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China and Christianity

January 29, 2010

Paul A. Cohen. China and Christianity: The Missionary Movement and the Growth of Chinese Antiforeignism, 1860-1870. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.

E. Elena Songster (2000)

For Paul Cohen, the significance of 1860 lies in the treaty clause that opened China’s interior to foreign missionaries. Cohen argues that missionary intrusion into the interior of China fostered xenophobia. The foreign missionary, “by the mere fact of his presence in the interior– played a decisive part both in popularizing and in activating this force [antiforeignism]” (270). Cohen takes this argument a step further by saying that missionaries were therefore primary contributors the deterioration of Qing political authority. Because both the local officials and the Zongli Yamen were caught between foreign pressure on the throne and popular discontent, neither could resolve this “crippling dilemma.”

Cohen places this study in opposition to earlier literature that sets the missionary experience in China against the backdrop of Christian missionary history worldwide. Cohen contributes a fresh perspective to this broad body of scholarship by reclaiming this story for Chinese history. In so doing, Cohen begins his career-long struggle to push western scholarship on Chinese history toward a more China-centered view. To achieve this, Cohen places the modern Chinese anti-Christian sentiment within the context of the long tradition of antiheterodoxy in elite Chinese intellectual literature. He thus links Christianity to early intellectual debates on Daoism and Buddhism. Pulling from Jiao an [Missionary Cases] and the Bixie jishi [A Record of Facts to Ward off Heterodoxy], as well as a rich caveat of other official and personal Chinese and western sources, Cohen dedicates the rest of his book to a close study of the “missionary problem” as read through active Chinese opposition to Christianity from 1860 to the tragedy of the Tianjin Massacre in 1870.

Anti-Christian feelings find voice among the gentry, officials, and the general populace. Cohen emphasizes that this broad appeal of negative sentiment is not merely based in an intellectual debate, but is integrally tied to the fact that the missionaries entered through the forcefully opened ports, backed by gunboats. Cohen categorizes opposition to the missionaries in nineteenth century as three different types of antagonism against Christianity. The first category, simple disdain for Christianity as superstitious, grew out of early philosophical debates over heterodoxy. After the treaty ports were opened, the people in China saw Christianity as integrally linked to the international politics of imperialism. Thirdly, Cohen accounts for an anti-Christian sentiment that stemmed from an emotional base, which he calls “the intangible of deep-seated resentment” (p. 268).

Cohen’s argument links popular uprisings to elite political demise. According to his view, the presence of missionaries was detrimental to the political structure of the empire. Because of the integral link between missionaries and the foreign embassies, missionary activities disrupted the Chinese political and judicial systems. The combination of the missionaries abuse of power and volatile Chinese reactions to that abuse fueled the many conflicts that culminated in the Tianjin Massacre of 1870. Approximately forty French people were killed in the rampage. Cohen echoes Mary Wright’s assessment that this tragedy was a failure on a larger scale, a failure of years of effort at diplomacy. In her words: “In an afternoon a decade’s work was undone” (p. 233). Cohen explains the Communist Party’s efforts to oust foreigners and close China’s doors after 1949 as an extension of this “deep-seated resentment.” He echoes Levenson in his view that Chinese communist nationalism can be seen as a continued response to the damage that nineteenth century missionary activity caused.

To the extent that missionary activity is linked to imperialism, Cohen’s argument that modern nationalism and earlier expressions of xenophobia are connected is a fair one. The causal relationship between Christian missionary activity and antiforeignism during the nineteenth century, however, remains unclear. Reviews by Jerome Ch’en (Pacific Affairs, 38.3/4:364-5), Earl Swisher (The American Historical Review, 70.1: 167-168), and M. Searle Bates (Journal of Asian Studies, 23.4: 609-610) consistently praise Cohen for delineating French and British interests. Particularizing the representative “West” was not only a notable contribution to historical methodology in 1963, but remains a challenge to recent scholarship. Many scholars continue to show a great propensity for creating the image of a monolithic “western bloc” in their zealous attempts to embrace Cohen’s later challenge to write from a China-centered perspective. In his conclusion Cohen mentions, though does not develop, a later manifestation of the anti-Christian debate in which Chinese critics of Christianity used western science and western Christian anti-missionary writings to discredit Christian missionaries in China. This line of investigation might make a place for Christianity in Chinese history other than as an object and provocateur of xenophobia.

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