Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Religiosity of a Former Confucian-Buddhist: The Catholic Faith of Yang Tingyun

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Religiosity of a Former Confucian-Buddhist: The Catholic Faith of Yang Tingyun

Article excerpt

Celebrated by Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century as one of the "firme and stable pillars, very proper to sustaine that infant Church,"1 Yang Tingyun (1557?-! 627) has been very similarly eulogized by recent scholars as "a religious man, a seeker after truth,"2 "a[n] anima naturaliter christiana"3 "an ideal Catholic,"4 and "the most devout Christian convert."5 Yang was baptized in 1611. Before then he had retired in 1609 from a seventeen-year official career and had been active in the promotion of first Confucianism and then Buddhism. After embracing Catholicism, he became a vocal antagonist of the latter and a collateral critic of the former. The seemingly well-demarcated shifts of his ideological affiliation have not only figured prominently in the usual adulation of his piety but also led to the increasingly widespread idea of him as "an experimental convert"6 who moved successively through Confucianism (Ru) and Buddhism (Chan) and finally found satisfaction in Christianity (Ye). Yang was indeed highly religious and at the same time unusually open-minded, but the linear and unidirectional reading of his spiritual journey as given most influentially by Nicolas Standaert and Willard J. Peterson is simplistic and misleading, as will be shown later in detail. In order to understand the intricate nuances of his religiosity including various contradictions and incompatibilities which have been known since the early seventeenth century, it is high time for his relationship with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity to be recognized as always a complex two-way, three-way, and even multipleway interaction involving diverse kinds and degrees of both acceptance and rejection rather than any simple and sequentially one-way movement from one to another.

Both today and in the seventeenth century, Yang Tingyun is known mostly for his close association with the Jesuit China mission. From the Jesuit annual letters (Litterae Annuae) to the biographical sketches of Alvaro de Semedo (1585 or 1586-1658)7 and Ding Zhilin or Guilio Aleni (1582-1649), 8 the early chronicles understandably focused on Yang's conversion and his subsequent Ufe as an exceptionally valuable member of the early Chinese church. Because of the research of several scholars in the twentieth century, especially the work of Yang Zhen'er9 and Nicolas Standaeri,10 the overall outline of Yang's chronology including his family history, his official career, and his pro-Christian publications is now generally clear.11 In addition to being a native of the Renhe district of Hangzhou prefecture in Zhejiang Province, for instance, he is now known to be from a conventional Confucian scholar-official household. His grandfather Yang Zhou passed the metropolitan exam (jinshi) in 1541 and was at one time Second Class Secretary in the Ministry of Works. His father Yang Zhaofang (d. 1618) did not obtain the degree of Metropolitan Graduate and therefore never held any official position, but he was well respected in his hometown as a teacher of Confucianism and as the compiler of Yangshi Shuxun (Instructions from Yang's Family School) which contained selected quotations from various Confucian classics and history books about family Ufe, social behavior, and official conduct and which was deemed significant enough in the eighteenth century to be mentioned in Siku Quanshu Zongmu Tiyao (Summary of the Imperial Library). Yang Tingyun himself successfully passed the provincial exam (juren) in 1579 and then the metropolitan exam (jinshi) in 1592.

Though well delineated in the various records of his Ufe, the early connection of Yang Tingyun with Confucianism was in fact complicated. Being born and brought up in a conventional scholar-official family and committed early to the pursuit of a career in government through official exams, Yang was well inculcated in Confucianism. Since the contents of the exams were then dominated by the teachings of Zhu Xi (1130-1200), he was particularly familiar with the rationalist school of Neo-Confucianism (U Xue). …

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