- The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village by Henrietta Harrison
There is no book on Chinese Christianity quite like this absorbing and thought-provoking study by Henrietta Harrison. It is unique in focusing on one village (and its region), and in tracing that microhistory across the whole three-century span of Catholic presence there, bridging the periods that have generally defined other studies. This uniquely detailed yet long-range perspective enables Harrison to bring into view questions that go to the heart of the scholarship on Chinese Christianity, with implications in turn for modern China in its global context.
Harrison’s book is structured in seven chapters, each framed by a story recounted by families in the Catholic village she calls Cave Gully (Dong’ergou 洞兒溝) in the Shanxi hill country southwest of Taiyuan. The first two chapters treat the entrance and development of Catholicism in Shanxi, the middle three the period from the Treaty of Nanjing to the end of World War II, and the final two the Maoist period and the decades since 1980. The history told is episodic rather than comprehensive, with each chapter a digestible twenty to thirty pages. The author opts not to specify dates very often, and the reader may wish for more detailed insight than she provides into some of the personalities mentioned, but the result of these authorial choices is a highly readable and compact book (209 pages of text). The sources used, based on ten years of research in five languages and many countries, are rich and highly varied, and the chapters are packed with fascinating detail, yet [End Page 331] the detail never overwhelms the narrative flow and analytical edge that Harrison brings to the subject.
Cave Gully was founded by Catholic families on marginal land sometime in the early eighteenth century and was thus a Catholic community from its beginnings. Over the first generations, the Catholic identity of the village was maintained through family transmission and Chinese lay leadership of routine prayers, preaching, baptism, and lay management of shared property, with only rare visits from the Italian Franciscan missionaries responsible for Shanxi or from Chinese priests. The missionary presence became significant after the 1840s, when Cave Gully changed from an occasional missionary hideout to a major institutional center for the mission. Nevertheless, the local, family- based, and lay-led dynamic remained important, Harrison shows, through the century of missionary ascendancy and into the present. Among the many strengths of the book are her close attention to money and its effects, her careful balance between missionary and Chinese aspects of the story, and her alertness to the shifting relationships between the Shanxi Catholics and their neighbors. She places particular emphasis on the interplay between local and global dimensions of Chinese Catholic social life and religious practice and concludes by suggesting a paradigm shift in the study of Chinese Christianity that has implications also for other areas in the study of modern China.
Broadly, the first two chapters demonstrate that Shanxi Catholicism before the Opium War was defined by three factors: the Confucian tint to Chinese Catholic teaching imparted early on by the Jesuits, the effects of intermittent state pressure from the 1720s until 1842, and the relatively weak position of the missionaries, politically and financially, during this period. Harrison discusses, for example, the stress on the Ten Commandments and their compatibility with filial piety in Catholic teaching and texts, and the use of chanted prayers and vegetarian fasting in Catholic religious practice. Much of routine Catholic practice was handled by lay leaders (male and female), so priests and missionaries were required for confession and the mass only and derived their income (much like other Chinese religious specialists) from performing them. The missionaries in Shanxi were entirely dependent for their protection and livelihood on the wealthier Catholic merchant families, and they had little option but to accept practices that were at odds with [End Page 332] the Vatican rulings on Chinese matters. In...