Book Review

A New Understanding of the Relationship between Christianity and Chinese Culture


The Missionary's Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village, Henrietta Harrison, University of California, 2013, 279 pages. ISBN-10: 0520273125; ISBN-13: 978-0520273122. At Amazon: paperback $24.33; Kindle $14.55 with free reading app.

Reviewed by Andrew Kaiser

Henrietta Harrison’s recent book, The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales, recounts the story of Catholicism in a small village located near Taiyuan, Shanxi from its initial arrival at the opening of the seventeenth century on through the dynamic events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and right up to the present. To support her narrative, Harrison makes use of an impressive wealth of material unearthed from a host of archival collections in several languages from around the world as well as local Shanxi resources and oral histories she gathered on several research trips. The result is a scholarly tour de force of resource integration and analysis. This is historical research of the highest order, and anyone with an interest in history would benefit from interaction with Harrison’s work.

For most readers of ChinaSource, however, the real value of this work lies elsewhere. The burgeoning academic field of Global Christianity has brought fresh attention to issues of acculturation, a term used to describe the changes experienced by Christianity (or any other religion) as it is absorbed into the host culture during the process of cross-cultural transmission. This way of looking at contextualization from, as it were, the other side of the coin, highlights the many different “Christianities” that have developed around the world, drawing welcome attention to some of the unintended consequences of successful Christian mission. In the course of her exploration of the encounter between Catholicism and this particular community in rural north China, Harrison uncovers a handful of insights regarding the cross-cultural process in China that diverge significantly from common perceptions about how Christianity and Chinese culture relate to one another.

First of all, most scholars and missionaries have approached the China mission task with the understanding that one of the fundamental barriers to effective evangelism has always been a presumed disconnect between Christianity and Chinese culture. As she recounts the initial adoption of Christianity by early seventeenth century Shanxi merchants (jinshangren), and then traces the growth of the Catholic community on through the religious cases (jiao’an) and violent conflicts of the nineteenth century, Harrison demonstrates that—at least initially—there was in fact “significant overlap between Christianity and Chinese religious culture, and that in this area the differences between Catholic practice and local folk religion have actually increased over the centuries” (5).  This is an important corrective to our more common tendency to see Christian mission in China as a process moving towards a more fully acculturated Chinese Christianity.

Second of all, Harrison’s narrative—particularly in its elucidation of the expanding foreign missionary communities of the nineteenth century—makes quite clear the reason for the increasing dissonance between Christianity and Chinese religious culture: “Differences between Catholic Christianity and Chinese local religion have been created over the centuries as local Catholicism has gradually been bound into global networks and institutions” (6). In other words, in the case of this particular rural community in Shanxi, increased connections with the Christian community outside of their village—and outside of their country—have fostered the kinds of changes in their own faith and religious practice that resulted in their gradual divergence from local culture. The more they knew about, interacted with and had access to the larger global church, the more they as a church became culturally separated from their local community. 

As one would expect, the Boxer violence of 1900 plays an important part in Harrison’s narrative. Without denying the role this increased, cultural distance between local Christians and non-Christians played in the events of that summer, Harrison highlights yet another often overlooked factor: much of this cultural divergence did not occur until after the foreign missionaries had independent access to large quantities of funds. Prior to the Opium Wars, Catholic missionaries working in Shanxi were financially dependent upon the largesse of the local Catholic community resulting in a de facto retention of at least some church authority by the local Christian elites. With financial independence, the missionaries experienced a relative increase in authority; they were gradually less inclined to cater to local opinion and were better able to exert their authority (expressed through orphanages, marriages and land-rights) over their congregations. The point, as Harrison summarizes, is that “Imperialism matters in this story, but it is not inherent in the missionary enterprise, nor did Chinese Catholics necessarily benefit from the growth of missionary power” (7). Increased missionary power was not welcomed by the Catholics in Harrison’s study, nor was it perceived as a good thing for the church.

Fourth, Harrison’s statistical analysis of available records for the Shanxi church provides still further support for the popular claim that Christianity in China has grown most rapidly in the absence of foreign missionaries. However, in this case she points not so much to the remarkable growth experienced particularly by the Protestant community in the 1970s and 1980s, but rather to the initial growth of Catholicism in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. Following the Yongzheng Emperor’s 1724 ban against Christianity, foreign missionaries became increasingly rare on the ground, leaving local Catholics free to evolve their religious practices and identity in ways that best suited their local contexts. Free to work out its own acculturation, the church developed a capacity to grow on its own, expanding through the family networks that were—and to a lesser degree today still are—the foundation of Chinese society. This pattern continues today, for even after the return of the expatriate missionaries “the majority of Catholics have always inherited their faith rather than converting as adults.” (202).

Finally, Harrison’s interviews with present day Catholics in this small Shanxi village reveal a shift in the ways Chinese Christian identity is defined. During a personal conversation a few years ago, Harrison mentioned to me that while working in the archives at the Vatican in Rome, she was pleasantly surprised to have encountered a young priest from Shanxi. These global connections highlight the decreased distance between local Christian communities and the larger global church. Rather than seeing a local church that has become increasingly localized or “acculturated,” Harrison has found that:

Catholic practice in [this village] has moved ever closer to global norms. People tend to adopt local practices over time, but as members of a world religion Catholics also wish to share in the practices of the worldwide church, so that the processes of localization and globalization are in constant tension. However, it is the forces of globalization that have come to dominate, as inland Chinese villages… have become more closely linked to the outside world over the centuries (9).

Practically speaking, this means that the very same church that appears to be developing its own distinctive local identity is in fact shaping itself to fit global notions of what it means to be Christian. As Harrison points out, these global connections are rapidly relativizing the political disputes that have monopolized questions of Christian identity in China since the 1980s, and the result is a church that while not necessarily “less Chinese” is certainly more global.

Cheap air travel, labor migration, tourism, study abroad, and the Internet bind the villagers to the popular culture of global Catholicism even though their church remains formally separated from Rome. Thus what might look like the gradual development of a local Catholic church is far more commonly experienced today as progress towards authenticity defined in terms of global Catholicism. As the world has become increasingly globalized, Catholic practice in the village has become more like the practices of Catholics in other parts of the world (10).

These are some of the key ways in which Harrison’s book challenges our prevailing scholarly understandings of Christianity’s encounter with Chinese culture. Although the nature of distinctly Catholic, as opposed to Protestant, religious practice as well as the distinctly Catholic centrality of Rome may make Harrison’s narrative appear more true for Catholicism than for Protestantism, the marked influence of global Pentecostalism and post-Lausanne III financial mobilization within the Chinese Protestant church suggests that the patterns she uncovers may not be quite so uniquely Catholic. It is also true that for each of Harrison’s points summarized above, arguments could—and no doubt will—be mustered by other academics in support of a counternarrative. This debate will be important, and scholars will continue to advance new understandings of this complicated story for many years to come.

However, for those of us more intimately involved in China mission—to those personally striving to contribute positively to the growth of God’s kingdom in China, the lessons from Harrison’s research are more immediate. According to this study, there was historically a lot of overlap between Christianity and Chinese religious practice, such that Christianity grew most rapidly in the absence of the foreign missionaries. However, over time as more foreigners got involved—and especially as those foreigners became powerful and financially independent of the local churches—Christianity in China became increasingly distinct from Chinese culture, ultimately moving towards conformity to a more general “global” Christianity. In light of these historical patterns, what ought we as expatriates to be doing? How can we best contribute to the growth of the church in China? How global or Chinese do we imagine the “church in China” is or will become? The revised understanding of the acculturation of Christianity in China proposed by The Missionary’s Curse should give all expatriate Christians workers in China cause to reflect humbly on our identity and our work in the Middle Kingdom.

Image credit: Lijiashan by Julie Laurent via Flickr.

Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China and The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876, has been living and working in Shanxi with his family since 1997. View Full Bio