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Reviewed by:
  • Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China
  • Daniel H. Bays
Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China by Eugenio Menegon. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. Pp. xx + 450. $49.95.

This is the first book to be published by Eugenio Menegon; I hope it will not be his last. I found this work to be conceptually creative and stimulating, carefully researched, cogently argued, and very well written. It encompasses a wide range of issues concerning the late imperial and early modern Chinese experience with Christianity, and it engages these issues quite satisfactorily. Menegon succeeds in shedding light on several large questions debated by scholars in recent years. One issue is whether, and to what extent, Christianity remained foreign to China even after the early seventeenth century, when the numbers of converts began increasing markedly. Another question concerns the actual differences on the ground between the Jesuits, who were focused on urban areas, especially Beijing, and the Spanish Dominicans, who were working in the out-of-the-way Mindong region of northeastern Fujian [End Page 364] province. Some observers of early modern Sino-Western relations have the impression that these Spanish friars were ignorant, foolish, and eventually ruinous to the entire Christianizing mission by their obdurate refusal to accept the Jesuits’ position in the rites controversy (the question of whether Chinese converts should be permitted to continue ancestor veneration rituals). By contrast, the Jesuits are usually perceived as having been smart, urbane, and headed for success, until their efforts were undermined by Dominicans and other European missionaries, who convinced the Vatican that the Jesuits were courting heresy and in the early 1700s obtained a decision against the Jesuits on the rites issue. Through conscientious and effective research, especially in his use of previously unexamined Spanish sources in archives in Spain and the Philippines, Menegon presents (p. 57) a much more nuanced analysis of the “fundamental differences” between Jesuits and Dominicans. These differences, for example, in the scope and content of education, institutional socialization, and even the age of arriving on the mission field (Dominicans in the mid-1720s, Jesuits in the mid-1730s), are all discussed by the author. These matters included, of course, the very large issue of ancestor veneration rituals. On these and other topics, Menegon’s work offers an unprecedented exploration of the complex variety of both the personnel involved—Jesuits and friars, Christian literati and anti-Christian ones—and related issues of social impact and social structure, such as the key role of lineages and the role of women (more on this below).

In a nutshell, Menegon accomplishes two things. First, he tells us more than we have ever known about Christianity in the southeast coastal area of China before 1860. Second, he provides a conceptual scheme that convincingly captures the process of religious inculturation that took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In other words, he explains how Christianity became Chinese and locally rooted in society. His portrait of the role of foreign missionaries, lay leaders, elite families, and lineages, as well as his discussion of the processes whereby faith provided real agency for women, is masterly. Various aspects of this general topic have been observed recently by other scholars, and there is now a growing and exciting literature on the subject. Several scholars have reconsidered the Chinese role or Chinese agency in the seventeenth-century Catholic China mission, and Menegon’s book fits nicely into the context of that scholarship. First there [End Page 365] was the prolific output of the late Erik Zürcher (1928–2008), much of which focused on cultural transmission from Europeans to Chinese;1 two books by David E. Mungello focus on the Christian communities of Hangzhou and Ji’nan, respectively, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.2 Most recently, over the past decade, important studies have been published attempting to answer the basic question, Who were the Chinese participants in this cross-cultural enterprise of building a Chinese Christian church? Lars P. Laamann traced the blossoming of Christianity from being merely proscribed to full-blown sectarian “evil cult” status.3 Liam Brockey brought...


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