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The Missionary's Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village

The Missionary's Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village

by Henrietta Harrison


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The Missionary's Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village

The Missionary’s Curse tells the story of a Chinese village that has been Catholic since the seventeenth century, drawing direct connections between its history, the globalizing church, and the nation. Harrison recounts the popular folk tales of merchants and peasants who once adopted Catholic rituals and teachings for their own purposes, only to find themselves in conflict with the orthodoxy of Franciscan missionaries arriving from Italy. The village’s long religious history, combined with the similarities between Chinese folk religion and Italian Catholicism, forces us to rethink the extreme violence committed in the area during the Boxer Uprising. The author also follows nineteenth century Chinese priests who campaigned against missionary control, up through the founding of the official church by the Communist Party in the 1950s. Harrison’s in-depth study provides a rare insight into villager experiences during the Socialist Education Movement and Cultural Revolution, as well as the growth of Christianity in China in recent years. She makes the compelling argument that Catholic practice in the village, rather than adopting Chinese forms in a gradual process of acculturation, has in fact become increasingly similar to those of Catholics in other parts of the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520273122
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/01/2013
Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes Series , #26
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 279
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Henrietta Harrison is professor of modern Chinese studies at Oxford University. Among her books are The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942 and The Making of the Republican Citizen: Ceremonies and Symbols in China.

Read an Excerpt

The Missionary's Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village

By Henrietta Harrison


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95472-4


The Ancestors Who Founded the Village

There are three different stories about how Cave Gully was founded. Many people will tell you that the village began when a foreign missionary settled there, but the Duan and Wu families both claim that their ancestors were the first to arrive, some eight generations ago, and that they settled land occupied only by abandoned tombs. The ancestor of the Wu family is said to have come from a nearby village called Wu Family Cliff. Like many poor people, he made his living pushing coal down from the hills in a barrow to sell to the people of the plains villages. His wife used to bring him lunch, which he ate at the foot of the hills where a stream flowed out onto the plain. After a while he saw that the land was abandoned, so he planted some crops, and when some of his crops were stolen he put up a hut so he could stay overnight to keep watch. Eventually he and his family moved to the site. The Duan family say that their ancestors came from Mu Family Village in nearby Qingyuan county and did business in Beijing where two brothers, Duan Tianhe and Duan Wanhe, converted to Christianity. When the brothers came back home they were persecuted by their neighbors, so they left the village to found a new settlement. They arrived as traveling doctors and built a four-room cave dwelling, which gave the new village its name of Cave Gully. The Duan provide evidence for their early arrival by saying that the original cave dwelling survived until recently and must have dated back to the Ming because the chimney was built into the wall, as the Ming emperor decreed for commoners, rather than outside as was done later. They say that when this building was recently demolished to make way for a new highway, a picture of an angel (or maybe Jesus, the accounts vary) was found under the plaster on the wall.

Stories like these about the first ancestor of a family to settle in a community are common across China and can give us important insights into a village's history. This does not mean that all the events in them took place exactly as described: the stories of the Duan and Wu families disagree about which family arrived first, there is no evidence for a Ming dynasty chimney regulation, and the wall painting has not been seen in living memory. On the other hand several elements have been part of the stories told by many Catholic families in this area since at least the nineteenth century and are important for understanding their history. Firstly, conversion to Christianity marked a new beginning for the family, who now remember their history starting with the ancestor who converted. Secondly, the people who converted had left their homes: they were merchants who joined the religion in Beijing or migrants founding a new community. Thirdly, and most surprisingly, there are no missionaries in the stories.

Eight generations takes us back to the eighteenth century. At that time Cave Gully was far from any centers of missionary activity. So why did families there join this new religion? What did it mean to them? And why did it then matter so much that they remember this event as the beginning of their family history? Some time after the first conversions, when Cave Gully had grown to eight families and we meet its villagers in the archives for the first time, they were willing to suffer flogging rather than renounce their religion. To understand why, we need to know what it was that they believed and practiced and how it reached them.

It was at the intersection of two great trading systems that Shanxi people first encountered Christianity. The province is shaped by river systems that wind through uplands and mountains between the Mongolian steppe in the north and the ancient Chinese heartlands of the Yellow River in the south (see map 1). For centuries the Mongols were a major military power, a constant threat to the Chinese state, and Shanxi was the corridor to the Mongol frontier. Beginning in the fourteenth century, merchants selling provisions to the frontier armies were paid with certificates allowing them to trade salt under a government monopoly. This drew them into long-distance trade, not only in salt, but also buying the sheep, horses, furs, and medicines that were products of the steppe and selling the Mongols grain, cloth, tea, and other products from China. Shanxi merchants spread over all the major cities of the empire. Naturally there were large numbers in the capital, Beijing, but in the sixteenth century they were also working in the distant southern city of Guangzhou where they sold their furs and medicines to Portuguese merchants who were buying tea, porcelain, and other valuable items for the European market. It was these Portuguese merchants who brought the first European missionaries to China.

The stories that families have passed down suggest that most often the Shanxi merchants first encountered Christianity in Beijing, which was the major commercial hub for north China and where, in 1601, the Jesuits established their largest and most influential mission, using their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy to win the support of the Ming court. In the open intellectual atmosphere of the time many educated men were curious about the foreigners and drawn to the new forms of practical learning. Like the schools of Confucian thought fashionable at the time, the new Western learning was associated with a cosmology, rituals, and rules for living; soon the missionaries gathered groups of converts who not only learned from them but also shared in their rituals and listened to their ethical teachings. Some Shanxi merchants living and working in Beijing became part of these groups. Like the missionaries, the merchants spent most of their lives far from home: to ensure their loyalty to the firms they served, they left their families behind in Shanxi and lived in their place of business, returning home only once every few years. Much Chinese religious practice was built round the family and local community, but merchants far from home were more likely to worship deities whose cult spread beyond a single locality. Joining such a religious group could also offer them useful business links and a close new community. Some Chinese deities like Guandi or Mazu filled this role, as did Buddhism, but the Teaching of the Lord of Heaven, as Christianity was known, was apparently also an attractive option.

Men who had been baptized in Beijing were eager to invite the Jesuits to visit them and their families back home. One of these was a wealthy man named Duan Gun from a village just outside the prosperous southern Shanxi town of Jiangzhou, who had returned home and persuaded his family members to join the new religion. Among Duan's friends were the sons of another Jiangzhou merchant who had made a fortune and bought an official title. These young men had been well educated and had military interests. They were initially drawn to Christianity through the Jesuits' knowledge of mathematics, the science of ballistics, and newly imported Western armaments. The first missionary to visit Shanxi came to this community in 1620. He was a Jesuit who had left the major southern city of Nanjing after a series of attacks on the missionaries by a high official there, and was traveling with an official posted to northwest China. His aim was to find grapes that could be used to make wine for the mass, because the Chinese did not drink grape wine and shipping bottles of wine from Europe was extremely expensive. Grapes were in fact grown in Shanxi, but this first trip was a failure and the visit to Jiangzhou did not last long. It did, however, inspire the Jiangzhou converts to provide a house and to press for a resident Jesuit.

The missionary who arrived was Alfonso Vagnone, a flamboyant character who had been at the center of the trouble in Nanjing. He had been arrested, flogged, shipped to Macao in a wooden cage, and expelled from the country, but had returned secretly using a new Chinese name. Now he needed to keep out of official view and Jiangzhou, which had good connections with Christian groups in the neighboring province of Shaanxi but was many days' journey from any major city, was a good place to hide. But that was not Vagnone's style; instead he used his learning and his excellent Chinese skills to build links with local officials and he made Jiangzhou a center of Christian writing, publishing, and charitable works. Duan Gun worked closely with Vagnone and was described in letters to Europe as an exemplar of romantic baroque piety, going out on the winter streets to rescue an abandoned infant that had already been buried, and when his disgusted servants refused to take the child, personally washing and caring for her. Vagnone and various Jesuits sent to help him traveled from time to time to other parts of the province including Taiyuan city, but the center of their operations was Jiangzhou.

Vagnone was a strong supporter of Matteo Ricci's policy that missionaries adapt their evangelism to Chinese culture. This was justified by arguing that all peoples share an understanding of God that can be achieved through reason and that in China this rational understanding of God could be found in orthodox Confucian philosophy. The Jesuits intentionally presented Christianity in a way that was compatible with Confucianism. Thus they initially translated "God" as "Heaven" (tian) or the "Emperor on High" (shangdi), names given to the highest god by the two earliest Chinese dynasties. Using the names of ancient deities made it possible for them to present Christianity as the pursuit of an authentic Chinese past rather than an imported religion.

The ethical content of Vagnone's teaching was also familiar and close to the orthodox tradition of Chinese thought. In Jiangzhou he edited several volumes of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy that were selected and organized according to Chinese categories. For those who had converted, his focus was on the Ten Commandments, which played an important role in basic European religious teaching at the time. He explained that the commandments begin with honoring the Lord of Heaven: honor one Lord of Heaven who is above all things; do not call out the name of the Lord of Heaven or use it to swear oaths; keep the days for observing rituals. Next comes the first commandment for one's relations with people: honor your father and your mother. Explained in this way, with filial piety as the first commandment for how people should behave to one another, the commandments are very close to the ethics of Confucius, honoring filial piety as the primary human virtue. Both Confucian filial piety and the commandment to honor parents were also extended to cover obedience to rulers, masters, and teachers. Soon this commandment was used to justify poor and illiterate followers of the new religion in keeping tablets in honor of Confucius, which were normally kept only by the educated elite. The rest of the Ten Commandments express basic social morality: do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not bear false witness, do not covet another man's wife or possessions. These are very similar to the lists of commandments (jie) common to various religious traditions in China (though Vagnone does not comment on this). The Buddhists and Daoists shared a list of five: do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not speak falsehood, do not take intoxicating drinks. The only difference is the command not to take intoxicating drinks, rather than not to covet another man's wife or possessions. The similarities with conventional morality were such that Vagnone, who went by the Chinese name Gao Yizhi, was honored by the county magistrate with an inscribed proclamation describing him as "a Western Confucian, Mr. Gao, who cultivates himself to serve Heaven, loves others as himself, and makes it his priority to teach loyalty and filial piety." Vagnone spent twenty years in Jiangzhou and died there shortly before the great rebellions that brought about the fall of the Ming dynasty in the 1640s.

The early years of the Qing dynasty were the great age of conversion in Shanxi. This was the time when Cave Gully was founded and the period shaped the area's Christian communities for generations. Shanxi's vital position as a corridor to the north had long brought war as well as trade: during the sixteenth century there had been repeated Mongol attacks and many of those who fled to the hills survived by raiding the remaining settled population. This violence then contributed to the rebellions that led to the fall of the Ming, when rebel armies fought their way north through the province, gaining many adherents including the leading Christians in Jiangzhou. When the rebels were defeated in Beijing, they retreated south again followed by the invading forces of the new Manchu Qing dynasty bringing yet more devastation. One of the early Qing governors reported that more than half of the province's population had been killed, and nearly all property had been stolen or destroyed. Homes were empty and fields uncultivated, while the few people who were left had fled to fortified villages. Worse still, there had been several years of poor rainfall and the crops had failed. As a result the new government implemented a policy allowing people to cultivate abandoned land.

Although we do not know the exact date of its foundation, Cave Gully was this kind of new settlement founded on land abandoned after the wars. Nearby Qingyuan township had been a base for groups fighting against the Qing in the 1640s and the devastation was terrible. The township's registered population (a figure used for tax purposes) dropped from 29,051 in the late Ming to 9,962 in the reign of the first Qing emperor. An illustration from a nineteenth-century edition of the township gazetteer (figure 1) shows the hills just south of Cave Gully, with the lowest hill land used for graves, and cave dwellings built into the side of the hill. A stream flows down from the hill and grape vines grow over a trellis in a walled yard. In the foreground we can see the walls of Qingyuan town. The fortified farmhouses with their towers were characteristic of the area, with its long history of violence: in Taiyuan county immediately to the north nearly all the large villages close to Cave Gully were listed as being walled in an 1826 survey.

Perhaps, as the story of the Wu suggests, the first settlers in Cave Gully were simply poor local people occupying abandoned land, who adopted the new religion after they arrived. Or perhaps, like the ancestors of the Duan, they had already converted in Beijing, but after the Yongzheng emperor's ban on Christianity in 1724 they had left the city, then been driven out of their original villages, and so settled in this new community bringing their religion with them. The earliest reference to Cave Gully in the archives occurs in 1781 when the new village was visited by a conscientious Chinese priest who sent a table of statistics to Rome every year listing, in minute handwriting, every village he had visited, its size, and any baptisms he performed. In Cave Gully he baptized four adults and their two children, as well as seventeen children who had been born to already Christian families. The village must have been in existence for a considerable time at this point, for it had grown into a sizable community of 136 adults and 63 children, all of them Christian. This made it the largest Christian community in the local area: only two other villages had more than fifty adult Christians. It was also growing rapidly: a priest visited roughly once every two years throughout the 1780s and there were usually several adult baptisms.

A map of the surrounding area shows the contrast between the fertile plain with its winding rivers and the steep mountains where coal was mined, with Cave Gully nestled in a small valley on the edge of the hills (see map 2). The twentieth-century Catholic parishes are marked with the dates of the first recorded visit by a priest. It is clear from these dates that all the major Catholic communities were in existence by the late eighteenth century. The communities fall into two types distinguished both by their geography and by their process of conversion. On the one hand there are relatively wealthy plains villages where a family or a branch of a family converted to Christianity. Most of the Catholics in these villages are the descendants of individual merchants who converted away from home and Catholics usually remained a steady minority of the village's population. On the other hand there are villages like Cave Gully, often little more than hamlets, built on marginal land available to migrants after the destruction of the seventeenth century. These villages were often entirely Catholic since they were founded by believers and new migrants converted as part of the process of joining the community. Cold Springs Road just outside Qingyuan county town, which is now the largest Catholic community in Shanxi and will play a major role in our story, is an exception to the rule in that it was a migrant community built not on hill land but on a marsh. Over the centuries Shanxi's climate has become increasingly arid and Cold Springs Road developed into a prosperous village on fertile land. Like the merchants, the migrants who came to these villages were separated from their homes, extended families, and local deities and thus were more likely to be willing to join a new religion.


Excerpted from The Missionary's Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village by Henrietta Harrison. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xiii

A Note on Terminology and Names xvii

Introduction 1

1 The Ancestors Who Founded the Village 13

2 The Bishop and the Wolf 41

3 The Priest Who Ran Away to Rome 65

4 The Boxer Uprising and the Souls in Purgatory 92

5 The Missionary Who Cursed the Village 116

6 The Four Fragrances and the Flying Bicycle 145

7 The Village Since the 1980s 172

Conclusion 199

Notes 211

Glossary 249

Bibliography 253

Index 271

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