Handbook of Christianity in China. Volume One: 635-1800

By Peterson, Williard J. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Handbook of Christianity in China. Volume One: 635-1800


Peterson, Williard J., The Catholic Historical Review


Asian

Handbook of Christianity in China. Volume One: 635-1800, Edited by Nicolas Standaert. [Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch der Orientalistik: Section Four: China, Volume Fifteen (15/1).] (Leiden: Brill. 2001. Pp. xxviii, 964. Dgl. 361.41; euro;164.00; US$201.00.)

In a word, this volume is indispensable for anyone with any degree of research interest in the topic.

In his introduction to the Handbook of Christianity in China, Nicolas Standaert justifies its publication by pointing to what he calls a "paradigm shift" in the study of the roles of a Mediterranean religion (to use a euphemism for the moment) in Ming and Qing China to 1800. Standaert suggests that before about 1960, the main thematic question was something like "How did the missionaries introduce and present Christianity in China?" (p. ix). The presentations by researchers writing in Chinese and in European languages tended to reflect their own religious affiliations, to include apologetic implications, and to deploy terms such as Christianity unproblematically. The center of focus was Matteo Ricci, S.J. (1552-1610), the main period was the long seventeenth century (from Ricci's arrival in Macao in 1582 to the Yongzheng Emperor's prohibition decree in 1724), and the main players seemed to be Jesuits and their literati collaborators. The main but by no means exclusive concern was with the transmission of Christian teaching and practice to audiences in China.

According to Standaert, after about 1960 the main thematic question was something like, "How did the [sic] Chinese react, positively or negatively, to the introduction of Christianity and other aspects of Western culture?" (p. ix). This question still foregrounds the introduction of Christianity, but implies a relative shift of emphasis from European-language sources to Chinese ones, from European missionaries to Chinese literati, and from religion to ancillary parts of the Western "package" that was delivered to China. The emphasis moved to reception rather than transmission, and these are not quite two sides of the same coin. I will confess that I recognize myself as one of the participants in this shift depicted by Standaert. When I began working on this sort of topic in the 1960's, I did not conceive of what I was doing as following in the footsteps of the pre-1960 researchers, although I incurred an enormous debt to them as I drew on their research. Looking back, I suspect an important formulation in marking this shift was John K. Fairbank's source book called China's Response to the West, which raised questions like Standaert's, but mostly for a later period. Instead of Fairbank's "response" (a noun) or Standaert's "react" (a verb) or other rubrics such as "influence" (a verb and noun), the preferred terms now might be "incorporate" or "inculturate." More attention is given to the processes by which certain (but not all) Chinese thinkers and sectors of society adapted and embodied certain (but not all) ideas from European countries as their own. This is underscored by the suggestion made at the end of the discussion in the Handbook of the first accounts of Christianity in China in the seventh century and its key documenting text, a stele inscription dated to 781: "The whole question how Chinese Nestorians have inculturated Christian thought still deserves new study on the basis of recent methodologies of cultural translation" (p. 37). Culture rather than religion is the overarching term. The suggestion applies as well to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Standaert is correct in pointing out that a change occurred in researchers' collective approach. However, I am not convinced we should perceive it as a "paradigm shift," even if we could agree on whether paradigmatic thinking (in Thomas Kuhn's original sense) is involved. I would settle for "stages" in the expansion of this field. As this Handbook amply demonstrates, both the transmission question and the reception remain viable as research motifs. …

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