Christianity, Literacy, Female Consciousness in Northeast China, 1830-1930


A review of Becoming Faithful: Christianity, Literacy, and Female Consciousness in Northeast China, 1830-1930, by JI LI. 

Ji Li’s dissertation is a fascinating study of the French Catholic mission sent to Manchuria by the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP). Spanning the first century of the mission’s development from its founding in the late Qing dynasty into the early Republican era, the author marshals a rich source base of archival mission documents and private writings in both French and Chinese, supplemented by published records and local gazetteers. Li argues that by approaching conversion as a process of education, the Manchuria Mission brought a form of “religious literacy” to rural Chinese converts, especially women, which allowed them to transcend Chinese cultural constraints and articulate new expressions of self.

The dissertation opens with a brief chapter that introduces the broad contours of the mission by painting a scene of its founder, Bishop Verrolles, on his first return trip to “the beautiful lands of France” in search of “heroic” comrades to join him in his work amongst the “desolate” and impoverished people of rural Manchuria (p. 1). Although Verrolles started off alone, by the time of his death in 1878 he was one of 48 French missionaries overseeing 300 Catholic communities with approximately 25,000 converts.

Drawing on Lydia Liu’s concept of “translingual practice,” Chapter 2 sets a framework for unpacking this growth and its impact as a process of translating the “universal” Christian message into a particular “local” context. This framework aptly foregrounds issues of language and literacy as central to the experience of both the foreign missionaries and the predominantly uneducated converts. The study is positioned primarily within the voluminous scholarship on Christian missions in China, which the author evaluates as having yet to adequately “probe into the ordinary Chinese converts’ existence as Christians,” and therefore lacking a “substantial understanding of local converts’ religious behavior” (p. 26).

Chapters 3 and 4 examine how the Manchuria Mission defined Christian faith in terms of both knowledge and behavior in its official Catechism and Regulations. As the basic text both for reference by missionaries and required for the indoctrination of converts, the Catechism contained standardized explanations of Christian concepts, commandments, sacraments, and so forth translated into Chinese with pronunciation in both Mandarin and Northeastern dialects. Unlike the earlier Jesuits of Matteo Ricci’s time, the Regulations of the Manchuria Mission established behavioral codes for missionaries and converts that were largely unaccommodating to Chinese social customs. A particularly provocative component of the analysis suggests that the regulations on confession introduced the concept of privacy into rural Chinese society. The overall argument of these chapters is that, in comparison to the locally embedded Chinese popular religious practices, the Catholic mission “raised the bar” for religious conversion by requiring standardized religious knowledge and behavior that preceded individual experience.

Chapter 5 analyzes how the missionaries evaluated the faith of converts in their annual parish reports, which were increasingly standardized over time. Frequency of participation in the sacraments was the primary criteria employed. The impressive body of quantitative and evaluative data they amassed reveals that baptism was the most important symbol of conversion, confession was the most popular sacrament, and women were found to be far more pious than men. The mission had its greatest appeal and impact on the female population.

Chapter 6 describes the institutional structure and development of the mission in detail. The Manchuria Mission differed from the earlier Jesuit missions by targeting not the refined elites of urban centers but the common residents of rural villages, in which it established Catholic communities known as chrétientés. At the mission’s peak in the 1910s after a brief decline due to the influence of the Boxer Rebellion, 58 missionaries spread their attentions between 400 such communities comprised of over 56,000 counted converts (a ratio of approximately 1 missionary for every 1,000 converts). The foreign missionaries therefore had to increasingly rely on Chinese priests and catechists, resulting in what Li calls the “indigenization of Catholicism” in Manchuria (p. 170).

Although most chrétientés did not have churches of their own, they almost all had catechism schools, which are the subject of Chapter 7. The catechists staffing the schools were primarily lay female activists of the Institute of Christian Virgins, which swore them to a religious life of austerity and service. Similarly, the majority of students were rural women receiving the only opportunity for education available to them. The basic literacy that these women gained through study of the Catechism as a textbook differed from other forms of female education in China in that it emphasized the equality of souls rather than reinforcing the male-dominated society of the Confucian classics.

In a culminating ninth chapter, Li completes her shift of focus to the transformative impact of the mission—and the religious literacy that it disseminated—on ordinary converts by showcasing a set of letters painstakingly written by the hands of three Catholic Chinese women. Addressed to a French missionary who had returned home from Manchuria due to illness, the letters express the intense emotional anxiety experienced by the women due to separation from their spiritual guide. Li argues that, in stark contrast with their numerous grammatical and homophonic errors, the letters deploy sophisticated religious terminology and a confessional mode of expression to articulate private emotions that the Catholic laywomen could not have otherwise conveyed as daughters, wives, or mothers within the Chinese cultural context. She concludes that the Manchuria Mission therefore had a liberative rather than repressive impact on women in rural Chinese society.

This dissertation takes the global history of Catholic missions beyond China proper into the ethnically complex territory of China’s border provinces, while at the same time makes a contribution to our knowledge of shifting non-elite gender roles in modern China. The author is also to be commended for rendering accessible to the reader her rich source material by including numerous charts, figures, images and translated documents within both the body of the text and the appendices.

J. Brooks Jessup
University of Minnesota, Morris

Primary Sources

Archives de Missions Etrangères de Paris (Paris, France)
Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes (Nantes, France)
Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo (Lisbon, Portugal)
Liaoning Provincial Archives (Shenyang, China)
Heilongjiang shengzhi, Volume 25 (Heilongjiang renmin chubanshe, 1999)

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan, 2009. 298 pp. Primary Advisor: James Lee.

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