Spring 2017 Vol. 37 - No. 184 The Catholic Church and Sinicization

Why “Sinicize” What is Already Chinese?

Paul Rule

         There is a sense in which the question of the sinicization of the Church in China is a non-question. A church in China in our times is a“Chinese”church and does not have to be made one. In our age of economic globalization, electronic media, fast travel, large-scale forced and voluntary migration, there are no longer hidden or closed kingdoms, mono-cultures and one-way societies, even when governments attempt to preserve or create such. We applaud or at least tolerate and acknowledge difference; hence there will inevitably be many ways of being Chinese and many styles of being church in China. The question is whether one or some of these are more authentically Chinese than others. And many different answers would be given to such a question by participants and outsiders, Christians and party officials, city dwellers and peasants.

         Of course much more is implied in the term“sinicization,”“becoming Chinese,”than simply living in China. It indicates a process in which something or someone from outside China comes to belong in some sense to China. I do not want to engage in the sometimes fierce debates of missiologists about the appropriate labels and specifications of that process: accommodation, acculturation, inculturation, or indigenization. Such theorizing was not part of the preparation of China missionaries until recent times and often not then. Most successful missionaries in history have proceeded by immersion: they have been thrown into the deep end and learned to sink or swim.

         Certainly when Matteo Ricci wrote to the Jesuit General in 1582 at the beginning of his in some respects exemplary mission to China that“we have become Chinese,”[1] he was not theorizing but describing what had happened through trial and error. To survive, to avoid expulsion as alien, Ricci and his companions found they had to dress as Chinese, behave as Chinese, and especially, speak Chinese. They had to avoid the then and perhaps now fatal charge of being alien, a piece of grit in the Chinese body politic to be expelled before it caused some damage.

         But assimilation, not standing out, was not the end of the problem of“becoming Chinese.” What sort of Chinese were they to become? They quickly realized that in dress, behaviour, speech and all aspects of life, there were enormous differences between classes, regions and personal lifestyles of the Chinese people they dealt with. They had to first understand and then adjust themselves to the local environment and to the target group for evangelization. They had to be able to switch from observing the courtesies and niceties of the behaviour of the gentry—how to behave at a banquet, when and when not to acknowledge someone passing in the street, what greetings to use, how to create relationships (the all important guanxi), what was a gift and what a bribe?—to how to overcome the reticence and fears of peasants who regarded even Chinese strangers as dangerous and had never seen a foreigner.

         This was not altogether different from the pastoral experience of the European Catholic Church. Peasant societies in Europe with their customs and folk religion were very resistant to the uniformity the Catholic Church was attempting to impose after the Reformation. But the early missionaries mostly were men of cities, colleges and universities. Although few were aristocrats in the strict sense, many came from the educated professional classes of Europe and were as far from the peasants of their own society as they were from the peasants of China. They felt a certain affinity with the scholars, bureaucrats and urban dignitaries of the Chinese cities. When dealing with the ordinary Chinese people, they had to make a double adaptation of class and nationality.

         The early modern missionaries in China were conscious of difference and adjusted to it as they moved into new areas and new social environments. At the same time their very immersion in China led them to perceive certain constants, what today we would call cultural traits. These traits were partly passed on through formal and informal education, especially within the family. An outsider had to learn to understand and act out this culture artificially by reading the classics of the elite culture, by observation and imitation.

         In this they had the assistance and advice of friends, and then of their Chinese Christians. We have only recently come to appreciate the key role in this process of sinicization of the xiang’gong (相公), often mistranslated as“catechists.”They were paid employees of the missionaries, locals who spoke the local dialect, but who were also educated to at least the first degree level. They were able to act as interpreters for newly arrived or newly transferred missionaries. They could also advise on the protocols and language of communications with the officials. They collaborated on the religious writings in Chinese which played such an important part in the spread of the nascent Church in China: a collaboration not usually acknowledged, at least in print. And often they were resident in important centres while the missionaries were itinerant.

         There were, of course, limits to the extent to which the missionaries could conform to Chinese culture in their teaching and way of life. Their celibacy put them at odds with their Chinese friends, as did their observance of church laws for fasting and liturgical observances. More complicated as we shall see was their attitude towards Chinese observances: festivals, family and ancestor rites, funeral and memorial observances, and as they more and more assumed a Confucian rather than a Buddhist identity, rituals honouring Confucius. This was, of course, the famous Chinese Rites question.

         I would argue that the key to the Chinese Rites Controversy is not so much disagreements about the facts of Chinese ritual practices as theological predispositions. Why was there such opposition to using Chinese names for God even though they must have been aware that Deus,“God”etc. were pre- and non-Christian terms? Similarly so many of the cultic, devotional and ritual practices of European Christians arose out of local and pre-Christian cults. The second half of the seventeenth century in Europe saw the growth of Augustinianism in its milder Neo-Augustinian form, as well as the more extreme Jansenist movement. And as early as the 1630s when the Chinese Rites issue first arose, one can see appeal to extreme interpretations of the highly ambiguous views of St. Augustine on salvation outside the church and grace, and the rejection of the Christian humanist“natural religion”thesis upheld by the early missionaries. If non-Christians are, by definition, a massa damnata, all without exception destined to damnation, then their culture and all its manifestations is damned too and must be rejected completely. Augustine's own qualifications of this in the City of God and elsewhere were overlooked or rejected in favour of a hardline Christianization interpreted as Europeanization.

         There is, too, another relevant theological issue which is still alive today: the status of the local church. It matters very much for the “sinicization” debate how one understands the relationship of the universal church to the local church. At the beginning of this century, there was a highly significant and very public disagreement over this between two leading cardinals: the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, and the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Walter Kasper. Neither was, of course, arguing for an autonomous or independent local church, but Cardinal Ratzinger saw the church as extending from the centre with the local churches merely, as it were, branches of head office; while Cardinal Kasper had a more decentralized and pluralist vision.

         In November 2000 Cardinal Ratzinger said:“This ontological precedence of the universal Church, the one Church, the one body, the one bride, over the concrete empirical realizations in the particular Churches seems to me so obvious that I find it hard to understand the objections to it.”Perhaps it was hard to understand the objections in Rome but easier in Germany and even easier in China. As Cardinal Kasper said in a rejoinder:“A local church is not a province or a department of the universal Church: it is rather the Church in that particular place.”[2]

         In his controversial Regensburg address in 2006, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, although speaking in this gathering of friends and former students as a private theologian, proposed another Europeanizing thesis: that Christian orthodoxy could only be proclaimed in Greek or, to use his words, that“the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith.”He opposed“dehellenization”(presumably including “sinicization”), not only of theology, but of the“Christian faith”itself.[3] Discussing“the third stage of dehellinization”in our times he said:

In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.[4]

         This bald statement is, to me at least, disturbing in its identification of orthodoxy with Greek concepts. By this criterion, were Jesus and his disciples orthodox? How much of the history of Christianity is excluded as illegitimate?

         Notice, too, a certain naivety about language in this proposition. Do English terms such as“person,”“nature,”“substance”convey what their Greek originals meant in the fourth century? Can even the most careful modern scholarship reconstruct with certainty their semantic range, their emotional as well as intellectual connotations? And may there not be gains as well as losses in rendering Logos in the Gospel of John as Dao rather than Word? The Sinicization of our God-language may deepen our understanding of the mystery of God and human existence.

         The seventeenth-century Jesuit and other missionaries in China were probably right in selecting Confucian concepts as their main medium for conveying Christianity to the Chinese of their time, although there were also losses. What spiritual resources might they not have found in the devotional practices of Chinese Buddhism and Daoist contemplation? Perhaps though, their Chinese converts did just that even implicitly. Some of the private writings of these early modern Chinese Christians that have survived by chance suggest this may be so. But this seems to have been largely if not entirely lost in the 18th- and 19th-century imposition of Roman structures, personnel, and theology.

         Perhaps, in the end, it is not a question of theology but of mindset and images that govern behaviour. There could hardly be a better example of such a mindset than the papal legation to China of Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon (in China 1705-1710). In the Acta Pekinensia, the detailed record of the legation kept by Kilian Stumpf, a German Jesuit then serving at the Chinese Court, there are many examples of the Legate attempting to introduce the protocols of the Roman Curia in Beijing, refusing to discuss their beliefs and customs with the Chinese and experienced missionaries, even trampling on a petition from the Beijing Catholics.[5] And the history of Catholicism in China up to and including the present time, provides many other examples of failures to appreciate and meet Chinese sensitivities, and could be said to be failures in sinicization.

         Perhaps though, Chinese culture itself has become such a problematic concept that to think of“Chineseing”the Church in China according to any blueprint, especially an external one, is foolish and impossible. A quarter of a century ago, a major international symposium on “the changing meaning of being Chinese today”concluded that“fluidity”and an enormous variety of self-identities was the best way to represent“being Chinese.”[6] Leaving aside the pervasive post-modernist orientation of that time (which rejected in principle all aggregation or patterning), it cannot be denied, as a simple matter of fact, that religion and its corollary,“militant non-religion,”are still prominent in subjective identity and communal expressions in China. Amongst those self-identities is certainly“Christian”in its many sub-identities, some of which are not found outside of China.

         Is there, then, no longer a problem of sinicization? It is tempting to so conclude. Yet the stark fact of the comparative lack of success of the Catholic Church in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution, in the era of“religious fever”and the proliferation of Christian expressions suggests that the Church is still having difficulty in overcoming the“foreign”stigma. It is no longer a missionary problem but a pastoral one and to some extent a political one. In the pastoral sphere, the external manifestations of the Church may appear foreign due to prescriptive“Roman”directions which have had serious effects elsewhere. Perhaps practices intended to emphasise universality and unity have produced a liturgy that seems to go nowhere and is divisive. I am not sufficiently acquainted with local practice in China to say if this is generally true, but it bears investigation. Politically, the long standoff over an agreement between the Chinese government and the Holy See seems no closer to solution. As a bewildered outside observer, I make no judgments on the process or the parties involved, but its lack of resolution continues to stigmatise the Catholic Church as non-Chinese, even anti-Chinese.

         As an Australian I have seen in my now long lifetime a Catholic Church which in its personnel, its liturgy and its devotional practice has changed enormously. It is now in so many respects more“Australian”.But this was not the result of some conscious or planned“Australianization.”It simply happened, just as“Sinicization”has happened and is happening in China. Perhaps we should stop worrying about the question and let the Chinese Catholics themselves create a truly Chinese and truly Catholic identity.

Endnote :
  1. This is in a letter to Claudio Acquaviva dated 7 February 1582 and reads In breve siamo fatti Cini ut Christo Sinas lucrificamus (“in short, we have become Chinese in order to win China to Christ”); in Ricci, Opere Storiche, Macerata 1913, Vol.2, p.416.
  2. The Ratzinger/Kasper debate (and the quotations) are discussed in John L. Allen, All the Pope’s Men, Doubleday: New York 2004, 58-60. China National Minorities News [中?民族?], 2015-12-10, pp. 1-3.
  3. For a fuller treatment, see Paul Rule, “Athens or Beijing” in Interface: a Forum for Theology in the World, Vol.11.2 (2008), 67-79. China Religion [中國宗教], 2016. 8, p. 41.
  4. See, p.6
  5. The Acta Pekinensia or Historical Records of the Maillard de Tournon Legation, eds. Paul Rule & Claudia von Collani, Vol.1, Jesuit Historical Institute, Rome 2015.
  6. See the Spring 1991 issue of Daedalus and the book that grew out of it, The Living Tree, edited by Tu Wei-ming (Stanford University Press 1994).

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