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  • Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China
  • Jeff Kyong-McClain
Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China. By Eugenio Menegon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. 450 pp. $49.95 (cloth).

The role of the Jesuits in facilitating cross-cultural exchange between early modern Europe and China is well known. Their two-way traffic in philosophy, philology, and science is often heralded, occasionally critiqued, but almost always thought to have been quite significant in terms of spreading knowledge (and maybe understanding) about the other. The other European missionary orders, on the contrary, are most often set merely as foils to the Jesuits: cranky, Eurocentric folks bent on ruining the good name of the Jesuits by manufacturing theological controversy back in Rome. While not outright denying some truth to such conventional views, Menegon takes a refreshing look at one other order, the Dominicans, as they interacted with, and in fact even became a part of local society in northeastern Fujian province in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Further, Menegon aims to take the "foreign" out of Christianity in China, by showing how Chinese Christians understood, practiced, and used the religion on their own terms. Menegon is not the first to have called attention away from the Jesuits and toward Dominicans and the indigenization of Catholicism in China. He follows trails blazed by scholars like D. E. Mungello and Robert Entenmann, but Menegon's is by far the most comprehensive account to date. By combining evidence from a wide array of sources, including Dominican missionary training manuals and letters, Chinese court cases, lineage rosters, and Chinese-language tracts (some written by missionaries, others by converts), Menegon guides the reader to a high level of understanding regarding what it meant to be both Chinese and Christian during the Qing Dynasty and how the Spanish Dominicans fit into that equation.

Menegon's intriguing thesis is that to be a Chinese Christian at the time did not necessitate one subscribe to the highly intellectualized Jesuit vision of "Confucian Christianity." Quite the contrary, Menegon [End Page 886] shows that one could smash ancestral tablets, consort with Spanish friars, encourage daughters in the very unfilial act of refusing marriage, and still be every bit Chinese. Menegon can argue this with some success in part by insisting we see the Dominican version of Christianity in China in the same vein as other local heterodox sects active at the time. While the upper echelon of Confucian bureaucrats viewed much local religion with disdain and considered it dangerous to social order, still, Daoist and Buddhist sects of questionable legality flourished at the local level, providing believers with spiritual and communal comforts not found in Confucianism. Menegon suggests we consider Christianity in relation to this local "spiritual effervescence," disapproved of by the Confucian cultural center, but deeply rooted in local society nonetheless. He writes: "the same religious tolerance and plurality at the local level that allowed these groups to survive and these ideas to circulate also benefitted Christianity" (p. 10).

The work is divided into two sections: a chronological history of the Dominican mission and subsequent church in Fujian and a thematic section. In the chronological section, Menegon stitches together a compelling narrative of the fraught process of Catholicism moving from being an exotic, imported belief to an accepted, localized practice. Along the way, he sheds light on several aspects of Catholic mission in China that until now had been acknowledged but not much explored. For instance, Menegon puts emphasis on and considers the implications of the Dominican missionaries' experiences within the wider Spanish Empire. For many of the missionaries, China was only the last stop on a long, empire-wide journey that shaped their understanding of the nature of their mission. Menegon traces the friars' movement from Spain, often on to Mexico, then the Philippines, and finally China. In the Philippines, the friars destined for China first spent several years among the Chinese in Manila's Chinatowns, where they would hone their understanding of Chinese culture among poor laborers and fishermen, rather than from the literati. Later, Chinese from Fujian preparing for ordination were also...