Ancestors, Virgins, & Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China

By Entenmann, Robert | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Ancestors, Virgins, & Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China


Entenmann, Robert, The Catholic Historical Review


Asian Ancestors, Virgins, & Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China. By Eugenio Menegon. [Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 69] (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2009. Pp. xxii, 450. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-674-03596-6.)

Eugenio Menegon's Ancestors, Virgins, & Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China is a path-breaking contribution to scholarship on Christianity in China. Drawing on Chinese and European archival and published materials, Menegon examines the Chinese Catholics of Fuan county in Fujian, an area evangelized by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spanish Dominicans, and shows how Chinese Catholics made Christianity a Chinese religion.

Christianity may be universal, equally true in all places and at all times, but it also is a historical phenomenon, a product of a particular time and place. In China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures (New York, 1982), Jacques Gernet argues that

everything that goes to make up Christianity- the opposition in substance between an eternal soul and a perishable body, the kingdom of God and the earthly world, the concept of a God of truth, eternal and immutable, the dogma of the Incarnation- all this was more easily accessible to the inheritors of Greek thought than to the Chinese, who referred to quite different traditions.

Christianity and China were incompatible, Gernet suggests, because of "fundamental differences between two mental universes."1

Menegon effectively refutes this view. He demonstrates that Chinese Catholics transformed Christianity from a foreign religion into a Chinese one with "a new religious identity, both Chinese and Catholic, local yet universal in aspiration" (p. 8, emphasis in original). He shows as well what the localization of Christianity in this part of southeast China reveals about the relationship between late-imperial Chinese society and religion. Although proscribed in 1724 and thereafter regarded as a heterodox sect, Christianity, like other illegal popular religions, generally enjoyed local de-facto toleration. Menegon shows that it functioned much like indigenous lay devotional groups in popular Buddhism and Daoism such as the Non-Action Sect and the cult of the Lady of the Water Margins. …

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