- Civilizing Missions: International Religious Agencies in China
In her book, Miwa Hirono examines the idea and practice of the Christian civilizing mission in China over time, from the work of Christian missionaries in the early twentieth century to the development projects of contemporary international Christian NGOs. Her focus is on the interactions between ethnic minorities in the provinces of Qinghai and Yunnan in western and southwestern China and the missionaries and international Christian agencies. The first part of the book provides the theoretical framework for understanding the idea of civilization and the civilizing mission, as well as a brief historical account of the theory and practice of the civilizing mission on the part of the Chinese state among ethnic minorities from the Qing to the present. She then discusses the impact of Christian missionary activities in China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, using Samuel Pollard’s work among the A Hmao as a case study. The second part of the book deals with the work of three contemporary Christian NGOs, the Jian [End Page 335] Hua Foundation, the Salvation Army, and Oxfam Hong Kong and evaluates how their interactions with local ethnic communities fit into the theoretical framework Hirono presents at the beginning of the book. While the first part of the book is based almost entirely on secondary literature, the study of the Christian NGOs is also based on materials of the organizations as well as Hirono’s own field research.
In her discussion of the concept of the civilizing mission, Hirono points out that China had its own perception of civilization before the encounter with the West and that the concept of civilization, hence the idea of civilizing mission, is by no means simply a product of the West. While this may be true, it is important to note the difference between China’s policies toward ethnic minorities and the civilizing mission of the imperialist West in the nineteenth century. The relationship between the center and the ethnic periphery in China was not the same as between the metropolis and the colony in the case of colonial powers. Moreover, the boundaries between civilized and uncivilized were based on culture, not biology. This distinction should be made clear since, unlike the Chinese case, the interactions between the imperialist powers and local peoples were more often marked by oppression, violence, and discrimination than cultural assimilation.
In addressing the impact of the missionary movement in China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Hirono focuses on the two major divisions within the missionaries: those who emphasized strict evangelism and those who advocated the introduction of features “of Western civilization” (p. 77), including education and medical work. But the distinction can be misleading in practice. First, the missionaries, consciously or unconsciously, were already promoting the material aspects of Western civilization through, among other things, their lifestyle, their way of doing things, their living arrangements, and their attitude and treatment of the opposite sex. Moreover, what matters were the perceptions of the local people—the features and elements in the foreigners’ behavior and activities that represented something different from their own social and cultural norms and practices. The very presence of the ubiquitous mission compound with its chapel and living quarters for the missionary and his family and their native helpers was a visible example of the material aspects of Western civilization, whether the missionary was an advocate of direct evangelism or the social gospel. Certainly, the educational, medical, and relief work of the missionaries had become an integral part of the missionary enterprise in China, and as Hirono, quoting Stevan Harrell, points out, the Christian “civilizing mission” involved bringing “not only the Gospel, but the modern life of Christian nations—with all its advantages in health, technology, and science—to the people of China” (p. 28). Whether such activities proved to be the main reason of people’s conversion is open to debate, and Hirono’s claim that the A Hmao were converted “en masse [italics added] to...