missionaries and the small, tight communities of native converts, to later, hybridized rituals that incorporated native elements, such as the wearing of white hemp instead of black, genuflections [End Page 375] before funerary tablets to express filial piety, food offerings, and epitaphs. Aside from documenting important changes in funerary practice among Christians in China, Standaert provides an impressive analysis of the sociological and historical factors that drove such changes: the small number of priests among the population of native converts in relation to Catholic Europe, and the “Calendar Case” of 1664–1665, an incident that prompted Catholics to formulate explicit policies on funerals and to display their commitment to filial piety. Other factors are also cited: Jesuit concerns about superstitious rituals (and their decision to highlight the civic and political, rather than religious, dimensions of Neo-Confucian mortuary traditions), the desire of native converts to maintain networks of pagans as well as Christians, and the practical needs of Jesuits to demonstrate through imperial patronage the success of their mission to their critics at home. In these chapters, which represent the bulk of the book, Standaert deserves special praise for giving equal weight to missionary and native Chinese voices. As he shows, native communities of Christians led by literati such as Yang Tingyun played a crucial role in the creation of new kinds of rites—rites that contained elements of both Catholic liturgy and Neo-Confucian mortuary practice. Chapter 7 explores imperial sponsorship of Jesuit funerals. Going beyond Jesuit conversations with the Han Chinese...