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  • China's Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society
  • David L. Wank (bio)
Richard Madsen . China's Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1998. xii, 183 pp. Hardcover $27.50, ISBN 0-520-21326-2.

China's Catholics is an ethnographically and historically grounded account of the social and political process of the resurgence of Catholicism in China since the early 1980s. The analysis is sharp and the conclusions fascinating, if sobering, and the study breaks new ground in the debate on civil society in post-Mao China. It draws on the author's own field-work, on secondary sources on China's Catholicism, and on the author's extensive knowledge of Catholic history and doctrine. The result is an important and elegant volume with broad interdisciplinary appeal.

This account begins in the nineteenth century, when, following the failure of earlier Jesuit missions to convert China's elite, mission work shifted to rural villages. Catholicism caught on in these villages because it gave peasants a sense of connection to glorious institutions and illustrious ancestors in a hierarchical order that was lacking in their lives and that indigenous cosmologies could not fulfill. Rural missionizing also suited the Catholic emphasis on building religious communities, in contrast to the more individual proselytizing of Protestants, and whole villages converted. This community aspect of the Church enabled it to survive despite persecution during the decades of radical post-1949 politics, and these rural communities provide the personnel and the fervor for the contemporary resurgence. The Church today is largely composed of tightly knit rural communities that are suspicious of outsiders, intensely loyal to specific priests, and antimodern in outlook—characteristics that reflect the legacies of persecution and of isolation [End Page 482] from the liberalizing trends of Vatican II in the 1960s. These characteristics have inhibited its recent growth. The increase in Catholics from a prerevolutionary population of three million to ten million by the late 1990s has only paralleled overall population growth, suggesting that Catholics have successfully passed their faith on to their offspring but are not making new converts. Finally their antimodern outlook leaves Catholics ill equipped for coping in the new market economy, and Madsen notes that the villages with the strongest Catholic "atmosphere" are among the poorest economically.

Madsen blames both the Vatican and the Communist Party for this gloomy situation. As the Church grew in the early twentieth century, the Vatican was slow to permit an indigenous bishopric, and the Church was led by Vatican-appointed representatives from abroad, who had little understanding of domestic politics. During the civil war Vatican representatives urged noncooperation with the Communists, and after the revolution the Vatican never sought to compromise with the Communists as they did in Eastern Europe. This earned the Church the deep suspicion of the Party, which organized pliable clergy into the Catholic Patriotic Church in the early 1950s to repudiate ties to the Vatican. This created a split between the official Church and the majority of lay Catholics who remained loyal to the Pope and, spurning the state-recognized church as treasonous, worshiped in an underground Church. During the ensuing decades of suppression the underground church was left to its own devices and produced its own priests and developed ritual practices resembling Chinese folk religion.

Since the more liberal policy climate of the 1980s, the underground church has become more open, exacerbating tension between it and the state-recognized church. Underground priests often suffered extreme persecution and are seen as living martyrs by lay Catholics, while the state-recognized priests are still reviled as turncoats. Also, as restored seminaries began graduating educated priests, a new split emerged between uneducated underground priests, who learned by apprenticeship, and priests formally educated in the state-recognized seminaries.

Madsen's analysis of the social and political process of the post-Mao revival is guided by the concept of civil society. Before turning to the analytic conclusions, let me describe the study's innovative use of the concept. Madsen first insightfully critiques extant civil society studies on contemporary China:

Much of the debate among Western scholars of China...


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