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Reshaping the Boundaries (Review)

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Song Gang (ed.). 2016.
Reshaping the Boundaries: The Christian Intersection of China and the West in the Modern Era
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press
ISBN 9789888390557

In the Sinological territory, a book composed by essays not following the pious promises of its title always represents a valuable contribution to a field which is still very much suffering the impoverishment caused by the panegyrical efforts of the missionary scholarly tradition. Instead of the standard ‘let’s list our evidence’ typical of Jesuit edited academic collections, Song Gang intelligently puts together a group of scholars who have to pay tribute only to their research topics. More than a reshaping of boundaries, the overall picture coming out from these texts seems like a beneficial opening of a perimeter that for too long has been blindly shrinking the vast Chinese cultural space, in order to fit it into limited and historicized European experiences of China. The editor informs the readers about the reasons for his choice: the world scholarly attention on the exchanges between China and the West is constantly increasing, so now it is the moment to measure the qualities and not the quantities of supposed ‘transcultural understandings’; and, not secondary, to discuss the historiographical models that have been characterized this field in the last decades. The book does this, provided that readers would receive the complete picture only by considering all the studies and not by making the common selection.

As Song Gang’s opening essay discusses, the historiographical issue regarding the encounter between China and the so-called West is twofold as ‘there is still a lack of collaborative effort to examine how Western culture, long shaped by the dominant Christian religion, was conceptualized and imagined by late imperial Chinese people, and vice versa, how Confucian-based Chinese culture was understood and interpreted in modern Europe and North America’ (p. 1). Within this framework the shifting perspectives also require a genuine transdisciplinary approach, and in this sense Song Gang’s title ‘Boundary-Crossing Worlds, Beliefs, and Experiences: Late Imperial China’s Encounter with the Modern West’- is exemplary of a new approach about cultural encounters in which religions had played a crucial role. This must search for individual voices, and when possible, for experiences outside official narratives and liturgies. Evidence of the importance of such apocryphal voices is shown by Thijs Weststeijn in the first essay of the collection, considering seventeenth-century ‘Encounters between the Middle Kingdom and the Low Countries’. In exploring the intermediary role of the Low Countries, and especially the trajectories of individual scholars involved with China, the author well demonstrates how different streams of knowledge were constantly complemented by proximate paths, such as for example the case of ‘Dutch journalism keeping the missionaries informed about news from Europe’ (p. 12); or how the European fascination with the material culture from China was profoundly intertwined with scholarly interests, for example with regards to the languages spoken and written within the Chinese world (pp. 15-20). What the group of Dutch literati discussed by Weststeijn embodied was the search for cross-cultural dialogues – indeed a very complex task - and not a quest for the delineation of parallels between cultures (p. 32). The following essay of Nikolay Samoylov, ‘Russian-Chinese Cultural Exchanges in the Early Modern Period: Missionaries, Sinologists, and Artists’, reiterates the call for looking at both national frameworks, in this case Russia, and at the links between different discourses such as diplomacy, art, and religion. It is only recently that what was considered the ‘West’, first only Europe, then Europe and North America together, has started to be fragmented in different national experiences and narratives of China; and crucially Russia has been, and still is today, the Cinderella of Sinology. Unfortunately important sources about China in the Russian language are not considered enough by non-Russian scholars. Differently, by exploring early-modern China–Russia dialogues within a broader frame, epitomized for example by the Russian ecclesiastic mission in Beijing (p. 37), we sudden discover revealing contexts: different forms of engagement where Russian ethnographic approaches to trans-cultural encounters are mixed together with political and historiographical discourses. And in this way we may have the chance to reconsider the overall history of the Western study and description of China. Perhaps it is worth mentioning here the work of Han Vermeulen, Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), which alone represents a very novel view for looking at cultural and religious intersections in which came into play anthropological discourses freed from the dogmatic paradigms still composing an important part of the European Sinological tradition. From such a beneficial bird-eye view then it will be less problematic to look at emblematic case-studies, such as the one explored by David Francis Urrrows, about Chinese reactions to the European pipe organ, telling in fact the story of the first Chinese description of this instrument. As stated by the author, it is important to analyze the narratives about single objects like musical instruments as they also stand for potential vectors of technological transfer, which then becomes a third term linking the history of music between China and Europe and the history of collections of musical instruments (p. 48). It is obvious that the constructed curiosity of exotic specimens that for long time has been damaging our comprehension of European and Chinese receptions of foreign material culture, is not anymore valid. And with this in mind we should begin to explore more in detail the dominant European narratives of China, which with regards to the 19th century were silenced, influenced, or furtherly shaped by the British colonial supremacy. The study of Karl Gützlaff’s novels 是非畧論 (Brief discussion of right and wrong) and 大英國統志 (General records of Great Britain) by John Lai represents an important contribution along such a course. As Protestant missionary embodying the quintessential moralistic attitude of British colonialism, Gützlaff aimed at correcting Chinese negative descriptions of Europe and Christianity, and at the same time selling a distilled image of Great Britain to the readers in China. Importantly, the textual promotion of the European civilization, or of a single European nation, by individuals like Gützlaff should be explored as a pivotal discourse serving both the Christian evangelization and the European commercial enterprises in China. This connection also questions the false dichotomy between the intellectual and the commercial that still today creates a false distance between intellectual and economic history, which does not allow the interpretation of broader cultural frameworks. It is also a distance that hides the encounters in which religions or religious views became markers of both destructive cultural confrontations, and forms of local adaptations. As demonstrated by Ji Li’s, ‘“Sacred Heart” and the Appropriation of Catholic Faith in Nineteenth-Century China’, powerful forms of devotion became the pillars of ‘ecclesiastic colonies’; but also elements that could be adapted to the local religious milieu. The fracture between an imposed foreign form and its digestion by the local community – suffering for the lack of agency within such a confrontation – is still today the crucial territory in which venture in order to study the modern history of China. The oscillation between mature forms of cultural determinism and destructive colonialism also questions the general idea that dialogues are successful in themselves. In fact, transcultural dialogues may also be triggers for future cultural removals, and not only moments of exchange. And again, after analyzing the historical facts and their broader context, we should not forget about the language of the narratives employed in history and in other fields to interpret and transmit, to misrepresent and celebrate: an awareness that is remarkably present in all authors contributing to the Reshaping the Boundaries. Such awareness is also enriching the study by Anthony Clark, ‘Local Magistrates and Foreign Mendicants: Chinese Views of Shanxi’s Franciscan Mission during the Late Qing’; which beginning with the Boxer Uprising in 1900 moves to explore late-Qing cross cultural ‘misunderstandings and misinterpretations’, taking as a case study the Franciscan mission in the Shanxi region. During the period, between the Boxer Uprising and their final suppression, the Franciscans and the local converts passed from the status of being described as bearers of an heterodox doctrine confusing and disrupting social relationships, to be promoted as ‘orthodox and victimized’. That misinterpretation is intimately bond to forms of transmission and translations in the encounter between China and the West is also clear in the study by Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, ‘A Religious Rhetoric of Competing Modernities: Christian Print Culture in Late Qing China’. With the introduction of views and imaginaries of modernity, as conceptualized in the West and especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, here we enter into a territory where the dialogue is problematized by new forms of popular culture, technological discourses and religious practices. Printing technology became one of the main means of such a complex framework, and from the late-19th century, Chinese Christianity found forms of communication and propaganda never available before. Although such a turn happened in the constructed colonial framework of a Western modernity exemplified by science and technology versus a backward Chinese society based on idolatry and undeveloped knowledge, at the same time the new technological tools became a new lenses for looking at the links between modernity and religion, comprising the same fittingly modern Christian religion. As stated by the author, beyond the known dichotomies of rational–irrational or secular–religious, the concept of modernity within the China–West dialogue should be also found and studied in ‘ways of conceiving ideas’ or in the creation of new ‘networks of communication’ (p. 122).

Song Gang’s volume demonstrates that through the fractures that divide and link different Chinese and Western narratives, and even the contradictory poles composing a single intellectual tradition, it is possible to expand the great field of studies of the China–West encounter; without, however, falling in the trap of global and universal dialogues, but by analyzing with a slow and attentive pace every single case study in its distinctiveness.     

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