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  • Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China by Eugenio Menegon
  • Joseph Tse-Hei Lee (bio)
Eugenio Menegon. Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. 450 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 978-0-674-03596-6.

Eugenio Menegon’s Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars is an insightful study of the localization of Catholicism in the interior of Fujian province during the Ming and Qing periods. Focusing on the lived experience of several of the oldest Catholic [End Page 382] villages in Fuan district, Menegon examines the transmission, reception, and appropriation of Christianity in Chinese local society. Menegon first presents his arguments in broad strokes by reconstructing the context of Fuan district and the chronology of the Christian movement. Then he devotes a number of thematic chapters to broader issues, such as religiosity and rituals, mission-church relations, religion and gender, and church-state conflicts. The overall structure of the book guides readers from the arrival of the Spanish Dominican missionaries to a discussion of the role of Chinese Catholics in religious transmission and church plantation. It gives those unfamiliar with the history of Chinese Christianity a sense of its shape, dynamics, and change in late imperial China.

Composed of nine chapters, the introduction reviews the latest scholarly literature on the development of Chinese Christianity before and after the Opium War. It challenges the conventional focus on Confucian Christianity, emphasizing the doctrinal debates among the upper-class literati converts at the expense of Catholic villages and commoners. This critique lays out the framework for analyzing the historical experience of ordinary Catholics in Fuan, their sociological profile and religious conversion, their encounters with different imperial states, and the localization of their faith. In chapter 1, Menegon maps the political, social, and cultural landscapes of Fuan district during the Ming and Qing eras, showing that bandits, disasters, and riots frequently occurred and led to the erosion of state authority. As a result, the popular religions and ritual practices proliferated in this peripheral region and were beyond the control of the Confucian literati and government authorities. In this rich and diverse religious marketplace, the Catholic missionaries found it relatively easier to reach out to commoners and establish churches. The transformation of Christianity from a foreign religion into a local tradition is discussed from chapter 2 to chapter 5. During the 1630s, several retired literati played a crucial role in spreading Catholicism to Fuan through the maritime trade and migration routes from coastal Fujian province to the Spanish-occupied Philippines. They invited the Dominican missionaries from the Philippines to build mission stations in their hometowns. Religious fervor and material opportunities encouraged some of the villagers to work with the missionaries to propagate the faith. Christianity was thus not merely a foreign imposition but gradually spread through specifically Chinese avenues.

The arrival of Christianity coincided with the disintegration of the Ming empire. The political turbulence of the Ming-Qing transition turned out to be a brief golden age of opportunity for the Christian movement. The Catholic communities survived the military conflicts and the Chinese rites controversy. They flourished in rural areas with limited government control and with the adaptation of the faith to local cultures. Meanwhile, some prominent literati in Fuan led the Catholics to support the southern Ming loyalist resistance against the Manchus. It was in these struggles that the Catholics emerged as local powerbrokers. However, when the Manchus crashed the Ming loyalists in Southeast China, they launched [End Page 383] an anti-Catholic campaign to expand into the local society. The arrest and expulsion of the Dominican missionaries provoked local Catholics’ resistance and led to the formation of a native priesthood. An unintended consequence of this development was the consolidation of religious networks between Chinese Catholics and global Catholic missions. The loosely organized Catholic villages in Fuan became closely connected with the Dominicans in the Philippines and the Jesuits in Beijing. These transnational and local experiences of the Catholic movement were blended together in a complicated web of religious and human networks. This networking feature had a far-reaching impact on the religious life of...


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pp. 382-386
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