- God’s Little Daughters: Catholic Women in Nineteenth-Century Manchuria by Ji Li
In this meticulously researched book, Ji Li analyzes a collection of Chinese letters written by several Catholic women from the Du family in Manchuria to a French priest in 1871. Li argues that these writings demonstrate “how religious education produced a new female literary for Chinese women to articulate an awareness of self ” (p. 9).
Based on French and Chinese sources, the author shows the Paris Foreign Missions Society’s (Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, MEP) efforts to promote orthodox Catholic practices in Manchuria from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century by emphasizing the education of Catholic children. These Catholic schools provided an opportunity for Catholic women to attend school and learn to articulate their thoughts. Li states that this new female literacy differed from traditional elitist female literacy, making this study a welcome addition to the study of Christianity in China. It also contributes to the study of women and gender in modern Chinese history.
The book is composed of six chapters. Chapter 1 introduces a brief history of Christianity in Manchuria and the role literacy played in the history of conversion. Chapter 2 studies the Du letters from linguistic, rhetorical, and religious perspectives. Chapter 3 examines the catechism and regulations in the Manchuria Mission, demonstrating the increasing uniformity and the strengthening of hierarchy within the local mission, a process that necessitated the implementation of Christian knowledge for Chinese converts. Chapter 4 looks at the MEP missionaries’ efforts to instill orthodox Catholic knowledge and behavior among the local Catholics. By evaluating data on sacraments, communion, and confessions, the author points out that there was an increase in religiosity from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Chapter 5 reveals the shifting evangelical strategy in the nineteenth century, specifically showing that institutionalization and indigenization helped the local Catholic communities survive political turmoil. The [End Page 179] last chapter inspects the impact of Catholic education on rural Catholic women, arguing that these educated women formed a new female literacy, which differed from the elite women’s literacy in both the subject of learning and the values conveyed in their studies.
The major contribution of this study is demonstrating how Catholicism became a tool for rural Chinese women to empower themselves, and break away from the social restrictions imposed by traditional Chinese society. By joining Catholicism, these women began to live and be judged by different standards and rules, thus setting them apart from their families and the rest of Chinese society. This gave them the opportunity to learn reading and writing, a privilege historically only available to elite women.
Although these women were initially only able to read and write a limited number of Chinese characters, most of which related to Christian concepts and expressions that made their writings rather awkward to read, as demonstrated by the Du letters, these rural Catholic women were gradually able to write more fluently and express themselves more forcefully (p. 129). The capacity to articulate oneself made these rural Catholic women individuals with independent minds rather than submissive inferior members of their families and society.
This puts the author into direct dialogue with two groups of scholars: those who study the boundaries between the public and private spheres in traditional Chinese society and those who investigate the relation between Christianity and Chinese society. To the first group, Li reasserts the view that one should not simply apply the Western notion of public and private spaces to a Chinese context, as the former was more political and the latter was more social and cultural. Li’s findings show that rural Catholic women were able to free themselves from the “inner quarters” and earn a space for themselves physically and spiritually (p. 137). To the second group of scholars, Li aligns herself with Henrietta Harrison, arguing that from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century, the Catholic Church in China grew increasingly apart...