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  • Jesuits and Matriarchs: Domestic Worship in Early Modern China by Nadine Amsler
  • Joseph Tse-Hei Lee
Jesuits and Matriarchs: Domestic Worship in Early Modern China, by Nadine Amsler. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018. 258 pp. US $30.00. ISBN: 9780295743806.

Jesuits and Matriarchs is a groundbreaking study of gender, liturgy, and authority among Chinese Catholic women during the 17th and 18th centuries. By highlighting the centrality of gender in local Christian households, Amsler blends empirical and theoretical insights with concrete cases from archives, revealing many layers of interpenetrating forces that had influenced the articulation of women's faith practices.

The most significant contribution of this book lies in Amsler's reconceptualization of "domestic worship," through which she refers to a wide range of family rituals such as ancestral worship, marriage customs involving Catholics and non-Catholics, and meal preparations for household religious ceremonies. Previously, Western missionaries and Sinologists such as James Legge, Samuel W. Williams, Benjamin Schwartz, Francis L. K. Hsu, and Patricia B. Ebrey identified the ritual of ancestral worship as an indispensable component in the development of Chinese civilization, upholding the cosmological and sociopolitical order, nurturing habits of propriety, and connecting the living and the dead. The Jesuits and Chinese believers adopted and adapted this Confucian ritual and produced many scriptural and liturgical texts, icons, and other visual arrays. Recent studies by Eugenio Menegon, Henrietta Harrison, Ji Li, Anthony E. Clark, and Lars Peter Laamann suggest that the indigenization of Catholicism cannot be fully understood until its connections with Chinese family and lineage systems are properly examined.

The book is composed of ten chapters, with the insightful introductory chapter reframing the loci of Chinese Catholic devotion from missions and parishes to matriarchs as doctrinal instructors and ritual caretakers (p. 11). As "practitioners of an alternative religiosity" and "active patrons of religious institutions" (p. 12), these Catholic women combined missionary resources with their prior knowledge and skills to create domestic Christian rituals and relationships that sustained their religiosity.

By laying out the historical context, Chapters 1 and 2 critique the Jesuits' rejection of excessive sexuality among the Catholic literati, [End Page 225] interested only in reconciling Christian ethics with traditional Confucian womanly virtues and the Chinese ideational concept of female seclusion. Chapter 3 focuses on the missionaries' efforts to enforce the indissolubility of Chinese marriages among converts. But the Church's attempt to eliminate the practices of divorce and polygamy became problematic because it protected only legal wives' statuses at the expense of concubines. In particular, the Jesuits' anti-polygamy arguments made sense only in relation to how the system of Christian marriage shaped gender relations in patriarchy. In a pluralistic marriage regime, wives might get help from each other, benefit from their sisterhood, and forge an alliance against louts. If husbands were not supportive of their spouses, the Jesuits' efforts addressed only women's ability to mitigate men's marital failings and failed to discipline married men's bad behaviors. The outcome was aimed at regulating male Catholics' sexuality rather than taking care of the well-being of legal wives and concubines.

By telling the stories of some famous Catholic matriarchs, Chapter 4 argues that educated and resourceful women were never passive recipients of the Jesuits' teachings. They appropriated the limited freedom granted by Catholic evangelization to carve out a space for themselves, building clandestine networks and expanding liturgical practices among women. The next chapter takes a closer look at the indigeneity of religious rituals. According to Amsler, pressure for reproduction prompted Catholic women to reimagine the Holy Mother as a son-granting deity. The priests and female worshippers utilized certain sacraments to ensure safe delivery of babies. It is worth mentioning that a statue of the Holy Mother in a Catholic church in today's Hong Kong continues to serve the same function for local worshippers.

The role of women as catechists is thoroughly discussed in Chapter 6. Once the babies were born, Catholic women instructed the children in doctrines and practices. They also formed informal gatherings to teach female faith seekers before baptism. Chapter 7 draws attention to the well-documented Xu family in Shanghai. The Xu matriarchs, especially Candida Xu, institutionalized piety...


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