Book Preview – The Missionary’s Curse by Henrietta Harrison

Book (P)reviews, In the Author's Own Words

[Henrietta Harrison, University of Oxford, previews her new book, The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village (University of California Press, 2013).]

The Missionary’s Curse tells the story of Cave Gully, a village in Shanxi province in inland north China, which has been Catholic since it was founded in the seventeenth century. Old people in the village told me the stories of their community’s history, and I used these stories to structure my research in Chinese and European archives. I hope that the result throws a new light on the history of Christianity in China, from its earliest days into the twenty-first century.

Approaching the archives through the villagers’ stories, we meet the characters who stuck in people’s memories – from the ancestors of the families who first moved to the village and the saintly eighteenth-century bishop who was said to have commanded a wolf to help one of his priests, through to the local woman who in the 1960s boldly led people to reclaim from Communist officials the statements they had signed renouncing the church, and a descendant of one of the original families who is an evangelist today. The stories show the villagers of Cave Gully following a religion that has long been deeply embedded in local society and has linked the village’s history to the world beyond China.

Much of the existing scholarship on Christianity in China has attempted to answer the great nineteenth century question, “Why has Christianity failed in China?” This is a question that seems increasingly outdated since the wave of conversion that has taken place since the 1980s. In this book, I start instead in a village where Christianity has been part of life for hundreds of years. By looking at everyday religious practice rather than theology and doctrine, I try to draw attention to the similarities between Italian Catholicism and Chinese religious culture. This shifts the focus away from cultural differences between China and the West and towards the actual relationships between Chinese Catholics and the church as a transnational institution.

Disparities of political power were clearly at the heart of these relationships from the mid-nineteenth century, and thus imperialism is a major theme of this story. The book’s title refers not only to a folktale in which a missionary cursed Cave Gully, but also to the ways in which the extension of Western political power shaped the behaviour of missionaries and put them in conflict with the local Catholics.  Moving away from debates as to whether the church was complicit in imperialist power, I look at the church as an institution within which Chinese Catholics and Italian missionaries related to one another, and thus a space within which imperialism was both exerted and resisted.  These origins then help us to understand the experiences of the church under communism and its recent dramatic growth.

The timescale of this book makes it obvious that the history of the church  in China must be understood in the light of its origins.  When Catholicism was first introduced to Cave Gully in the eighteenth century, fragments of Christian practice (the Our Father, patterns of fasting, litanies etc) passed from one person to another and people adopted practices that were familiar and acceptable to local culture. Gradually, families and communities came to identify with a global religion. Few missionaries were present and those that were functioned largely as ritual experts supported financially by local Chinese businessmen and as a result dependent on them.

From the mid-nineteenth century significant numbers of Italian Franciscan missionaries began to arrive, but I argue that these men did little direct evangelism. Instead they left evangelism to Chinese catechists, while they themselves built up and ran church institutions. Because the foreign missionaries had financial control over these institutions, the Chinese inevitably met the missionaries in positions of subordination and dependence which both Catholics and non-Catholics often deeply resented. So both Chinese priests (who outnumbered the foreign missionaries until the early twentieth century) and ordinary Catholics actively resisted the growth of missionary power. From the 1850s, Chinese Catholics repeatedly warned that resentment caused by missionary behaviour was a threat to their communities. The Boxer Uprising of 1900, when thousands of Catholics in this area were massacred with the support of the Qing state, proved them right.

However, after the fighting ended, the Italian Franciscan missionaries became even more powerful because of the huge indemnity that the Western powers extracted from the local government and paid over to the diocese of Taiyuan. So when, in the 1950s the Communists expelled the missionaries and created a Chinese-run diocese, the party was doing something that local priests had been demanding for a hundred years, but this did not mean that Catholics rejected the global church or were willing to abandon their religion. In fact, ordinary villagers’ participation in their religion reached a high point in the 1960s with a series of mass visionary experiences. The popular enthusiasm this generated and the intense state repression that followed laid the foundation both for the massive growth of Christianity in China since 1980 but also for ongoing conflicts between the official and underground churches.

By changing perspective, the micro-historical approach allows us to look beyond imperialism, to see the many different ways in which the grand narratives of history have interacted with local experience and the connections that have linked this inland Chinese village to the wider world. At the local level, we see the different histories of the Catholics living on the plains and in the hills: in the villages of the Fen River valley, the Catholics were families or lineage branches descended from merchants and living in mixed communities, whereas in the hill villages founded on abandoned land by impoverished migrants Catholicism was often essential to full membership in the village. It suited both missionaries and nineteenth-century Chinese officials to describe Catholicism as a religion of the poor and dispossesed, but the plains villages maintained an elite Catholic culture over the centuries. Even after the collapse of Shanxi’s merchant economy in the early twentieth century, the two types of community had different experiences, since the Catholics of the plains villages feared attack by their neighbours in the early communist period, whereas the Catholic hill villages tended to form closed communities highly resistant to the state.

By recognising these different experiences, the micro-historical focus also allows us to see more clearly the way in which local histories were interwoven with global connections. The early converts were traders who brought the products of Siberia and Central Asia to Western merchants in Canton. Later, Italian unification shaped the behaviour of both missionaries and Chinese priests: the Chinese priest most active in resisting nineteenth-century missionary control had experienced the revolutions of 1848 while he was studying in Naples, while the missionaries who supported the Japanese invasion during World War II were affected by anti-communist feelings and the growth of Italian Fascism in Bologna. Today, global mass communications link ordinary Catholics into transnational Catholic communities and the rhetoric of anti-imperialism that shapes the official and underground churches has little relevance to their lives.

The Catholic church is always both a local and highly personal form of practice and a transnational institution.  In Cave Gully, unity with the worldwide church is not something imposed from outside; part of what attracted people to Christianity in the first place was that it was not just a local religion. Chinese Catholics, as well as foreign missionaries and church bureaucrats, laid claim to the practices of the transnational church when they disagreed over how the church should be run. However, the ways in which Chinese villagers related to this global institution changed significantly over time as trade, travel, institutional links and eventually mass communications became more widespread. Thus I also argue against the widely accepted idea of acculturation, according to which over time Christianity as a world religion adopts elements of local culture which make it more acceptable and thus enable it to grow. I hope readers of the book will come away thinking about how Christian authenticity does not just lie in the way in which the religion is embedded in local society; it is also something embodied in the practices and institutions of the global church.  As the world has become increasingly globalised over the centuries, Catholic practice in the village has become increasingly similar to the practices of Catholics in other parts of the world.

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